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.”