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How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right
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At the height of the John Birch Society’s activity in the 1960s, critics dismissed its members as a paranoid fringe. After all, “Birchers” believed that a vast communist conspiracy existed in America and posed an existential threat to Christianity, capitalism, and freedom. But as historian Matthew Dallek reveals, the Birch Society’s extremism remade American conservatism. Most Birchers were white professionals who were radicalized as growing calls for racial and gender equality appeared to upend American life. Conservative leaders recognized that these affluent voters were needed to win elections, and for decades the GOP courted Birchers and their extremist successors. The far right steadily gained power, finally toppling the Republican establishment and electing Donald Trump.
Birchers is a deeply researched and indispensable new account of the rise of extremism in the United States.
FRINGE TO CENTER
In 1962, a secretive, far-right group called the John Birch Society was scheming to stop the California Republican Party’s preferred candidate in a bitter electoral contest—one of many such campaigns it was waging in local and state elections. Just four years old at the time, the Birch Society was already the country’s most notorious far-right movement, and it had become known for its brutal tactics and extremist ideas concerning hidden communist conspiracies within the United States. It tended to harass its foes and paint them as rank traitors. Its opponent in this particular battle, Patricia Hitt, was a member of the Republican National Committee, a top ally of Richard Nixon, and a rare woman in a position of party leadership. At the time, Birchers were running for seats on Orange County school boards and plotting to wrest power from moderates in GOP women’s clubs. Hitt was one of the establishment Republicans who stood squarely in their path. When she ran for a seat on her party’s county committee, the society unloaded on her.
Letters, many using the same stock phrases, started arriving at her home. The tone, she said, was “nasty,” and “considerable hate” was raining down on her and her family. Worse still was the phone harassment. At all hours, Hitt received calls from anonymous speakers with essentially the same message: “You’ll rue this day.” When she and her husband switched to an unlisted number, the Birchers shifted to calling registered Republicans throughout her district and denouncing her as a “communist,” a “socialist,” and a “pinko.” “That kind of slander” was effective, Hitt recalled. “People who didn’t know who I was defeated me.”
Tangling with the John Birch Society was an unforgettable ordeal for opponents like Hitt who endured it. More than the loss itself, what scarred Hitt was the Birchers’ zealotry. “They were wild,” she later reflected. “They were haters beyond anything I’ve ever seen in my life.” They were “an enormously destructive force. In my opinion, they’re more destructive than the other extreme. Maybe it’s because they’re ours. The Birch Society,” she underscored, “is ours.”1
Hitt assumed that such a loathsome faction would stay at the margins of her party. Birchers might harass her and her GOP colleagues, win an election here and there, or launch a few quixotic primary campaigns to topple incumbents. But, she reasoned, they were destined to hover at the far-right edge of the political spectrum. Hitt figured that the midcentury consensus, in which citizens were thought to abhor extremists on the left and the right, would keep Birchers on the defensive and ensure that mainstream sensibilities prevailed. Her colleagues in the Republican establishment—even on the right-wing edge of that establishment—agreed. They were convinced that there was simply no realistic way for the fringe to assemble an electoral coalition that could vault them to power. And for a long time they were correct.
But in recent years, especially with the ascent of Donald Trump to the presidency and to leadership of the American right, what it means to be a conservative or a member of the Republican Party has changed—and the newly dominant political ideas and attitudes bear the imprint of the John Birch Society. The extremist takeover of the American right required more than six decades and was by no means inevitable. In fact, for a while the John Birch Society receded from influence, but over time its ideas—or the lineal descendants of its ideas—solidified their place in the conservative coalition and eventually, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, enjoyed a revival. Birchers depicts the life and afterlife of an organization that did more than any other conservative entity to propel this extremist takeover: the John Birch Society, which mobilized a loyal army of activists and forged ideas that ultimately upended American politics.
Even long after its membership waned and its time in the spotlight faded, the Birch Society influenced the ideas and the style of far-right activists and groups, eventually enabling the fringe to engulf the GOP. Drawing on thousands of documents from a variety of archives, this story encompasses the voices of activists, many of them women, as well as those of the movement’s allies and critics. It shows the extraordinary steps that a liberal Cold War coalition took to constrain the society, including a massive and previously undisclosed spy operation that targeted Birchers over many years, penetrating its inner sanctum and contributing to the society’s downfall. Yet the ideas and tactics of Birchism continued to inspire the far right and today have made a stunning comeback.
The political right in the United States has always encompassed a variety of factions or dispositions, including chamber of commerce conservatives and Wall Street conservatives, libertarians and fundamentalist Christians, those reconciled to the New Deal and those bent on repealing it. Historians have typically distinguished between the more moderate Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower, who dominated the party for years, and the more ideological “movement conservatives,” who burst on the scene first with Barry Goldwater in the early 1960s and then, more enduringly, with Ronald Reagan’s election as president in 1980.2 But this story makes clear that another dividing line also existed within the conservative coalition—with all the mainstream, electorally successful figures, from Eisenhower to Reagan, on one side and a more extreme, ultraconservative faction, including the Birchers, on the other. It also makes clear that the differences between these ultraconservatives and what I will call the mainstream right were real and substantive.
Many issues separated the Birch fringe from the Reagan-Goldwater right, but major distinctions centered on explicit racism, anti-interventionism versus internationalism, conspiracy theories, and a more apocalyptic, violent, antiestablishment mode of politics. While the mainstream and fringe wings of conservatism aligned on discrete issues and in particular moments, the Birch Society and the mainstream conservative movement frequently had sharp differences of opinion that pulled them in opposing directions. For years, the two were more antagonists than partners, each side working to check the other and seeing each other as the enemy within. More than mainstream conservatives, Birchers trafficked in conspiracy theories and advocated aggressive resistance to the civil rights movement. After NAACP leader Medgar Evers was assassinated by a white supremacist, a Birch film blamed him for his own death—a contention that didn’t sit well with the mainstream right. Birchers charged that President Eisenhower abetted the communists, distributed flyers calling President John F. Kennedy a traitor, and repudiated NATO. Their criticisms of government (“one worlders”) and media (“Spanish Inquisition!”) helped spark a revolt against America’s institutions and its elites at a time when trust in both was diminishing across the ideological spectrum. Birchers lobbied school boards to ban supposedly communist teachings such as sex education (a “filthy communist plot”), shouted down speakers in public forums (“commie-symp!”), formed front groups to push their causes in secret, and deployed fear and intimidation as political weapons, threatening to inflict unspecified harms on their foes.3
Conservative GOP leaders like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Barry Goldwater—politicians who, despite their differences with one another, all fit within the Republican conservative mainstream—sometimes invoked Bircher language and copied these extremist tactics. But their oratory and ideas were consistently less violent, conspiratorial, and apocalyptic, and when pressed they made clear that they wished to separate themselves from at least some elements of their far-right flank. This was true even of Goldwater, seen by many at the time as the epitome of right-wing Republicanism. Birchers declared that communists controlled the civil rights movement, but Goldwater, despite voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a US senator, avoided such talk. While Birchers spun out scenarios of communist plots in government, equating liberals with left-wingers and both with communists, Goldwater merely claimed that the Democratic Party “was captured by Socialist ideologues in and about the labor movement.”4 When Birchers agitated to impeach Chief Justice Earl Warren, Goldwater agreed that Warren and the Supreme Court had abused their power without going so far as to call for his removal. Whereas Birchers occasionally flirted with third parties, ran for office as states’ rights candidates, and challenged mainstream conservatives in long-shot GOP primary bids, Goldwater urged conservatives to “grow up” and take over the Republican Party. The handful of Birchers who held seats in Congress during the 1960s and 1970s bucked the Republican Party’s support for military interventions and immigration reform, instead clamoring for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations and viewing international alliances as a socialist one-world plot to destroy America’s sovereignty.5
The far right’s role and impact within the broader conservative movement from roughly 1974 to 2010 was a mixed bag. At times, fringe individuals and groups successfully pushed their ideas into the heart of national politics and a position of power within the Republican Party, especially on questions of morality, gender, and sexuality. But on some of the weightiest issues of those decades—immigration, internationalism, military interventions, the size of the welfare state, civil rights, and taxes—the far right also experienced numerous setbacks. The right-wing fringe was part of the conservative GOP’s coalition but only intermittently came out on top, and its constellation of ideas—explicit racism, anti-interventionism, conspiracism, an apocalyptic mindset, and culture wars—haltingly, over many decades, exerted more and more authority within the broader GOP conservative coalition.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, the society’s culture-war legacy combined with its radical brand of economic libertarianism to become more central to conservative Republicans. In the 1990s, a strain of isolationism began to creep more forcefully into GOP rhetoric and legislative policy, and conspiracy theories in response to Bill Clinton’s presidency ensconced themselves in the broader American right. Around 2008 to 2010, with the election of Barack Obama, some Republicans turned to more explicit racism and intensified the Birch-like, apocalyptic approach to politics and policy. In the 2010s, the far right, inheritors of the Birch tradition, finally came out on top. Though it is tempting to lump the mainstream right and the right-wing fringe together, especially in light of where they ended up, the right became radicalized because conservative leaders had courted the fringe (especially during their election campaigns) over five decades; large-scale changes sweeping the economy, culture, and world popularized the far right’s ideas; and the fringe’s decades-long quest to gain power came to maturation.
Republican conservative candidates for high office also made a series of bets that backfired. They wooed far-right activists on the theory that their political support was essential to winning elections and that their more outlandish ideas could be kept at bay. Conservatives vying for office attended rallies sponsored by the far right, endorsed some of their causes, and spoke in their idiom. But when these GOP leaders took office, they governed to the far right’s satisfaction only intermittently. Republican leaders figured that they could do just enough to keep the culture warriors, conspiracy theorists, extreme free marketeers, and anti–civil rights radicals in their camp while also maintaining support from mainstream conservatives, especially suburban women. Their bet paid off for a time, until control over the process ultimately slipped from their grasp. Especially in the final years of George W. Bush’s presidency, with the administration losing credibility in both foreign and economic policy, the far right’s ideas grew more popular. On the big issues—America’s role in the world, the nation’s stance toward immigrants, race relations, and views of major institutions and elites—Republican voters started to shift in the far right’s favor. The internet made it harder for Republican leaders to check the fringe members of their coalition, and the far right effectively weaponized the primary process. From GOP-backed tax hikes in the 1980s and early 1990s to the GOP-led wars in Iraq, from failure to curb immigration in the 2000s to the financial crash of 2008, the far right’s frustration with the conservative establishment intensified, and a narrative among the activists took root: Republican leaders had betrayed them. Bitterness and resentments deepened.
Beyond the internecine warfare, the nation’s changing economy and culture enabled Birch successors to gain adherents and ascend to power. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, economic and demographic shifts intensified the far right’s sense of alienation and disempowerment. A steady influx of Asian, African, and Latin American immigrants (and fewer white European immigrants) unnerved many whites, who feared that the interlopers threatened their values and their belief that the United States was a white Christian country. The decades-long process of deindustrialization, 1970s-era inflation, and the combination of a fraying safety net, declining public investment, and widening income and wealth disparities in the 1980s seemed to make the American dream increasingly unattainable. The severing of white working-class voters from unions (over many decades) helped break those voters’ connection with the Democratic Party and New Deal liberalism. These were forces in the rise of Reagan, of course, but they also played into the agenda of the Birch Society’s successors on the movement’s fringe, who exploited the cultural shifts and economic shocks, stoking white citizens’ resentments. Such broad changes in politics and culture amplified fears that immigrants were flooding the borders and taking people’s jobs. Structural shifts—including popular revulsion with the federal government—blocked Democrats’ attempts to mitigate economic pain. Right-wing press and politicians constantly told voters that snooty liberal elites were laughing at them, disrespecting them. The culture—Hollywood actors, Harvard professors, Beltway pundits—now seemed stacked against many white citizens, rigged to mock their habits, their faith, their families. After failing to win majorities at the ballot box, some heirs to the Birchers increasingly turned to violent and antidemocratic means of wielding power.
The end of the Cold War also shook the foundations of American politics and imbued the anti-interventionist successors to the Birchers with political authority and moral zeal. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 gave isolationists a chance to critique the broad bipartisan commitment to America’s liberal internationalist leadership. With the implosion of the Soviet Union, the conservative belief in militarism abroad started to waver. Pat Buchanan, Ron Paul, and other proponents of anti-intervention argued that America’s alliances, treaties, wars, and free-trade pacts eroded US sovereignty. They urged Americans to revive the 1920s-era traditions of avoiding entangling alliances, closing America’s borders, and celebrating the nation’s Anglo-Saxon heritage.6
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks initially undercut these America First sentiments. But the quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq, followed by civil war in Syria, the rise of the Islamic State, and the refugee crisis in Europe, triggered still more doubts about the wisdom of globalization, immigration, and trade as tools to spread democracy overseas.
Economic and social developments internal to the United States also led a resurgent far right to capitalize on the shifting debate late in George W. Bush’s administration. By 2008, economic conditions had grown increasingly dire in the eyes of many Americans, and the collapse of Bush’s electoral coalition rattled the Republican Party and helped the fringe clamber atop the GOP. The financial crisis and the Great Recession sharpened income inequality and exposed the fragility and unfairness of the nation’s economic system. Bush’s decision to bail out the banks and the automotive industry triggered a rebellion from the more populist elements within his own party and fomented discontent on the far right. Republicans were abandoning him during the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. Something profound was reshaping the Republican Party and what conservatives believed and wanted. Activists and donors soured on Bush as another exponent of the establishment, a Judas to their cause, and seized on the crisis to challenge conservative Republican orthodoxy. Only pure antigovernment activists could save the United States from a corrupt ruling elite. The election of the nation’s first African American president combined with the enactment of sweeping health care reform and the halting economic recovery to produce the Tea Party, and a more explicit racism and nativism took root. Powered by thousands of activists fighting to take back what they said was their country (with support from far-right foundations and donors, some of which had ties to the Birch movement), the Tea Party drew on Birchite conspiracy theories and tapped its white supremacist, anti-interventionist, and antiestablishment themes. These ideas gained more and more sway within the Republican Party during Obama’s presidency.
Birchers is in part the story of a small band of anti–New Deal businessmen who founded an organization named after an evangelist turned warrior who was killed by Chinese communists. It is also a chronicle of how, from 1958 till the early 1970s, these defenders of radical individualism mobilized an estimated sixty thousand to one hundred thousand white, upwardly mobile, change-fearing, mostly Christian, often suburban men and women, who united to defeat a set of common threats and reclaim a moral universe that they believed underpinned their own social, spiritual, and economic well-being. Finally, this book is an exploration of how Birch ideas and practices outlasted the organization itself and came to influence today’s Republican Party in unexpected ways.7
During its heyday in the early and mid-1960s, the Birch Society was hardly seen as the avatar of a new brand of dominant politics. Critics, including Republicans, ridiculed the Birchers, derided them as fanatics and a “lunatic fringe,” and condemned them as representative of a “paranoid style in American politics” that rebelled against modernity.8 But time and again, the group’s leaders weaponized such dismissals, stoking members’ resentment and intensifying their desire to fight for their beliefs. The elite slights also ignored the innovations that Birchers, among other groups, brought to politics—causes and strategies that established an alternative to the National Review-Goldwater-Reagan model, proving that the supercharged activism of thousands of diehards could outmatch the votes of millions of citizens and over time transform the GOP. While Birchers promoted baseless conspiracy theories as fact (fluoridation in the water represented “a massive wedge for socialized medicine,” “extremely dangerous… to the public water supplies”), they also understood how allegations of a plot against the United States rallied activists in opposition to a common foe and motivated citizens to participate in the struggle for power. They used modern technology, understood contemporary culture, and functioned as largely rational political beings. They were one of the groups on the right that demonstrated how mass mobilization around single issues could reap dividends far beyond the particular issue at hand, showing subsequent generations of conservatives how to campaign against the likes of abortion rights, gun control, and Obamacare and how to win multitudes of converts in the process.9
Beyond the potent influence of Birch Society leaders lay the tectonic-shifting power of tens of thousands of activist homeowners, housewives, and middle-class professionals, whose zeal initially posed a problem for conservative Republicans but soon made the GOP a more robust antigovernment party.10 Birch activists won seats on local school boards, traded ideas in their neighborhood bookstores, and volunteered for like-minded candidates. They filtered a conspiratorial brand of single-minded anticommunism through the perceived needs of their towns and suburbs. At times they trafficked in racist or antisemitic stereotypes and succeeded in braiding these strains of hate into a broader culture war, integrating bigots into a larger coalition. They rejected virtually the entire post–World War II, US-led international order, urging the United States to get out of the United Nations, denouncing the foreign policy establishment as a communistic cabal, and telling leaders to focus on the gravest threat to the country: the internal plot to destroy Americans’ liberties.
Although conservative political leaders denounced Birch Society founder Robert Welch, they benefited from his followers’ work. Birchers enthusiastically voted in local elections, publicized issues of law and order and anticommunism at the community level, volunteered in and donated to Republican campaigns, and got out the vote on Election Day. Even during the organization’s period of relative dormancy after 1974, Birch successors—hard-right conservatives who kept the society’s legacy alive, adopting its ideas and tactics—continued to fuel grassroots mobilization, popularize conspiracy theories, promote isolationism, elevate public morality, and police values in the culture at large. All these Birch-tinged efforts helped the GOP and conservative political leaders, even those who would have been uncomfortable with card-carrying Birchers in their ranks.
In its time, the Birch Society helped forge a coalition of super-wealthy industrialists and upwardly mobile professionals with white working-class conservatives and evangelicals, many of them Southern and many of them sometime Democrats. The society united conservatives geographically as well. While its brand of far-right politics found many adherents in the Sunbelt, its appeal was considerably broader, resonating with a subset of voters and activists in every region of the United States. The society’s national footprint augured an underappreciated breadth of cross-sectional popular support for the far right. In the Midwest and the Northeast, Birchers were surprisingly energetic, belying the long-held assumption that California, Arizona, and Texas were bellwethers where the fringe road-tested plans and erected infrastructure. From Helena and Indianapolis to Milwaukee and Boston, Welch and his followers ignited a nationwide movement.
The society also embraced a view of freedom that influenced future far-right activists. Birchers defined freedom not through access to the ballot box for all, nor as the freedom to act in accord with one’s own precepts, and certainly not as the freedom from want. They claimed, “We’re a republic, not a democracy,” holding that a relatively small group of Americans who looked and acted like Birchers should be in charge of the United States. Their conception of the republic demanded the dismantling of the welfare state and dreamed of imposing their own version of Christian values on American schools and culture.11 The society was also an early adopter of a strain of right-wing culture-war politics that became increasingly important to conservatives. Birchers inspired the religious right, thrust wedge issues of sex, gender, race, and education into a dominant place in American politics, and helped embed in the culture a set of traditional values around which supporters could rally.
The question of how the far right came to dominate conservatism and overtake the GOP has been a focus of a great deal of analysis. Some historians have depicted the Birch Society as “the ‘mainstream’ right’s vanguard.” Trump’s election as president revealed the surprising (and, to many, disturbing) resonance of certain ideas and tendencies, from outlandish conspiracism to naked racism, that most analysts had assumed would always remain confined to the fringes. Some now argued that the Republican Party or the conservative movement had all along been awash in these extreme views, that Bircher ideas had always been central, not merely peripheral—we just hadn’t seen or acknowledged it.
But in the rush to explain Trump, these accounts understated how much he directly took on the movement conservatism that had held sway, more or less, through the George W. Bush presidency. The process of radicalization of the Republican Party was in fact contingent, halting, and gradual, not foreordained and inevitable. There was not a clear split between the “addled, racist fringe” and the mainstream conservative movement, but nor was the fringe “the base” of the conservative movement, fundamental to its worldview. The distinctions, in other words, were as significant as any commonalities. Drawing too straight a line from the past to the present elides the tensions, conflicts, and contradictions within the modern conservative coalition and gives more power to proponents of the far right than they actually deserve. Birchers and their successors were not in the vanguard of the mainstream right but were fringe actors who hovered around the margins of politics and policy. Rather than driving the American right, ultraconservatives amounted to one element in a set of shifting and unstable Republican conservative electoral coalitions. Less pragmatic than the establishment right, the far right had an agenda that was rarely enacted into law (unless it dovetailed with positions shared by the Republican mainstream), and the GOP’s coalitions, for the most part, were vaster and more consumed by internal strife than some accounts have implied.12
Still, some recent scholarship on the far right has yielded useful insights into the overlap between the establishment and extreme wings of the GOP. Perhaps the most trenchant corrective has concerned the role of William F. Buckley, the intellectual founder of modern conservatism and publisher of National Review, who was said to have cordoned off the Birchers and expelled them through editorials in his magazine. Mainstream political raconteurs long assumed that Buckley was successful in cutting off the far right, acting as his movement’s de facto boundary enforcer and keeping true conservatism clean and free of its seedier aspects. But the lines between mainstream and fringe were murkier than these portraits suggest. As two astute political scientists have shown, “However mythologized by movement conservatives since, Buckley’s halting project of excommunication was more notable for its ineffectuality and tardiness than its impact in drawing a cordon sanitaire.”13
- “Illuminating…In addition to Dallek’s scrupulous research, he knows how to tell this story with a clarifying elegance and restraint.”—New York Times
- “Dallek’s book is quick-paced and well researched. However troubling, it is a joy to read.”—Guardian
- “Dallek’s account — of the 'halting' and clumsy effort by conservatives to simultaneously exploit and contain Bircher energies — is both well-told and depressingly familiar.”—Washington Post
- “Impressive new history…You do not have to agree with Dallek’s thesis to find his book worth reading.”—Financial Times
“What makes Birchers so enthralling, ultimately, is Dallek’s willingness to hold up a mirror to the political establishment, if not his own readership. Birchism’s triumphant return, he suggests, is itself an indictment of the broader liberal project: quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan have bred a deep distrust of the federal government, while galloping inequality across Democratic and Republican administrations alike has helped create an opening for the Right’s ersatz populism.”
- “A timely, critically important contribution to the history of our present political and constitutional crisis.”—Kirkus, starred review
- “In this crisp history of the John Birch Society (JBS), [Dallek] details its influence on the radicalization of the modern Republican party…Based on extensive archival research, this timely account of the John Birch Society is essential for readers interested in U.S. political history and far-right extremism.”—Library Journal, starred review
- “Comprehensive and enlightening…This is a treasure trove for political history buffs.”—Publishers Weekly
- “In Cold War America, no organization on the right was larger or more influential than the John Birch Society. Matthew Dallek’s perceptive, engrossing narrative reveals as never before how a group funded by wealthy businessmen and organized at the grassroots level changed the Republican Party—and the nation. Birchers is one of the best and most essential histories of modern conservatism that has ever been written.”—Michael Kazin, author of What It Took to Win
- “The John Birch Society was once considered so far out on the paranoid fringe it was synonymous with kookiness. In his fascinating and scrupulously researched narrative, Dallek shows how the Republican Party’s extremists took over the GOP. Revelatory and readable, Birchers is essential history for anyone trying to understand American politics.”—Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money
- “Before MAGA, there was the John Birch Society, an organization known to many but understood by very few. Dallek has penetrated the fog. His superbly researched and well-written history shows us exactly who the Birchers were and why they mattered—and still matter today.”—Sam Tanenhaus, author of The Death of Conservatism
- “A fascinating and much-needed look at the strange but vital history of the John Birch Society. Long dismissed as a fringe movement, the Birchers and their conspiratorial style have found new life in the Trump-era right. This is just the history we need to understand today’s political predicament.”—Beverly Gage, author of G-Man
- “Birchers is an eye-opening account of the decades-long struggle to organize the radical right in the United States—and to bring the far-right into electoral politics. This deeply researched account exposes the inner workings of the secretive organization, the deep-pocketed and high-powered activists who joined its ranks, and the everyday Americans drawn into its conspiratorial web.”—Nicole Hemmer, author of Partisans
- On Sale
- Mar 21, 2023
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Basic Books