How the John Birch Society Won the Long Game

How the John Birch Society Won the Long Game

How the John Birch Society Won the Long Game

The American right doesn’t need the John Birch Society these days, but that is because it’s adopted the Birchers’ extremism wholesale.

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Even at the peak of its influence in the early 1960s, the John Birch Society was regarded as something of a joke by liberals and conservatives alike. The Birchers were so extreme that many of them thought Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon were too soft. One California Bircher opined that if Nixon won the Republican gubernatorial primary, “we might as well teach our children how to count in rubles.” Robert Welch, the ex-candymaker and Harvard Law dropout who founded the John Birch Society, became infamous for describing Dwight Eisenhower as a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.”

The Birchers were almost a parody of anti-communist paranoiacs. Their in-house magazine once ran an article calling peace signs “symbols of the anti-Christ.” They believed the first Earth Day was a communist plot intentionally scheduled to coincide with Lenin’s 100th birthday. Polls consistently showed they had little support among the public at large, and even respectable conservatives like William F. Buckley Jr. kept a cautious distance from them in public.

Today, the John Birch Society attracts little public notice, though it’s still out there promising to “save children from our public schools” and “stop the globalists’ trade agenda.” But the Birchers’ politics have become standard, not fringe, on the American right; their rhetoric is repeated almost word for word by Donald Trump. On the Birch Society website, they promise “to prevent the Deep State, with its Marxist and globalist ideology, from poisoning and ultimately destroying America.” Trump kicked off his first rally for the 2024 campaign with a similar vow: “Either the deep state destroys America, or we destroy the deep state.” The Trumpian right doesn’t need the John Birch Society per se, because it’s adopted the Birchers’ extremist paranoia wholesale.

In Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right, Matthew Dallek examines how this came to be. As kooky and isolated as it was, the John Birch Society, he argues, “slipped into the culture and politics of the country in underappreciated ways.” By launching their society, this “island of far-right misfits” helped create “a host of canny successors that put extremist themes, ideas, and techniques into general circulation.”

For Dallek, one can draw a straight line from the Birch Society to Trump’s presidency. A central lesson of his book is: Don’t assume that just because a group is isolated, kooky, or fringe it will never penetrate the halls of power. After all, Marjorie Taylor Greene now serves as a member of the US House of Representatives. Kooks should not be underestimated.

John Birch himself would probably have been lost to history were it not for Robert Welch’s decision to build him up as a martyr. A 27-year-old OSS agent killed in China in 1945 by Mao’s Communists, Birch was all but unknown in 1954 when Welch published The Life of John Birch, which attempted to present his death as the moment that kicked off the Cold War. As Welch argued: “With his death and in his death the battle lines were drawn, in a struggle from which either communism or Christian-style civilization must emerge with one completely triumphant, the other completely destroyed.”

This Manichaeism was fundamental to Welch’s thinking. It also became central to Bircher thinking more generally, which explains why Birchers were constantly treating Republicans who were anything less than fanatically committed to the Cold War as if they were as “com symps”—their favored epithet for “communist sympathizer.”

Welch started the John Birch Society in 1958 to expose these “com symps.” The organization was founded in secrecy with a small group of fellow businessmen who loathed the New Deal and believed they had a mission from God to stop the vast communist conspiracy that had infiltrated both political parties.

At the beginning, the Birchers lay low; they mostly recruited among sympathetic elite businessmen, with Welch touring country clubs and Masonic lodges, giving terrifying speeches about the looming communist danger and raising funds (one early supporter was Fred Koch of Koch Industries). But by the early ’60s, the society had grown to tens of thousands of members, attracting not just rich manufacturers but also upper-middle-class dentists and lawyers who wished to be part of the crusade against godless evil. California’s Orange County alone had 38 Birch Society chapters. John Wayne himself was briefly a member, before realizing that the group was committed to totally untenable conspiracy theories.

From the outset, Bircher causes were often quixotic. Enraged by Brown v. Board of Education, the Birchers ran an unsuccessful “Impeach Earl Warren” campaign. They tried to keep Eisenhower from meeting with Nikita Khrushchev. When Birchers ran for office, they did not win. They were easy to laugh at: One Birch group went door to door and “sold American flags, eagle door knockers, and colonial-print dish towels.” Their chain of bookstores sold tracts with names like “Your Church—Their Target” and “What They Are Doing to Your Children.”

But many of the Birchers’ activities will strike the contemporary reader as eerily familiar. Their “Support Your Local Police” campaign was a forerunner to “Blue Lives Matter.” As Dallek writes, they “heckled speakers at town halls, relentlessly pushed school boards and public libraries to offer conservative texts, took over PTAs, and picketed [John F.] Kennedy events, where they called him a communist.” They wanted to purge “socialist propaganda” from school libraries. They believed democracy was a tyranny of the majority and thought responsible business executives should rule the country, with a frequent Bircher refrain being “The United States is a republic, not a democracy. Let’s keep it that way!”

Conservatives often felt they couldn’t be too visibly aligned with the Birchers, who were not only paranoid and extreme but whose ranks were also riddled with anti-Semites and white supremacists. Bircher Revilo Oliver was such a repugnant figure—he would eventually write books called The Yellow Peril and The Jewish Strategy—that he was eventually forced out of the society. But as a cofounder of National Review, it wasn’t exactly as if Oliver came from the fringes, either.

In fact, the Birchers themselves were never quite as fringe as they seemed. While they “claimed to loathe the establishment,” they also “benefited from party power brokers and structures.” Buckley’s National Review, for instance, has long been seen as having cast the Birchers out of the conservative movement. In fact, it did nothing of the kind. Buckley was very careful in his stance: While distancing himself from Welch’s more extreme pronouncements, he was close to members of the society both politically and personally. As Buckley accurately insisted to a Bircher, “I don’t think in my life I have made a single unfavorable reference to any members of the John Birch Society.”

Dallek’s history is valuable for anyone who wants to understand where the conspiratorial and apocalyptic bent in today’s right-wing politics came from, but it doesn’t necessarily add much that wasn’t already covered in Edward H. Miller’s recent A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism. The two books differ mainly in emphasis, with Miller focusing on Welch, while Dallek offers separate chapters on, for example, the role of women in the Birch Society, and the Anti-Defamation League’s attempts to spy on and undermine the Birchers. Yet both books ultimately lead us to the same alarming conclusion: The conspiracy theorists once dismissed as marginal have steadily made their way to the mainstream. A slightly different thesis is advanced in John S. Huntington’s Far-Right Vanguard: The Radical Roots of Modern Conservatism, which sees the Birchers and their ilk not as gradually taking over the conservative movement but rather at the core of it.

Whether one sees the “moderate” Republicans of ages past as truly opposed to Bircherism or not, it’s undeniable that today’s Republican Party overflows with neo-Bircherite rhetoric. As Dallek notes, the Birchers had an “apocalyptic faith that the country was on the eve of destruction,” with the media, academics, unions, and civil servants all seen as traitors. Like the MAGA movement, they were usually not Klan-level explicit about their white supremacism, but they nevertheless despised the movement for Black equality. Dallek hears echoes of the Birchers’ “Impeach Earl Warren” campaign in the January 6 mob’s demands to “Stop the Steal” and “Hang Mike Pence.” Particular Bircher conspiracy theories about the fluoridation of the water supply and the satanic origins of the peace sign may have disappeared, but we now have QAnon, and it’s not going away.

With the rise of the Tea Party in 2009, Dallek writes, “Bircher thinking had penetrated the culture more than it had in the sixties,” when it remained mostly a punch line. Under Trump, beliefs that would have placed someone on the very fringes of the GOP in the 1960s were perfectly mainstream, such as “the Birch Society’s view of public health policies as a statist plot to quash individual liberties.” Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and John McCain had all viewed immigration as relatively benign and supported comprehensive immigration reform, but the MAGA right drew its anti-immigration rhetoric straight from white nationalist tracts about hordes of invaders bent on destroying the culture. Rhetoric about the deadly communist threat has been replaced with rhetoric about the deadly socialist threat.

Dallek offers a cautionary tale, noting that plenty of people “underestimated the society’s depth of support and summarily assumed that the far right was destined for failure.” But it wasn’t. In fact, striking successes came out of the movement. Phyllis Schafly, who is credited with helping ensure the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, was a Bircher, though she strategically removed herself from the organization to avoid public embarrassment. The society was also at the forefront of the anti-abortion movement: As Rick Perlstein and Edward H. Miller argue, “it was the John Birch Society that first discovered the power of the nascent Christian right’s most galvanizing issue.”

For progressives, the lesson here is that far-right politics is no joke, since it can exert an outsize influence even when it loses elections. The Birchers supported George Wallace in his segregationist third-party campaign in 1968, and though Wallace lost, the ’70s would see a hardening of white opposition to affirmative action and busing, fights that Birchers and ex-Birchers would take up. The Birchers played a long game, and they succeeded in pushing the politics of paranoia into the mainstream.

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