Ron Paul denies he has anything to do with the fringe extremism published under his name in a series of newsletters and there’s little in his public rhetoric to link him to many of the most offensive passages. But the conspiracy theories he does talk up personally are plenty eye-opening on their own.
The most notable of recent years has been an elaborate international plot to build a highway connecting the United States, Canada, and Mexico as a prerequisite for creating a combined state, the North American Union, with its own currency.
The above theory — which is entirely fictitious — isn’t some issue at the margins of Paul’s campaign, either, it was a central part of his 2008 platform. He included a section about it on his official candidate website:
“NAFTA’s superhighway is just one part of a plan to erase the borders between the U.S. and Mexico, called the North American Union. This spawn of powerful special interests, would create a single nation out of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, with a new unelected bureaucracy and money system. Forget about controlling immigration under this scheme.”
The NAFTA superhighway has long been a popular icon in conspiracy theory circles, much to the chagrin of various elected officials working on actual unrelated highway issues. Rick Perry caught a lot of heat over his attempt to build a Trans-Texas Corridor from critics who believed it was part of the grand plot, among them Ron Paul, who took to extremist Lew Rockwell’s site to denounce the effort. It got so bad that Perry had to deny the plot in an interview with right-wing news site Human Events in 2006.
“I’m trying to secure the southern border, so the idea that somehow or another that we’re going to create this big, tri-lateral connection between Canadians, the United States…we’re pretty independent in Texas,” Perry said.
Paul teamed up with other fringe legislators, most notably former Rep, Tom Tancredo (R-CO) and Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA), to introduce legislation denouncing the nonexistent superhighway, even as both the Bush administration and the top ranking Republicans on the relevant transportation committees insisted there was no basis to the theory. Paul took their denials as further encouragement he was onto something and insisted that federal officials were using “secret funding” to advance the project.
The North American Union and NAFTA Superhighway are part of a theme for Paul, who often warns of shadowy efforts to give up US sovereignty to international authorities. It’s a tradition with roots tracing back to the radical anti-communist John Birch Society in the 1950s and 1960s. Richard Hofstadter, who wrote a seminal essay on far-right movements in 1964, “The Paranoid Style In American Politics,” described their worldview as a belief that “the old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots.” It’s a pretty good description of Paul, an old school John Birch Society supporter who recently spoke at their 50th anniversary gathering. In 1990, he appeared in a Birch-produced video on the United Nations, unearthed recently by researcher extraordinaire Andrew Kaczynski, in which he warned the UN was plotting to “confiscate our guns” and “repeal the Second Amendment.”
Paul’s warnings of an international plot to replace the American dollar are also a recurring issue, despite a lack of any evidence of such a move. He recently questioned Ben Bernanke about whether he had discussed plans to craft a world currency, a widespread conspiracy theory in recent years that Michele Bachmann has also denounced. Much of its spread is based on a misreading of news stories on how some countries are looking to diversify their currency reserves beyond the dollar, an issue that has nothing to do with the creation of a new form of money. These fears are echoed in Paul’s old newsletters, which warned that President George H.W. Bush was planning to print a sinister “New Money” that would be instituted under martial law to an unwilling public.
Are these theories the same racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic ravings contained in Paul’s newsletters? No. But they come from the same fever swamps of far-right fringe groups, militias, and conspiracy theorists and are a crucial animating force behind Paul’s political movement. It’s worth noting that many of the most pressing threats he identifies to the United States are, in fact, imaginary.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.