Birchers: How the John Birch Soci­ety Rad­i­cal­ized the Amer­i­can Right

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By – July 7, 2023

Sat­i­rized by Pete Seeger, ridiculed by a young Bob Dylan, and dis­missed as an orga­ni­za­tion for mis­fits and lit­tle old ladies in ten­nis shoes,” the John Birch Soci­ety attract­ed 100,000 mem­bers with­in a few years of its found­ing in 1948. As his­to­ri­an Matthew Dallek’s high­ly read­able account of the Society’s rise tells us, the organization’s mix of Cold War para­noia and don’t tread on me” lib­er­tar­i­an­ism has both shaped and remained key to con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal culture. 

From the very begin­ning, the John Birch Soci­ety was root­ed in con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry. Its name­sake, a Bap­tist mis­sion­ary and Office of Strate­gic Ser­vices offi­cer in Chi­na, was killed by jit­tery Com­mu­nist sol­diers a cou­ple of weeks after VJ Day. This oth­er­wise com­mon­place tragedy caught the atten­tion of Robert Welch, an Amer­i­can can­dy man­u­fac­tur­er who devel­oped and mar­ket­ed the ever-pop­u­lar Junior Mints. Based on the sketchi­est evi­dence, Welch con­struct­ed a nar­ra­tive in which the truth of Birch’s death had been cov­ered up by State Depart­ment offi­cials who were sym­pa­thet­ic to Mao’s regime. He went so far as to argue that many of America’s lead­ers were, in fact, Com­mu­nist agents; Dwight D. Eisen­how­er him­self was immersed in the conspiracy.” 

In 1958, Welch gath­ered a group of like-mind­ed peo­ple for a two-day meet­ing in Indi­anapo­lis, and there the John Birch Soci­ety was born. Con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, the Society’s founders were not of the fringe. They were promi­nent and upright cit­i­zens — rich, white … colos­si bestrid­ing the world’s most dynam­ic economy.” 

But the orig­i­nal Birchers were not just Bab­bitts. Wealthy and pow­er­ful as they were (Fred Koch, father of the deep-pock­et­ed Koch Broth­ers, was an ear­ly Bircher), they saw them­selves as insur­gents and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who had been betrayed by pow­er­ful, left­ist elites — in pol­i­tics, in the media, and in acad­e­mia. Democ­ra­cy was a sure path to mob rule, and wealthy busi­ness exec­u­tives were the right­ful lead­ers of Amer­i­ca. As Dallek writes, It was time for them to take their coun­try back.” 

Through­out the 1950s, Birchers orga­nized and lob­bied against any­thing that they could pos­si­bly char­ac­ter­ize as Com­mu­nist,” from school deseg­re­ga­tion to the Civ­il Rights Act. And while it was at pains to dis­tance itself from racism and anti­semitism — Jew­ish Defence League founder Meir Kahane was a Bircher at one point — when expe­di­en­cy dic­tat­ed, the Soci­ety allied itself with White Cit­i­zens Coun­cils and the Ku Klux Klan. And while the ven­er­a­ble ADL, which one Bircher called a Himm­ler agency,” was instru­men­tal in expos­ing the extrem­ism that lay at the Society’s heart, the ideas, activism and style that Birchers helped pio­neer has con­tin­ued to thrive well into the twen­ty-first century.”

This has meant that while promi­nent Repub­li­cans, like Nation­al Review pub­lish­er William Rush­er, may have reject­ed the Birchers’ kook­ery,” they have rec­og­nized the pow­er of their ener­gy and mon­ey,” and, like Ronald Rea­gan, have approached them “ … with a cal­cu­lat­ed mix of accep­tance and rejec­tion.” In the 1990s, the emer­gence of far-right ide­o­logues like Newt Gin­grich and Pat Buchanan increas­ing­ly brought Bircher ide­ol­o­gy — includ­ing restor­ing states’ rights, abol­ish­ing affir­ma­tive action and abor­tion, and pro­tect­ing the Sec­ond Amend­ment — into the mainstream. 

On Jan­u­ary 6, 2021, Don­ald Trump told his fol­low­ers that if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a coun­try any­more.” And while the mob that sub­se­quent­ly attacked the US Capi­tol has been char­ac­ter­ized as a rab­ble, sub­se­quent rev­e­la­tions show that there was a high degree of orga­ni­za­tion under­ly­ing the events. The core of the riot­ers — the Proud Boys and the Oath Keep­ers in their para­mil­i­tary drag — was heav­i­ly sup­port­ed by mid­dle-class, often mid­dle-aged Amer­i­cans. Doc­tors, lawyers, small-busi­ness own­ers, and active and for­mer police offi­cers were a major part of what was, in cer­tain respects, a bour­geois upris­ing.” It was a moment that would have made Robert Welch and his self-styled band of Amer­i­can insur­gents proud. 

Angus Smith is a retired Cana­di­an intel­li­gence offi­cial, writer and Jew­ish edu­ca­tor who lives in rur­al Nova Scotia.

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