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Birchers Review: How the Far Right Republican Gave Us Trump and DeSantis | Books

OOut of sight but not forgotten, the John Birch Society is now just a shell of itself. Yet his penchant for conspiracy theories runs through the veins of the American right. Only 37% of Republicans think Joe Biden legitimately beat Donald Trump. “I think Jan. 6 is probably second only to the 2020 election as the biggest scam of my life,” says Fox News face Tucker Carlson.

At the time, the company trashed Dwight D Eisenhower and his successor as president, John F Kennedy. Whether Ike and JFK were war heroes made no difference. They were suspicious. Eisenhower attempted to navigate around the Birchers. Kennedy used them as a foil. Dallas, where JFK was assassinated, was a Bircher hotbed.

“Birchers accused President Eisenhower of encouraging Communists, distributing flyers calling President John F Kennedy a traitor, and repudiating NATO,” writes Matthew Dallek in his in-depth review of the rise, fall, and continued relevance to the company.

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 and well researched. As disturbing as it is, it is a pleasure to read.

Dallek argues persuasively that despite the end of the Cold War, in the midst of which the Birchers were born, his antipathies and suspicions continue to animate and inflame, a reality that Trump and his minions remember and that Democrats forget at their peril.

Dallek examines how the ideas of the Birchers came to pollinate and populate the Republican Party. This did not happen by chance or suddenly. Society never disappeared and neither did its ideas and resentments. The “quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq” coupled with the “financial crisis and the Great Recession” have breathed new currency into isolationism, nativism and contempt for elites.

Founded in 1958, at a secret meeting in Indianapolis led by Robert Welch, the candy maker, the group takes 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 far-right political activists and billionaire donors.

” In the 1930s [Fred Koch] had helped build oil refineries, first in Stalin’s Soviet Union and later in Hitler’s Germany, and his contacts with both regimes shaped his Cold War philosophy,” Dallek writes.

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

Fascism came with the trappings of prosperity. These days, the Quincy Institute, funded by Koch, takes a dim view of American and Western aid to Ukraine.

The John Birch Society is now obscure but enjoys unsuspected success. Instead of railing against fluoridated water and adopting laetrile (an apricot derivative) as a cure for cancer, the intellectual heirs of the Birchers are getting rid of the Covid vaccine, rolling the dice against polio and worshiping the ivermectin as a wonder drug.

Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida and Trump’s mini-me, wholeheartedly agrees with his relentless attack on modernity and vaccination. Trump no longer reminds voters of Operation Warp Speed, the great success in fighting the latest plague.

The mortality gap between precincts populated by red and blue America speaks volumes, but Republican animosity toward vaccination mandates appears to be entrenched. Fringy doesn’t necessarily 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 involved in Trump’s bid to nullify the election through Jan. 6 inclusive, grew up comfortable. As Dallek points out, many in the Bircher ranks had a solid footing in the middle and upper classes.

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

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

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. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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

Aloise Josephine Antonia Steiner, a non-Birch curator and mother of William Buckley, the founder of the National Review, encouraged an acquaintance to start a chapter of the society. Buckley ends up – and indirectly – coming to stand against the Birchers. Welch praised his mother.

The race was always close to the surface. The company attacked Brown v Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision which found that de jure racially segregated schools were unequal and unconstitutional. The Birchers, as Dallek recounts, called the decision “pro-Communist.”

Even now, Brown sticks in the throat on the right. Amy Coney Barrett, a Trump Supreme Court appointee, calls Brown an unbreakable superprecedent, but the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway and the Judicial Crisis Network’s Carrie Severino both attack its foundations.

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

“Can”? Let it sink in.

Another Republican primary is upon us. Trump is again leading the way. The furor over his dinner with Ye, the anti-Semitic entertainer formerly known as Kanye West, and Nick Fuentes, the white supremacist, is fading. DeSantis is losing ground. Authenticity and charisma matter. The governor repeats Trump and Carlson on Ukraine, flip-flopping in the process.

Yet no other Republican comes close. The John Birch Society continues to win big.


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