Sen. Rand Paul left the stage, the applause died down, and the leaders of Young Americans for Liberty had a problem—there was time to kill. A panel of liberty-movement congressmen was en route to Northern Virginia from the Capitol, where they’d just held late votes. So Jeff Frazee, the 31-year-old who has led YAL ever since it was spun off from Ron Paul’s 2008 campaign, came onstage to introduce “a good friend of the cause.”
“I’m sure everyone here is Facebook friends with him,” said Frazee. “If you’re not, you should be. … He’s been very helpful with the growth of our mission, and our message. I think he’s a very articulate gentleman.”
With that, Frazee brought out Jack Hunter. One year earlier, when Hunter still worked for Sen. Paul, the Washington Free Beacon dug through everything he’d published as “the Southern Avenger,” a truth-teller in a Confederate flag luchador mask. According to the younger Hunter, John Wilkes Booth’s heart was “in the right place,” and whites had lost the “right to celebrate their own cultural identity.” Americans worried about keeping their country were not “wrong to deplore the millions of Mexicans coming here now.”
Paul stood by Hunter for more than a week, until he resigned and Paul could distance himself from his former aide’s “stupid” oeuvre. Hunter scaled back his participation in that year’s YAL conference.
But now he was back, onstage, in front of hundreds of people who’d just finished chanting for Rand Paul to run for president.
“Tell some jokes!” said Frazee.
“They don’t want to hear those,” said Hunter. “They’re pretty bad.”
The story of Jack Hunter’s comeback is the story of the Pauls, a political family with survival skills that rival the Road Runner’s. The 2008 discovery by James Kirchick of Ron Paul’s race war survivalist newsletters did not force the elder Paul from that presidential race. The media’s rediscovery of that material, in late 2011, did not stop Paul from amassing delegates in 2012. An “establishment” campaign to stop the younger Paul from winning his 2010 Senate nomination, meanwhile, failed completely. The Kentucky senator arrived in Iowa this week as one of the most popular figures in the GOP, the leader of the party’s outreach attempts to black voters and young voters on issues like civil liberties and drug war reform.
Since leaving Paul-world, Hunter has become the creative force behind a thriving conservative news site. In April 2013, Cox Media launched the website Rare, hoping to create a libertarian news site along the lines of what the Huffington Post has done for liberal readers. Rare puttered along with low traffic in its early days—at the start of 2014, the site reportedly had fewer than 1 million unique views per month. Staffers who’d hit the exits were dishing about a broken product model and rudderless editorial team.
Then came Jack Hunter, who had churned out populist commentary for years—from radio, to YouTube videos, to Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign blog. In those days he had become popular enough to, well, work for Rand Paul and co-write one of his books. In November 2013, after his resignation, Hunter published his “confessions” in a long piece for Politico Magazine, in which he denounced all of his works as the Southern Avenger. “Libertarian Republicans are changing minds and changing the party,” he wrote. “They changed me.”
This led to a conversation with the people behind Rare. Hunter had always imagined a libertarian-focused news site to compete with the Drudge Report. “Some of the libertarian stories were finding an audience that they wouldn’t have found before,” he said. “I’d remember, even on Ron’s campaign, I’d see a story and say: Why isn’t this a headline?”
Hunter had actually been plotting out this new libertarian media strategy before anyone thought to dig through the Southern Avenger’s archives. For years, before and after joining the Paul campaign, Hunter had been in a running dialogue with the liberty movement. In January 2013 he responded to critics who thought he had “propagandized” for Ron and Rand Paul. “I will remain a ‘propagandist,’ ” wrote Hunter, “for… any other figure, group, blog or vehicle, now or in the future, that I believe advances our ideas in a way that we eventually become the new mainstream.”
This sort of material attracted readers—much of what’s written about the Pauls and their movement gets solid traffic. Eventually, Leon Levitt, VP of strategy at the Atlanta-based Cox, began “a conversation” with him about how Rare might go. “[I] needed to personally become comfortable with his views and who he really was,” Levitt said. “He essentially convinced me.”
On Jan. 20, Hunter returned to political commentary with a pair of posts that the Southern Avenger never would have written. One compared the NSA abuses revealed by Edward Snowden to the targeting of the civil rights movement. “As we remember Martin Luther King, Jr. for his civil rights triumphs,” wrote Hunter, “let us also remember his civil liberties lessons.” The other explained how Sen. Mike Lee and—yes—Sen. Rand Paul were battling the “new Jim Crow” by working to reform drug laws. For Paul, wrote Hunter, “mandatory minimum sentencing reform has become a primary issue and he has been outspoken about the inherent racism of the current system.”
Rare became Hunter’s site. “He’s essentially the editor,” says Levitt. Copycat conservative opinion was replaced by viral stories about marijuana legalization, the right to tape-record police officers, gun-toting citizen vigilantes, and, naturally, the adventures of Rand Paul. Traffic finally started to tick up. According to data collected by Quantcast, Rare was attracting just 1.3 million unique users as recently as April, but was up to 6.2 million by June. It dipped slightly in July, but the site had found a niche, with liberty-flavored Rare links going viral on a regular basis.
“Initially we tried to be a lot of different things to different people,” says Levitt. “We made good and bad decisions, but truthfully, what we always wanted to represent was the liberty approach.”
On Aug. 1, the third day of YAL’s conference, about 300 students and activists listened and scribbled notes as Hunter explained that “the Ron Paul Revolution lives on.”
“[Ron Paul] turned countless minds toward the ideals of liberty in a way no politician ever had,” he said. “Liberty, actually, was the only philosophy that truly appealed to millennials.”
“If keeping gay marriage illegal is the defining issue of our time, young people don’t want anything to do with that,” said Hunter to a modest burst of applause.
“If keeping marijuana illegal is what it means to be a Republican, young people don’t want anything to do with that either,” he said to louder applause.
Then came the kicker: “If you’re worrying that black and brown people are invading the country and taking it over—young people simply don’t want anything to do with those ideas or rhetoric.”
It was the biggest applause line of the speech up to that point. As the cheers subsided, Hunter added a footnote: “A lot of conservatives, including me in the past, have been guilty of such rhetoric.”
When the speech ended, Hunter grabbed a chair in a common area, kicked up his black cowboy boots, and reflected on Rare’s success. It’s the “premiere site for where conservatism is headed,” he said.
“I remember being on talk radio and saying those things I regret,” he added. “I remember—God—all I wanted for president [was] someone who didn’t want to get us into the next war, and someone who would stop the illegal immigrants who would ruin the country. But being part of the Ron Paul campaign. … I saw that they didn’t give a crap about any of that stuff about immigrants. It doesn’t matter. It makes us worse people. They influenced me.”
Hunter, who’s now 40 years old, discussed how he used to talk more flamboyantly because it made him sound more credible. The Southern Avenger website has now been memory-holed, its content available only with Web archive searches.
“I really shifted my views over a couple of years,” he said. “What millennials believe, the sort of politics they’re attracted to, is minus a lot of those ugly aspects of conservatism. The way some people talk about the migrants on the border, calling them drug dealers—these are children! They’re not all gang members. It blows my mind that these family-values, allegedly Christian people are doing the most un-Christ-like things imaginable.”
The next day, YAL’s conference was set to end with a speech from Ron Paul himself and an after-party at a nearby bar. Jeff Frazee was pacing the conference area, making sure the Tea Party Patriots-sponsored dinner had arrived, the audio equipment worked, and the stage could be struck while Paul spoke in a ballroom. A PA was playing Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” when I asked Frazee why Hunter had bounced back and Rare had become so successful.
“What happened to Jack was an obvious attack by the neocons,” said Frazee. “What he’s written and said in the past had been out there, but they finally did their research and saw an opportunity to attack Rand. Now, some of the things he said were like—really, he said that? But now he’d never say something like that.”
Shortly after 6 p.m., the YAL crowd filed into the ballroom where Ron Paul would speak. Jeff Frazee came onstage with his son—“William, the Ron Paul baby”—and said that the presidential candidate had influenced his life more than anyone outside his own flesh and blood.
Jack Hunter took a seat at the back of the room, between a few friends from the movement, and posted a picture of the view to Facebook.
“Watching Ron Paul speak to a standing room only auditorium packed with young people for what I think is about the 578th time,” he wrote. “Never gets old.”