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The history of far-right populism, from the John Birch Society to Trumpism

Students carrying signs against the John Birch Society listen as an older man defends the society founded by Robert Welch before Welch spoke at an anti-communist meeting. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
Students carrying signs against the John Birch Society listen as an older man defends the society founded by Robert Welch before Welch spoke at an anti-communist meeting. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

In 1958, businessman Robert Welch founded a right-wing political advocacy group – The John Birch Society — based on conspiracy theories.

“He believed that elements in the American government including the president were part of a secret apparatus that were in line with the Soviets and there would be a one world government,” Ted Miller, professor at Northeastern University, says.

Welch found ways to influence American society, and politics. Among other tactics, he set up ad hoc committees to advocate for conservative causes.

“The ad hoc committee called TRIM supported lower taxes, and it became crucial to the anti-tax proposals that Reagan pursued,” Miller says. “But the people that joined these ad hoc committees didn’t really know they were getting involved with the John Birch Society.”

Today, On Point: The origins of right wing conspiracy theories – from the John Birch Society to Trumpism.

Guests

Edward Miller, associate teaching professor at Northeastern University. Author of A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism. (@eh_miller)

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Transcript: Highlights From The Show’s Open

ANTHONY BROOKS: The John Birch Society was an ultra right-wing political movement that feasted on conspiracy theories.

It was founded in 1958 by businessman Robert Welch, who claimed, among other things, that President Eisenhower, a staunch Republican, was a dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy that Black Southerners’ push for civil rights was fomented entirely by the communists.

Welch even blamed communists for putting fluoride in public water supplies with the passion of today’s anti-vaxxers. And like Donald Trump and his devoted base, Birchers refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of their political opposition.

At its peak, the John Birch Society had 100,000 members, and it represented an opportunity and a challenge for Republican elites, not unlike the challenge they face today. While some denounced the Birchers as dangerous paranoid extremists, others feared losing their political support.

Among them, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. During his run for the presidency, he criticized Robert Welch, but embraced his followers. He said they’re good people. They believe in the Constitution, in God, in freedom. And when he accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1964, Goldwater delivered this memorable line.

BARRY GOLDWATER [Tape]: I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

BROOKS: Goldwater lost the ’64 presidential election in a landslide to Democrat Lyndon Johnson, and the influence of the John Birch Society eventually faded, but its ghosts remained. In fact, in 2016, another far right populist Republican with the support of conservative conspiracists, won the presidency.

So how has the spirit of the John Birch Society lived on? And what does the history of the John Birch Society teach us about far-right populism in America today?

Interview Highlights

A history of Robert Welch and the John Birch Society

Edward Miller: Robert Welch was born in North Carolina. He was the son of a farmer. He had a long history of family farmers. And he came to Boston to study Harvard Law. Leaving Harvard Law School, because of the liberal policies of Felix Frankfurter. Then he went into the candy business and was a very successful candy manufacturer, creating such childhood favorites as the Sugar Daddies, the Junior Mints.

“But he had aspirations beyond the candy business. He wanted to go into politics, himself. He would run for lieutenant governor in 1950. He had aspirations to beat John F. Kennedy in 1958. Lofty aspirations, nonetheless. And despite failing in his inaugural bid for lieutenant governor, he did very respectably, he came in second to the former Republican state treasurer in the primary. He decided that he needed to pursue an educational organization.

“In 1958, he founded the John Birch Society, which was a conspiratorial organization. He became renowned and notorious for his claim that President Eisenhower was communist. This led to a response from his nemesis on the respectable right, William F. Buckley, who tried to drive him out of the movement. He was unsuccessful, I argue. But Welch stayed in there. He changed his tactics.”

What kind of Americans were drawn to this movement?

Edward Miller: “The John Birch Society appealed primarily to those people who were disappointed with the Eisenhower presidency. They thought that Eisenhower was going to roll back the New Deal. They thought he was going to liberate Eastern Europe. So, many Midwestern conservatives who had backed Robert Taft in 1952, and believed that the 1952 Republican nomination was stolen by Robert Taft, it was stolen by Eisenhower from Robert Taft, came to support a more far-right brand of conservatism, which the John Birch Society embodied.

“They were Midwestern industrialists. They were the men of Main Street, not Wall Street, which Eisenhower represented. They were the everyday men and women who were concerned about where their country was heading in the 1950s. And despite the fact that Eisenhower is seen as a grandfatherly figure of modern conservatism, they rejected that notion and came to the conclusion that Eisenhower had nefarious aims.”

On concerns of political violence committed by the John Birch Society

Edward Miller: “There were concerns. And Welch, one of the tragic aspects of Welch, is that he participates and continues to engage in many letters with segregationists and even people who are of a more violent persuasion. And so there was some consideration of potential violence that the John Birch Society would commit.”

How do you see the influence of the John Birch Society today?

Edward Miller: “Even, you know, two days ago, I think that … Governor DeSantis, said something about the smuggling of some nefarious ideas into the schools. He was very ambiguous about what he meant by that statement. But I think he was talking about the idea that school children are being introduced with … what he sees as strange ideas.

“One of the key intellectuals of the John Birch Society, E. Merrill Root, wrote a book, Collectivism on Our Campuses. He also wrote a book about collectivism in our high schools. And he was concerned about how these ideas were creeping into our schools, and they were infecting the minds of our children, and liberalizing them.”

Book Excerpt

Excerpt from A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism by Edward H. Miller, published by The University of Chicago Press. © 2021 by The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.