March 20
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in National Harbor, Md., Friday, March 7, 2014. Friday marks the second day of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which brings together prospective presidential candidates, conservative opinion leaders and tea party activists from coast to coast. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., at the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

“American politics,” the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote 50 years ago, “has often been an arena for angry minds.” He identified a “paranoid style” in American politics that has run throughout our history from the anti-Masonic movement of the late 18th century to the John Birch Society and McCarthyism. Richard Hofstadter died of leukemia in 1970 at age 54, but he would have had no trouble recognizing the continuation of the paranoid style in the NRA, the tea party and Occupy Wall Street.

Rand Paul also seems to fit this mold. In a speech yesterday to Berkeley Republicans (once an oxymoron), he decried the National Security Agency’s surveillance of Americans and compared its tactics to the FBI’s spying on civil rights leaders, and thus embodied two characteristics common to the paranoid style: seeing your opponent as a powerful conspiracy and anticipating the apocalypse if this enemy is not destroyed.

Since he began his long run for the presidency, I have thought Rand Paul’s libertarianism would be a force in the Republican Party. Swaths of the country are angry and are fertile ground for his message that government isn’t incompetent, it is highly effective at destroying individual initiative and freedom for its own nefarious purposes. Again, as Hofstadter wrote, we should not underestimate “how much leverage can be gotten out of the passions and animosities of a small minority.”