Birchers review: how the Republican far right gave us Trump and DeSantis

<span>Photograph: Tyler Tjomsland/AP</span>
Photograph: Tyler Tjomsland/AP

Out of sight but not forgotten, the John Birch Society is a husk of its old self. Still, its penchant for conspiracy theories courses in the veins of the American right. A mere 37% of Republicans believe Joe Biden beat Donald Trump legitimately. “January 6, I think, is probably second only to the 2020 election as the biggest scam in my lifetime,” says Tucker Carlson, the face of Fox News.

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Back in the day, the society trashed Dwight D Eisenhower and his successor as president, John F Kennedy. That Ike and JFK were war heroes made no difference. They were suspect. Eisenhower attempted to navigate around the Birchers. Kennedy used them as a foil. Dallas, where JFK was assassinated, was a Bircher hotbed.

“Birchers charged that President Eisenhower abetted the communists, distributed flyers calling President John F Kennedy a traitor, and repudiated Nato,” Matthew Dallek writes in his in-depth examination of the society’s rise, fall and continued relevance.

Dallek, a professor at George Washington University, is the son of Robert Dallek, a legendary presidential biographer. Under the subtitle How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right, Dallek’s book is quick-paced and well researched. However troubling, it is a joy to read.

Dallek argues convincingly that despite the end of the cold war, amid which the Birchers were born, its antipathies and suspicions continue to animate and inflame, a reality Trump and his minions remember and Democrats forget at their peril.

Dallek looks at how the Birchers’ ideas came to pollenate and populate the Republican party. It didn’t happen randomly or suddenly. The society never disappeared and nor did its ideas and resentments. The “quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq” coupled with the “financial crisis and Great Recession” breathed fresh currency into isolationism, nativism and scorn for elites.

Founded in 1958, at a secret meeting in Indianapolis led by Robert Welch, the candy manufacturer, the group took its name from a missionary and intelligence officer killed in 1945 by communists in China. Birch’s Christianity and the circumstances of his death were central to the society’s message.

Original members included Fred C Koch, founder of Koch Industries and father of Charles and David, the hard-right political activists and billionaire donors.

“In the 1930s [Fred Koch] had helped build oil refineries, first in Stalin’s Soviet Union and then in Hitler’s Germany, and his brushes with both regimes shaped his cold war philosophy,” Dallek writes.

“In the USSR, he knew people who had been purged by Stalin … In contrast, he liked what he saw when he inspected his refineries in Nazi Germany.”

Fascism came with the trappings of prosperity. These days, the Koch-funded Quincy Institute takes a dim view of US and western assistance to Ukraine.

The John Birch Society is now obscure yet basks in undreamed-of success. Instead of railing against fluoridated water and embracing laetrile (an apricot derivative) as a cancer cure, the Birchers’ intellectual heirs dump on the Covid vaccine, roll the dice on polio and worship ivermectin as a miracle drug.

Ron DeSantis, Florida governor and Trump mini-me, is all in with his nonstop attack on modernity and vaccination. Trump no longer reminds voters of Operation Warp Speed, the great success in combating the latest plague.

The mortality gap between precincts populated by red and blue America says plenty, but Republican animus to vaccine mandates appears baked in. Fringy need not mean down and out. Just look at Ginni Thomas and her husband, Clarence Thomas, the conservative supreme court justice.

Ginni Thomas, a longtime far-right activist entangled in Trump’s attempt to overturn the election up to and including January 6, grew up nestled in comfort. As Dallek points out, many in the Birchers’ ranks possessed a firm foothold in the middle and upper-middle classes.

“A childhood neighbor recalled that Ginni Thomas’s parents were active in a losing 1968 referendum campaign in Omaha to ban putting fluoride in the water supply,” Dallek notes.

“My Republican parents, who knew them well, certainly considered them Birchers,” the journalist Kurt Andersen recalls.

Ginni Thomas, seen at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland in 2017.
Ginni Thomas, seen at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland in 2017. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Dallek reminds us of the bookstores opened by the society and the role played by female Birchers. Phyllis Schlafly, the great hard-right crusader, was a Bircher as well as a Harvard grad. She opposed the Voting Rights Act, wrote Barry Goldwater’s 1964 manifesto and successfully opposed the Equal Rights Amendment.

Aloise Josephine Antonia Steiner, a non-Birch conservative and the mother of William Buckley, the founder of the National Review, encouraged an acquaintance to establish a society chapter. Buckley eventually – and circuitously – came to stand against the Birchers. Welch heaped praise on his mom.

Race was always near the surface. The society attacked Brown v Board of Education, the 1954 supreme court decision which held that de jure racially segregated schools were unequal and unconstitutional. The Birchers, as Dallek recounts, branded the decision “procommunist”.

Even now, Brown sticks in the craw on the right. Amy Coney Barrett, a Trump supreme court appointee, refers to Brown as inviolate super-precedent but Mollie Hemingway of the Federalist and Carrie Severino of the Judicial Crisis Network both attack its underpinnings.

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Decisions such as Brown, they wrote after the confirmation fight over Brett Kavanaugh, another Trump-picked conservative justice, “may have been correct in their result but were decided on the basis of sociological studies rather than legal principles”.

“May”? Let that sink in.

Another Republican primary is upon us. Trump again leads the way. The furor over his dinner with Ye, the antisemitic recording artist formerly known as Kanye West, and Nick Fuentes, the white supremacist, recedes. DeSantis loses ground. Authenticity and charisma matter. The governor parrots Trump and Carlson on Ukraine, flip-flopping in the process.

Yet no other Republican comes close. The John Birch Society is still winning big.

  • Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right is published in the US by Hachette