04/14/2013 06:29 pm ET Updated Jun 14, 2013

Rand Paul and the GOP World of Magical Thinking

Stop laughing at Senator Rand Paul.

Sure, his talk to students at Howard University explaining the history of the Republican Party was a little condescending, a little daft and more than a little silly.

And yes, he managed to tell the history of the GOP as the great civil rights crusade without ever mentioning Barry Goldwater's opposition to the Civil Rights and the Voting Rights Act, Nixon's "Southern Strategy," Reagan's shameless vilification of people on public assistance, Willie Horton or a dozen other vile episodes of GOP bigotry in high places.

So stifle your giggles, and let's examine Rand's talk at Howard, which has provided us two very useful insights into the mind of the modern Republican.

First, Paul revealed just how thoroughly the "small government" nouveau-libertarian wing of the GOP misunderstands the way government has functioned across much of the 20th century to protect and advance the rights and opportunities of minority groups.

Big government hasn't helped African Americans, Paul told students at Howard, oblivious apparently to all the ways it has. Paul and so many other conservatives simply can't acknowledge how the "states rights" doctrine they so vigorously champion was responsible for the creation of Jim Crow and for its perpetuation for over half a century. The actions and interventions of the Federal government -- from FDR's Executive Order 8802, which banned racial discrimination in wartime defense contracts, to Truman's desegregation of the military, to the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board to, yes, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act -- played a central role in dismantling the American system of apartheid.

This isn't ancient history but a part of the living memory of most African American families, and therefore for many of them Big Government has been a positive good in their lives. Those memories also help explain the reaction against the galling GOP efforts to restrict the vote and the extraordinary African American turn-out in November which constituted an eloquent answer to them. Senator Paul might have been offended by the student who asked how the current GOP disfranchisement campaign differed from those in the past, but he didn't actually answer the question.

Secondly, Rand Paul's trip through history takes us along on an excursion into the GOP World of Magical Thinking, where never is heard a discouraging word and the real world rarely intrudes. In fact, Republicans take us to this wonderland pretty regularly, like every time they deny climate change, or evolution. Or when they talk about "legitimate rape," and how adoption ought to "replace" abortion. And every time you hear GOP leaders extolling the virtues of trickle-down and austerity economics, you know they are pronouncing from The GOP World of Magical Thinking, the place where the "reality-based world" goes to die.

Paul's Magical Thinking history lesson at Howard made plain, however, just how much the GOP world-view is a product of the way they see the past without really understanding it.

If America is in steep and dire decline, as the right-wing chorus chants almost constantly, then the past must have been a better place. That's the central premise of all declension stories. And the louder the chorus of decline has grown, the rosier the past has become.

It is in that context that Paul could go to Howard University, lecture students there on the history of the Republican Party and civil rights, and skip over all the racist bits. To acknowledge them would force Paul to admit that maybe that racist history, 50 years in the making, might have consequences in the present.

It is the same context in which Chief Justice John Roberts quizzed lawyers defending the Voting Rights Act last month, asking, in effect: couldn't we just put all this unpleasantness behind us and pretend it never happened?

Roberts, however grudgingly, admitted that the Voting Rights Act might once have been necessary, and in this sense he was more honest than House Republicans were in 2011. Dizzy with victory and fulminating with Tea Party anger, the new Republican majority insisted that the Congress be opened with a reading of the Constitution. It was a sanctimonious bit of theater orchestrated by a group who believes the Constitution to be perfect or even divinely-inspired.

But then came that part about counting African American slaves as three-fifths of a human being. So rather than read the "Three-Fifths Compromise" out loud, the GOP leaders re-wrote the Constitution by skipping it altogether. More historical Magical Thinking.

Those who live in the GOP World of Magical Thinking either don't know their history or they chose to ignore it -- ignorance in the fullest sense of the word.

And I want to do my part to fix this woeful situation. After all, I'm in the business of teaching history, so I'd like to volunteer my services to Senator Paul. I'll happily give him and his staff a tutorial on the history of the GOP or of civil rights more broadly. I'll even toss in a lecture about the New Deal, which Paul also doesn't seem to understand.

Get in touch and we'll arrange a time.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is
To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government (Oxford University Press).