Was Ron Paul’s 2008 campaign an early trial run for Russian election influence?
An open letter of apology from a former Ron Paul supporter
In a recent piece on Conservatives weird fetishization of gun-culture and their tendency to cosplay as cowboys and commandos, I ridiculed Rand Paul for a picture he had taken with a machine gun after figuratively shooting up the IRS.
Amusing pictures aside, after writing that piece, Rand Paul stuck in my head for the next couple of days. Perhaps it was simply a textbook case of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, but suddenly I started to see Senator Paul everywhere in the news.
- There he was, hand-delivering a letter from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin, and stating that he was “honored” to do so.
- There he was, still in Moscow, inviting Russian politicians to come back to DC for a chat with his contemporaries. This time talking about how “pleased” he was to have extended the offer.
- There he was blocking a Senate Resolution which backed the assessment of the Intelligence Community regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election — he called it a case of “Trump Derangement Syndrome”.
- There he was stating that he accepted the conclusion that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election, but adding that he didn’t want to linger on the issue when he met with Russian politicians because, hey, everybody does it, and all.
- There were suddenly rumors that Rand Paul was going to “ask” Donald Trump to lift sanctions on Russian business leaders.
It seemed that, in the past few months, Rand Paul had become the de facto chairman of the Donald Trump fan club — particularly when it comes to anything to do with Russia.
But it hasn’t always been like that, I thought. Hell, I remember when Rand Paul had this to say about Trump during the 2016 election cycle:
“I’m thinking, how did we get the race for the most important office in the free world to sink to such depths, and how could anyone in my party think that this clown is fit to be president?”
After one debate exchange in which Trump implied that although he hadn’t made fun of Paul on his looks he definitely could have; Rand commented:
“Do we want someone with that kind of character? With that kind of careless language? I think there’s a sophomoric quality about Mr. Trump … about his visceral response to attack people on their appearance, short, tall, fat ugly.”
Why the change of heart, I wondered. Why the dogged defense of a man that he seemed to hold some level of genuine disdain for only a year or so prior? And why is Russia the binding commonality between Senator Paul and Donald Trump? Is this merely policy coincidence or is there actually something deeper?
As I mulled these questions over in my head, there was a thought that nagged at me:
There were some striking similarities in the 2008 election campaign of Rand Paul’s father Ron and Donald Trump’s eight years later.
- Had an insurgent candidate with views that fell squarely outside of traditional GOP standards.
- Rested their argument for the need and viability of their candidacy on the failed nature of the United States as a continuing experiment.
- Had candidates that were quickly (and mostly appropriately) labeled populists — constantly speaking to the need to rid Washington of the “elites”.
- Possessed an absolutely rabid support base that (at least initially) existed and thrived on the internet.
Of course, these similarities are relatively vague. I wasn’t going to kid myself and say that they alone were proof of anything. But the thought persisted.
And — more contextually — you have to understand that this recognition wasn’t simply some fun thought experiment for me. I didn’t sit back and think, “Hmm. That’s weird”. Instead, I felt an odd sense of nausea as I was forced to reconcile with my own past.
Because in 2008 I was a proud foot-soldier in the “Ron Paul RevoLution”.
Quick Backstory: In the spring of 2007 — during a time in which I very proudly labeled myself a Libertarian — I came across the nascent Republican campaign of the then very unknown Congressman from Texas. He had run as a Libertarian previously in 1988 and that was enough to get me to research him more. After an admittedly cursory background read which described him as against the “War on Drugs” and the massively unpopular Iraq War (and basically against any foreign intervention whatsoever), I decided that I was on board — the long odds of his candidacy be damned. Moving forward, in conversation after conversation — completely unprovoked — I told all of my friends and family just who I would be voting for. And they all had the same response: “Who the hell is Ron Paul?” It was admittedly frustrating at first.
Of course — as we all know now — it wasn’t long after his campaign announcement that all of the internet was suddenly aglow with Dr. Ron Paul.
There were surprisingly well produced YouTube videos about the Ron Paul Revolution. There were online polls that showed Ron Paul leading his competition by a bajillion percent, and talks of ending the War on Drugs and getting out of Iraq. And there were also talks of returning to the gold standard, and the need to end the Fed (did you know it’s not even part of the government?) and the IRS, and maybe 9/11 was an inside job, and the Bilderbergers and the Rothchilds, and there was this guy Alex Jones you should listen to. (Yeah, it got weird quick.)
To be fair, I never really engaged in or entertained the crazier Ron Paul supporter’s conspiracy theories. For instance, I remember going to a Ron Paul Supporters MeetUp — at a Mexican Restaurant somewhat ironically — and finding myself in conversation with a group of people talking quite seriously about the globalist plan to destroy American sovereignty via the merger of all North American nations into a single body like the (gasp!) EU. There would apparently be a new currency and everything. The currency would be called the “Amero” and according to these people, it was already in circulation — an obvious lie later found to have been perpetuated by white supremacist and Holocaust denying writer Hal Turner. I nodded along quietly but decided then that it was probably best not to exchange numbers with these folks.
And that’s another embarrassment for me: although I never espoused rantings from the more lunatic fringe ingrained in the Ron Paul base; at the time, I didn’t confront them either. On many occasions, when discussing politics with people not in the Paul camp, I would gloss over their concerns by stating that they didn’t speak for the Paul campaign. And embarrassingly, on some occasions, I’d even offer up weak rationalization for the kooky thoughts — hey, they’re just asking questions. Which of course was total bullshit.
Post-2008 (and with the help of continuing education) I abandoned my flawed political and economic philosophy and with it my support of Ron Paul. And while I would never deny having been a Paul supporter, I wouldn’t ever discuss it in depth, other than to point out that I had obviously been wrong and reformed. I effectively buried it.
But, as I was saying, all of the Rand Paul/Donald Trump/Russia news over the past couple of weeks dredged up a lot in my mind. So I decided to dig a little deeper and see if there was something behind the overlap between the campaign bases.
If there is anything of interest to be discovered, I thought, the first place to look was in the disproportionate internet presence of both campaigns. While it is definitely true that Donald Trump was ultimately able to get people to turn out in the real world in a way that somewhat matched his online presence, Ron Paul was never able to get that kind of real world support. I remember. It was a constant frustration of mine, at the time, to see Ron Paul have such a large presence online and yet poll so weakly. Embarrassingly, I sometimes fell victim to the conspiracy theory mindset that the polls were rigged or at the very least weren’t accounting properly for the change in the nature of primary telephones from landlines to cellular.
Well, as it turns out, right around the same time, a lot of people much smarter than myself were trying to reconcile the disparity between online and real world support for Ron Paul. But not in the “Why is Ron Paul getting screwed!?!” kind of way. It was more of a, “Where the hell is all of this online support even coming from?”
For instance, this June 2007 Wired article pointed out [emphasis mine]:
“To many immersed in the political blogosphere, Paul’s passionate supporters seem to be everywhere at once. Editors of political websites are inundated with angry e-mails demanding they devote more coverage to Paul. Blog posts that criticize Paul are often followed by hundreds of livid comments from his fans. Most frustrating to those not on board the Ron Paul bandwagon, he routinely ranks first in online presidential polls on sites ranging from CNN.com to niche political blogs. Conversely, Paul rates in the low single digits in scientific telephone polls and few political pundits afford him any chance of winning the nomination.”
So where did the Ron Paul virality stem from? All of those online supporters couldn’t be bots. After all, bots weren’t nearly as prevalent in 2007 as they are now. And besides, I had been one of the very real people posting comments, emailing publications, and voting in online polls.
Well, it appears that some people had a good idea of where at least some of the massive online support was coming from. And had I not been completely in the tank for Ron Paul in the winter of 2007, I might have come across a SecureWorks analysis of a SpamBot that had sent out millions of targeted emails promoting the Paul campaign. The operation was surprisingly sophisticated and actually did employ the use of bots in some way:
While the total count of Ron Paul spam messages that actually landed in peoples’ inboxes can’t be known, it certainly was received by millions of recipients. All this was done using around 3000 bots this speaks to the efficiency of the template-based spam botnet model over the older proxy-based methods.
These emails were targeted at over 162 million email addresses and contained subject lines like “Ron Paul Wins GOP Debate!” and “Ron Paul
Exposes Federal Reserve!”, followed by random characters in efforts to slip past spam filters.
Now, this is where it gets weird:
Much more interesting than the mere employ of a SpamBot in support of the Ron Paul campaign was the location and the background from which this SpamBot operated. SecureWorks was able to pinpoint the Ron Paul spam campaign origination to Reactor Mailer — a spam affiliate software. Reactor Mailer could reliably be attributed as “the brainchild of a spammer who goes by the pseudonym “spm”.
“spm” had been interviewed about his operation by the Russian hacker website xakep.ru. In that interview he claimed to have hired some of the best coders in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States, the post-Soviet confederation) to write the software. Secure works found the claim to be “probably true” because “by examining details in the source code, we were able to identify at least one of the principal coders of Reactor 3/Srizbi, a Ukrainian who goes by the nickname “vlaman”.”
Furthermore, a very thorough investigative piece by krebsonsecurity.com would dig further into just who “spm” was — eventually arriving at the conclusion that he was a wealthy Russian national and software developer named Phillip Pogosov.
But okay, just because the software and Spambot efforts had a former-eastern-bloc/Russian origination, it could just be that they were hired by an ethically questionable but completely American Ron Paul supporter. Plenty of sites selling pills for impotence and tiny penises had done the same thing.
Still, there was something else that bothered me.
In my internet dive, I stumbled across another similarity between Ron Paul’s 2008 campaign and Donald Trump’s in 2016 — a surprising number of people in the campaigns orbit who either were openly supportive of Russia or would go on to become so shortly thereafter. For instance:
- A year prior to announcing his candidacy, Ron Paul was hosted by Czech Republic President and notorious Putin adorer, Václav Klaus.
- Campaign member and long-time adviser to Paul, Daniel McAdams (and now the Executive Director of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity) writes frequently for both Russia Today and Russia Insider — outfits notoriously categorized as Kremlin propaganda pieces.
- McAdams had been introduced to Paul by a mutual friend named John Laughland — a political director of Russian-backed think tank the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, who argued that the European Union was conceived by the CIA, as part of an American plot to subjugate Europe. Oh yeah, he now also sits on the board of the Ron Paul Institute.
- There are a number of other more tenuous, but still intriguing, ties Louis Anslow wrote about.
LONG STORY SHORT:
So it seems that a lot of Paul’s inner circle held some level of respect for Vladimir Putin, Russia, and the Kremlin. They seemed to be more than happy to appear on Russian state owned media. They seem to be integrated into think tanks that are — in some way — financially supported by the Kremlin.
During his campaign, Ron Paul received a massive amount of internet influence effort that stemmed from a sophisticated outfit owned and operated by a Russian national. Very similar , though significantly more sophisticated tactics were employed for the Trump campaign eight years later — an effort that every western intelligence has attributed to the Kremlin.
With this in mind, do I think that the Ron Paul 2008 campaign — a campaign that I vociferously supported and convinced those around me to support — was bolstered in some way by the Kremlin? The sad answer for me is, probably yes. Can I prove it? No. There is no smoking gun and there likely never will be.
Let me also point out, I’m not necessarily saying that Ron Paul was even aware of the effort. Perhaps the Kremlin sensed an opportunity to exploit an honest (though misguided) man who’s foreign policy just so happened to be extremely advantageous to the geopolitical goals of Russia. Even still, in 2018, viewed within the context of election security, even this assumption is appalling.
And unfortunately, the current actions of Rand Paul and his apparent intent on pleasing Russian oligarchs and Ron Paul’s disturbing penchant for constantly deflecting criticism of the Kremlin make it more difficult for me to assume that the Paul campaign was just the unwitting recipient of Russian help in 2008. I would not be shocked to find out there was some level of knowledge on the campaigns part.
But hey… I could be wrong about all of this, of course. Perhaps I have fallen into the paranoid trap of seeing grand schemes where there are none — a blatant hypocrisy considering my habit of mocking the conspiracy theorists enmeshed in the Trump and Paul campaigns. However, even if I am wrong about the Russian angle and have indeed become paranoid, I still feel the need to apologize for my support of a candidate who was and is so obviously wrong on nearly every angle of the modern world and governance. I am truly sorry. I hope you will accept it.