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Understanding Rand Paul: When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong

Rand Paul’s problem is that where other politicians speak in pablum, he tries to keep it real.


There’s a lot of attention given to the art of explicating the motivations of Rand Paul, and the disparate coalition he’s attempting to bring together in his fledgling 2016 campaign. The latest is from the New York Times, which adopts the classic understanding of Paul, the politician:

“As he works to build a broad national following, Mr. Paul is trying to stitch together very disparate worlds. There are those who are young, more affluent and likely to vote Democratic. There are the establishment, center-right elements of the Republican Party. And there are his most ardent libertarian fans who are no doubt more comfortable with the Busch-Light-and-blue-jeans sensibilities of the Ron Paul movement. After a bumpy few days that began with Mr. Paul, a physician turned politician, appearing to question the safety of vaccines and then snapping at a television interviewer who pushed him to clarify, one of his biggest liabilities was suddenly impossible to ignore: Does someone who can be so impetuous and unapologetic have the finesse and discipline to win over people who are more naturally inclined to vote for someone else?”

As a fan of Senator Paul, my view is that any frame of him as a cynical politician attempting to both disguise his father’s demons without insulting the base of support that he needs misses what’s really going on in any of these moments of “impetuous” comments. On nearly every topic where Paul makes a “gaffe”, it’s actually an example of a circumstance best identified by a running Chappelle Show gag, titled “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong.” It shows a critical moment for a character when he could’ve shrugged something off or declined to make an issue out of a small insult, but decided instead to “keep it real”, to disastrous effect.

This has been something Paul struggles with because he’s not a naturally crafty politician, engaged in the art of manipulation – he’s a true believer. He’s a libertarian gangster who has gone legit, but the old world still lives inside him, in his heart – so the pull of “keeping it real” never really lets him go. He’s not some canny operator trying to pull off a political exorcism on the way to the White House. He’s a true believer who can’t help going back to the truth about how he views the world, like a social conservative who knows they would be better off cloaking their views in spiritual pablum, but they just can’t help going back to “sinners in the hands of an angry God.”

For each of these interviews – on civil rights, on vaccines, on any number of topics – sometimes there’s an actual moment where you can see the internal struggle, and finally, his face relaxes as he gives in, and is who he is. “In response to the interviewer’s question, Paul could have given a bland non-news making platitude, or… he could keep it real.” “What Rand didn’t know was that the interviewer would say slightly crazy things on purpose to get politicians to say much much crazier things… So when the anchor asked Paul about whether we have the god-given right to own tanks… to contract for a commercial exchange of sex for cocaine… to sell bourbon-laced raw milk… he could’ve just gone along with it. But instead he decided to keep it real.”

This is who he is. From the NYT story: “Everybody is going to be a critic about something,” [Paul] said. “I don’t wear the right clothes; my hair’s not great. You are who you are.” “You can spend your whole life worrying about too many little middling things,” he went on.” For the Paul 2016 staff, this could prove to be the real challenge: but you run for president with the candidate you have, and this candidate is going to be keeping it real all the way. The question is whether this authenticity about his views is something that stands out in a good way in a field of many more carefully packaged candidates, or if this tale of “keeping it real” ends with a Chappelle Show voiceover informing you that Paul now manages the medical facility at an Appalachian commune, where he is paid in bitcoin and chickens.