The John Birch Society Won by Losing

A new book by historian Matthew Dallek traces the John Birch Society’s enduring influence over American politics and reveals how the deep roots of the reactionary right stretch from Congress to the Supreme Court.

Robert Welch (R), founder of the John Birch Society, greets the parents of John Birch, for whom the society was named, January 20, 1968. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

Who is Harlan Crow? Prior to ProPublica’s bombshell investigation into his financial relationship with Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, few had heard the name outside of Republican political circles and elite conservative think tanks. Yet for a period of more than twenty years, the Dallas real estate mogul subsidized Thomas’s luxury vacations across the globe: a super-yacht cruise around the islands of Indonesia and, more ominously, a stay at the exclusive, all-male retreat known as Bohemian Grove in Monte Rio, California, to name just two. One week after its initial report, ProPublica revealed that Thomas failed to disclose the sale of several personal properties to Crow, possibly above market rate. These properties include the home of Thomas’s mother, Leola Williams, where she has continued to live rent-free for nearly a decade.

That Thomas has violated government ethics law seems all but certain. New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had called for his impeachment even before Bloomberg reported that the Supreme Court justice failed to recuse himself from a case directly tied to his billionaire benefactor. As incriminating as these findings may prove, however, they have nonetheless lacked the florid weirdness of the reporting on Crow himself. Last month, the Washingtonian affirmed that the GOP mega-donor has constructed his own personal “Garden of Evil,” with busts of the worst despots of the twentieth century — a roster that features Joseph Stalin, Nicolae Ceausescu, and, somewhat confusingly, Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, among others. In Crow’s consumerist, post-historical telling, he detests both communism and fascism alike, so there’s nothing amiss with his collecting a set of Nazi linens or a copy of Mein Kampf autographed by Adolf Hitler.

Why the scion of a Dallas real estate empire feels compelled to surround himself with mementos of political movements he claims to hate is a question only he can answer. But Crow is hardly the first eccentric billionaire to buttress the radical right and almost certainly won’t be the last. In Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right, historian and George Washington University professor Matthew Dallek traces how a band of predominantly white, wealthy reactionaries infiltrated the Republican Party and remade it in their own image over a period of decades.

Sixty years removed from Barry Goldwater’s defeat in the 1964 presidential election, the Birchers’ nativism, paranoia, and fundamental contempt for multiracial democracy have become hallmarks of contemporary conservatism, while the GOP nomination in 2024 remains Donald Trump’s to lose. Still, Dallek’s book makes clear that this hostile takeover was not a foregone conclusion. Mainstream Republicans have courted extremists for their own political gain, but their opponents have failed to keep the fringe in check as well.

Seventeen Angry Men

In 1958, long before Clarence Thomas’s sojourn to Bohemian Grove, a group of seventeen industrialists gathered in Indianapolis at the request of Robert Welch, a retired candy manufacturer from Belmont, Massachusetts. Among them was the chemical engineer Fred Koch, who founded the oil refinery that would become Koch Industries, and whose children, David and Charles, later financed a bevy of right-wing causes through the political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. Many of the attendees, Dallek observes, were members of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). All of them shared a deep-seated contempt for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which they believed had set the United States on a path toward communist rule.

Together, these industrialists resolved to form a new organization with the express aim of reclaiming the country from the “communist symps” they were convinced had stolen it. To do so, however, they would need a martyr for their resistance, and the group’s founder settled on an obscure Baptist missionary and army intelligence officer killed by Mao’s forces in the waning days of World War II. In The Life of John Birch, Welch portrays his eponymous hero as a Christ-like figure in a new “holy war” against communism. Dallek notes that what lent the book its gravitas was its author’s conviction, likely fantastical, that Birch had been forsaken by his own State Department.

“Welch’s conspiratorial understanding of American life had escalated, and he now concluded that the true allegiance of some of America’s leaders was to the Communist Party, not to the Constitution,” Dallek writes. “They had sworn a solemn oath to defend the United States against all enemies, but their actions demonstrated that this oath was a fraud. Communists pulled the strings. The murder of Birch was a heinous crime. The cover-up was worse.”

This profound sense of betrayal informed much if not all of the John Birch Society’s (JBS) future organizing. In 1961, shortly after John F. Kennedy assumed office, the Birchers launched their first major crusade: a scorched-earth campaign to impeach Chief Justice Earl Warren. That Warren was a Republican appointed by Eisenhower was entirely irrelevant. For the Birchers, Dallek observes, he had deceived the American people, and his progressive politics were a violation of the Constitution. Although the JBS derided the Warren court’s ban on prayer in public schools as an assault on the country’s heritage, the real source of its ire was its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Desegregation, the Birchers believed, was an expression of communism.

The JBS picketed the chief justice when he delivered a commencement speech at the New School for Social Research and petitioned congress for his removal, but what captured the public’s imagination were the giant billboards reading “Help Impeach Earl Warren” that the society’s members erected in cities like New York and Atlanta. The campaign failed in a narrow sense — Warren never came close to losing his seat on the Supreme Court — but the Birchers had succeeded in introducing their radical vision to the country and expanding its political horizons.

“Of all the skills mastered by Welch and the other Birch leaders, perhaps most impressive was their ability to weaponize defeat,” Dallek explains:

There were benefits to nationwide notoriety, and no one was more adept at harnessing them. Birchers discovered that tangling with the mainstream press was balm for their spirits. . . . They thrived when they had an enemy to battle, and this particular enemy — the mainstream press, which minimized the Red Menace and ridiculed them — infuriated less extreme partisans as well, unifying conservative factions and bringing additional recruits to the far right.

A Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy

Over the next sixty years, Dallek argues, the JBS’s influence on the Republican Party has waxed and waned and waxed again. Although Goldwater was not himself a card-carrying member of the organization, he was a natural ally to the Birchers given his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, his free-market radicalism, and his rabid, nigh-apocalyptic opposition to the Soviet Union. The society’s ranks shrank in the decade that followed Lyndon Johnson’s resounding victory, but its ideas found new currency with politicians like George Wallace, Pat Buchanan, and Ron Paul.

Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush largely kept the far right at arm’s length, but by the time the latter entered the White House, the lines separating the fringe from the mainstream of the conservative movement had already begun to dissolve. As Dallek points out, Reagan kicked off his presidential campaign in Nashoba County, Mississippi, where three civil-rights workers had been murdered sixteen years prior, while Bush “drew on the Birch tradition of denouncing international institutions as injurious to U.S. sovereignty” by engaging in acts of torture during his government’s occupation of Iraq. Even George H. W. Bush, whom the Birchers widely reviled as a globalist stooge, was willing to throw a sop to the far right with his appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

“A hard-right ideologue, Thomas bitterly opposed affirmative action and pledged to undo the Warren court’s jurisprudence,” Dallek writes. “His wife, Ginni, was a far-right activist. . . . and she, too, had some ties to the Birch Society. 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.”

By the time Donald Trump descended an escalator in one of his towers to announce his run for president in 2016, the American public had been brined in this right-wing fever swamp for more than half a century. Among the myriad parallels, it’s difficult to ignore how closely the JBS’s anti-communist delirium resembles the MAGA movement’s gnashing hysteria about so-called wokeism and critical race theory. Indeed, one of the ways the Birchers were able to exert outsize influence was by intimidating local school boards — a tactic that contemporary conservatives continue to pursue with increasingly chilling results.

What makes Birchers so enthralling, ultimately, is Dallek’s willingness to hold up a mirror to the political establishment, if not his own readership. Birchism’s triumphant return, he suggests, is itself an indictment of the broader liberal project: quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan have bred a deep distrust of the federal government, while galloping inequality across Democratic and Republican administrations alike has helped create an opening for the Right’s ersatz populism.

Dallek contends that Trump was able to seize power in part because our media class failed to recognize the authoritarian threat that he posed. “Liberals [in the 1960s],” the author concludes, “knew that capitalism and democracy had almost collapsed during the Great Depression and the crisis of fascism.” But this postwar “liberalism of fear,” born of a desire to contain great power conflict, global economic instability, and domestic unrest, likely sowed the seeds of our current crisis of democracy.

Elites’ world-making zeal not only yielded imperialism abroad but a series of welfare reforms implemented with the aim of propping up economic demand rather than reducing the influence that the market has over people’s lives. The Birchers cynically exploited these policy failures by preying on the public’s fears and appealing to its basest instincts. Their enduring influence is proof that something worse than liberal triumphalism is always possible.