The Birchers & the Trumpers
Members of the John Birch Society pledging allegiance to the flag at a meeting, Chicago, 1961
Reviewed: A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism by Edward H. Miller University of Chicago Press, 456 pp., $30.00
During the insurrection at the US Capitol last year, the so-called QAnon Shaman, sporting a painted face and horned cap, sat on the Senate dais and offered a prayer. He thanked God “for allowing us to get rid of the Communists, the globalists, and the traitors within our government.”
With those words he paid homage, however unintentionally, to the John Birch Society, the conspiracy-obsessed anti-Communist organization that became a fixture in American life and, especially, Republican politics in the 1960s.
The John Birch Society may be little remembered today, but in its time it had a dues-paying membership of at least 30,000, a staff of 240 people, and more than 400 bookstores across the United States. The conspiratorial thinking of the Birchers became part of popular culture. In 1962 Bob Dylan wrote a folk song about them, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”: “I was looking everywhere for them gol-darned Reds/I got up in the mornin’ ’n’ looked under my bed…”
Robert Welch, a successful candy manufacturer, founded the organization on December 8, 1958, by convening a group of eleven conservatives, almost all of them prominent business leaders, for a two-day gathering at a private home in Indianapolis. The businessmen (they were all men) had for years complained that America was moving toward socialism and that Dwight Eisenhower, the first Republican president in a quarter-century, was doing little to reverse the drift. But Welch’s new group—named after a Baptist missionary and longtime military intelligence officer who had been killed by Chinese Communist forces just after the end of World War II, and whom Welch considered the first American killed in the cold war—took a different tack than earlier anti–New Deal business leaders. The John Birch Society had the same interest in domestic economic conflicts but portrayed them as the result of foreign conspiracies. Welch took Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunism to heights beyond even his imagination. While McCarthy was infamous for his attacks on specific officials involved in foreign policy, the Birch Society focused on broader, more amorphous targets and plots.
Edward H. Miller’s new biography of Welch, A Conspiratorial Life, traces the origins and history of the John Birch Society and, in the process, provides historical perspective on the far-right populism of the Trump era. Many of the issues, themes, and causes the Birchers seized upon six decades ago can still be found on the political right today. In an essay titled “There Goes Christmas,” Welch complained that department stores were, in Miller’s words, “stocking subversively secular UN holiday propaganda”; because the stores did not have enough “Merry Christmas” decorations, Welch complained, they were trying to take Christ out of the holiday. The Birch Society called for defending the police against charges of brutality, opposed putting fluoride in the water supply with the fervor of today’s anti-vaxxers, and fought efforts at gun control, which they depicted as the preliminary step for confiscation and a Communist takeover of the United States. Much like Donald Trump and his base today, the Birchers refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of political opposition, suggesting that those who disagreed with them were acting in bad faith, if not as part of a sinister conspiracy.
There are even some blood ties between the Birchers and the modern far right: one of the business leaders Welch assembled to create the Birch Society was Fred Koch, the father of Charles and David, who became longtime donors to conservative causes.
Welch’s first anti-Communist tract was published by Henry Regnery, the founder of the Regnery Press, which still specializes in books by conservative authors such as Ann Coulter and Josh Hawley. And Roger Stone, admittedly a questionable source, once told an interviewer that Trump’s father, Fred Trump, was a quiet funder of the Birch Society and a friend of Robert Welch.
From its origins at the Indianapolis meeting, the group grew quickly. In early 1959 Welch first organized chapters in Massachusetts, his native state, and then began touring the country, giving his standard stump speech eighty times over a three-year period. He founded a magazine (its initial title was One Man’s Opinion, but it soon was renamed American Opinion) to propagate the Birch Society’s version of events, informing his followers that President Eisenhower was a Communist, the Soviet Union had faked the Hungarian revolution, Sputnik was a hoax, and Communists within the US government had planned for the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 to fail in order to help Fidel Castro. It was Welch who came up with the epithet “comsymp” to disparage Americans who weren’t Communists but were said to be sympathizing with them.
The Birchers’ views appealed to some middle-class white Americans worried about various changes in the 1950s and 1960s, such as the civil rights movement and the expansion of the federal government. The Birch Society’s “Impeach Earl Warren” billboards were aimed at those opposed to the new mandate of Brown v. Board of Education to integrate public schools. Welch also courted the support of doctors who were opposed to the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. His conspiracy theories suggested either that Communists had orchestrated these and other changes in American society, or that the changes were themselves a form of creeping communism. “The storm over integration,” he wrote of Brown, “has been brought on by the Communists.”
In the early 1960s, after McCarthyism had subsided and Eisenhower had left office, anticommunism became too narrow a cause. Welch and the John Birch Society took aim at a wide range of new targets, all subsumed under the epithet “globalists”: the United Nations, international and multilateral organizations, even the staid, moderate Council on Foreign Relations. (In this, Welch and his society were influenced by a 1962 book, The Invisible Government, by a broadcaster named Dan Smoot, which claimed to find a conspiracy by a hidden “establishment” within the United States, with the Council on Foreign Relations as a leading force.)
The group’s targets didn’t need to be involved in international affairs: the Birchers also railed against socialists or, simply, Democrats. “Our menace is not the Big Red Army from without, but the Big Pink Enemy within,” observed one Bircher. “Our menace is the KKK—Kennedy, Kennedy, and Kennedy.” It was clear that the Birch Society’s anticommunism was not really the same as that of, say, an émigré from Eastern Europe, China, or Cuba; rather, for the Birchers, “communism” became a term used to smear liberalism. President John F. Kennedy once aptly said of them, “They equate the Democratic Party with the welfare state, the welfare state with socialism, and socialism with communism.”
The Birchers had considerable influence upon Republican politics, particularly in California and the Southwest, regions then growing fast with newcomers from the East and Midwest. Republican politicians fretted about the risks of alienating the Birchers in much the same way that Republicans today worry about running afoul of Donald Trump’s base. When George H.W. Bush, the incarnation of mainstream Republicanism, ran against Ronald Reagan for the party’s 1980 presidential nomination, he resigned from the Council on Foreign Relations.
For a time, some feared a possible infiltration of the military by the John Birch Society, much as the Trump supporters’ insurrection at the Capitol has sparked concerns about possible sympathizers within the police or military. In both instances, the worry was that the uniformed forces might be politicized in such a way that they might intervene, or refuse to intervene, in some future political crisis. In the case of the Birch Society, those fears were heightened by General Edwin Walker, a military commander and society member who instructed his troops to read Welch’s Life of John Birch and other right-wing material. He was relieved of command in 1961, resigned from the army, and toured the country giving speeches on behalf of Bircher causes.
In 1961, Stanley Mosk, then the California attorney general, mockingly depicted the John Birch Society’s supporters as “little old ladies in tennis shoes.” The Birchers, however, had many elite connections. Welch had attended Harvard Law School, and two of the founding members in Indianapolis had served as presidents of the National Association of Manufacturers, of which Welch was a board member. Although the Birch Society was known for its clout in the Sunbelt states, Welch ran it for decades from an office in Belmont, Massachusetts, and lived for a time in Cambridge, where he had founded the company that eventually became known as Welch’s Candy, the maker of popular treats like Sugar Daddies and Sugar Babies.
The society was funded by membership dues and magazine sales. At one point in the 1970s Welch had to send out a letter to friends saying the organization’s financial situation was “desperate,” but the Birchers could usually depend on wealthy businessmen to bail them out—in particular, the Texas oil magnate Nelson Bunker Hunt, the organization’s biggest benefactor, whose intermittent contributions helped keep the Birch Society afloat for many years.
The business leaders who supported the Birchers were unified by their continuing opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms. (Years later, when President Richard Nixon signed into law the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Welch, with his standard hyperbole, called it “the worst piece of tyranny ever imposed on any people by any government.”) In this sense, the Birch Society’s base was different from the Trump movement today. The domestic manufacturers of the 1950s, often based locally and run by a single family, have in many cases evolved into large corporations with overseas operations; worried about exports and their corporate images, they generally avoid taking political positions that could provoke backlash. The Trump movement includes some important individual donors from the business community, but it has been more hostile to corporations than the Birchers were.
Still, when it came to grassroots support, the Birchers drew on many of the same sorts of sentiments we now see among the Trumpers. The businessmen seeking lower taxes and deregulation were able to enlist, through conspiracy theories, the support of those who felt that the America they had grown up in was being undermined or destroyed—and that some malign organization or force must be behind these social changes.
Once the John Birch Society began to spread through the country, conservative leaders had to decide how to deal with it and what to say about it: Should they renounce the Birchers, and if so, how bluntly? This is, of course, roughly the same issue that confronts prominent Republicans, from Liz Cheney to Mitch McConnell, in grappling with the Trump movement today. William F. Buckley Jr.—who in 1955 had founded National Review to serve as the main organ of conservative thought—initially praised some of Welch’s early writings, observing that he was “the author of two of the finest pamphlets this country has read in a decade.” (They shared a publisher: Regnery had published Buckley’s God and Man at Yale before putting out Welch’s The Life of John Birch, one of the pamphlets Buckley was referring to.) Yet Buckley grew increasingly uncomfortable with Welch’s conspiratorial theorizing, and he began to criticize Welch in his magazine.
The turning point for Buckley seems to have been Welch’s allegation that Eisenhower was a Communist. Welch first made this claim in 1954 in a letter he sent out to hundreds if not thousands of conservatives, saying that it was his firm belief “that Dwight Eisenhower is a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” This was several degrees more outrageous than the other red-baiting of the 1950s; even McCarthy hadn’t gone that far. It also clashed with what the public had come to know of Eisenhower. “Eisenhower isn’t a Communist. He is a golfer,” observed another prominent conservative, Russell Kirk. Buckley’s National Review mocked Welch’s conspiracy theories. One essay from 1959, for example, said that Welch and the Birchers “concede to the Communist world a monolithic perfection, a super human cleverness, which does not and could not exist outside a fiction 1984.”
Buckley also took his opposition to the John Birch Society beyond these published comments: in early 1962, during a meeting with Senator Barry Goldwater in which Buckley and other conservatives were encouraging Goldwater to run for president, Buckley urged him to denounce the society in public.
Goldwater balked. He did write Buckley a letter saying he would like to see the John Birch Society disband, yet he would not issue a public repudiation. For Goldwater, the Birchers were an important constituency in states like California. Instead of a direct repudiation, Goldwater and other conservative leaders began to resort to some of the phrases, evasions, and rationalizations that eventually became standard fare to maintain the support of a repugnant movement.
The first of these can be called the “good people” evasion. Goldwater called the Birchers “the finest people in my community” and said they were “the kind [of people] we need in politics.” (After the 2017 riots by neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump told a press conference that there were “very fine people on both sides.”) A second type of evasion is to single out the leader (or some other individual within the movement) for censure, thus deflecting criticism away from the membership and the organization itself. In the 1960s Republican politicians took to denouncing Welch personally for going too far in his conspiracy theories, while avoiding comment on the many Birchers who believed them. Goldwater, for example, asserted at one point that Welch should resign. Buckley, too, at first chose to blame Welch rather than the Birch Society as a whole. Nixon crossed this line: while running for governor of California in 1962, he called upon Republicans to “repudiate once and for all Robert Welch and those who accept his leadership and viewpoints.” Nixon won the California primary over a Birch Society member, but then lost the general election because the Birchers refused to vote for him.
Most Republicans today are similarly unwilling to directly criticize Trump for fear of offending his supporters and losing Republican primaries. For just a few days after the January 6 insurrection, it appeared that some Republican politicians (Lindsey Graham, for example) were willing to condemn him while seeking to maintain the support of his base. These efforts collapsed, and the Republicans returned to Trump. For the moment, at least, Trump not only maintains hold on his movement but is its raison d’être. (Yet in the most successful Republican political campaign since Trump’s departure, Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin took pains to keep him at a distance while courting his supporters.)
The third technique Republican politicians used to avoid condemning the John Birch Society was the “endorsement,” a term that Ronald Reagan employed to perfection when he was running for governor of California in 1966. Reagan first worked out with his advisers the general idea: “Any member of the society who supports me will be buying my philosophy. I won’t be buying theirs.” He then distilled this into his stock campaign line: “I didn’t endorse them—they endorsed me.” (During his 1980 presidential campaign, Reagan flipped his formula around while courting the support of evangelicals: he told a convention of fundamentalist pastors, “I know this is nonpartisan, so you can’t endorse me, but I want you to know that I endorse you.”)
On the whole, as Miller’s book makes clear, Republican politicians of the early 1960s were more eager to court the John Birch Society than to distance themselves from it. Indeed, Goldwater’s famous line from his acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention—“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”—can be read as an apologia for the Birch Society.
Miller captures the crucial difference between the John Birch Society’s beliefs and William Buckley’s brand of conservatism. “Unlike Welch, Buckley never believed that domestic Communists, as opposed to foreign ones, were a greater threat to America’s survival,” he writes. For Welch and the Birchers, the main targets were liberalism and the elites.
Miller’s book, however, is curiously dismissive of Buckley’s efforts to curtail the Birch Society’s influence. It is hard to see how much more Buckley could have done (Miller doesn’t offer any suggestions): after having appealed to Goldwater to denounce the Birchers, in 1965 Buckley published a special fourteen-page section of National Review condemning the organization. The Birch Society magazine American Opinion had just argued that the major branches of the US government were under Communist domination, suggesting that the real Communist enemy was at home, not abroad. In a column for National Review’s special section, Buckley called that “drivel” and said the Birch Society was “a grave liability to the conservative and anti-Communist cause.” Readers responded to the issue with more than 1,500 angry letters and roughly as many subscription cancellations. Yet despite Buckley’s denunciations, the conspiratorial thinking of the Birchers took root on the right wing of the Republican Party and remains there today. As Miller writes, “Robert Welch was never excommunicated by William F. Buckley.”
Welch, who had maintained tight personal control over the John Birch Society for more than a quarter-century, suffered a stroke in 1983 and died two years later. The organization still exists, but without the prominence, power, and influence it once had. Nevertheless, the spirit of the Birchers lives on in the web of fictions we see in public life today—not merely in cults like QAnon, conspiracists like Alex Jones, and fringe politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene, but also in many of the leaders of the Republican Party, who dispute the results of the 2020 election with one fable after another. Indeed, the penchant for conspiracy theories seems stronger today than it was during the Birchers’ heyday in the 1960s.
Right-wing conspiracy thinking survived the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe because it became an instrument not just of anticommunism but of expressing resentment of educated elites—which not only continues but has arguably increased—and also because social media can spread conspiratorial ideas instantaneously to a mass audience. The persistence of this evidence-free theorizing raises the question of whether conspiracy theories have become necessary to the Republican Party’s existence. Conspiracies are, in short, a way for the party to keep feeding its populist base while more quietly pursuing economic interests (cutting taxes, opposing government regulation) that the party’s powerful, well-heeled members and donors find vital.
A Conspiratorial Life sometimes makes its case for the relevance of the John Birch Society in recent years in a heavy-handed, breathless fashion. “America had become Welchland,” Miller writes, a classic example of a biographer overstating the importance of his subject. “Now the ideas of the John Birch Society are everywhere—even in the White House. Even in your own house.” Such passages seem almost the mirror image of the Birch Society finding Communists under every bed.
It is clear that, just as the style of the Birchers outlasted Welch’s death and the collapse of the Soviet Union, so too the spirit of Trumpism will endure well beyond Trump’s lifetime. Outlandish statements, rivaling the claim that President Eisenhower was a Communist, have now become common. Not long ago, on Fox News, Lara Logan, once a prominent CBS foreign correspondent, compared Anthony Fauci to Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who did experiments on prisoners at Auschwitz.
On January 20, 2021, those who were watching President Biden’s inauguration on television could see that an unidentified man of Asian descent stood either behind Biden or at his side throughout the ceremonies. He was David Cho, a Korean American Secret Service agent who had been placed in charge of Biden’s presidential security detail (after having earlier protected Trump). Yet American social media soon lit up with speculation that this man was a Chinese agent, assigned by Beijing to control the new president. “I just asked why has [Biden] got a Chinese handler,” read one typical tweet. Robert Welch could not have said it better.
[James Mann is a Fellow in Residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His most recent book is The Great Rift: Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and the Broken Friendship That Defined an Era.]