BOOK REVIEW

How the John Birch Society radicalized the American right

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Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right
384 pages. Published March 2023 by Basic Books.
ISBN 9781541673564

I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s. The John Birch Society was riding high, promoting loud and proud anti-communism with the help of Ronald Reagan and John Wayne. I vividly remember a TV special with “the Duke” telling a worried looking couple the Russians were coming and pointing to a map with a growing dark stain spilling out of Eastern Europe.

Then there was the Bircher cop in my father’s congregation who took half the church membership with him over my dad’s refusal to hang an American flag in the sanctuary. After that the church became known as “commie hill.”

When I learned that historian Matthew Dallek had written a book examining the Birchers’ ideas and influence on U.S. politics, I had to read it.

In some ways, seen from today’s vantage point, the Birchers appear to have the makings for a film noir movie. They started out as a small group of twelve, secretive businessmen in 1958 who saw communist conspiracies behind every flower pot. Unruly teenagers, “smut” magazines, free love, racial integration, rising crime, “moral pollution,” out queers, surging divorce rates, abortion legalization, and school busing all grew from the dung heap of Bolshevism.

Gradually, over the next 25 years, they grew into a national organization using living room meetings and middle-class housewives as effective grassroots organizers. All the while, they sought a place of influence in the Republican Party. However, they proved too far out for Republican presidential candidates like Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and George Herbert Bush.

But that was to change. Although their organization looked more and more out of step with U.S. politics as the ’60s and ’70s progressed, they had laid out the ideological basis for the states’ rights, white supremacist, anti-union, immigrant bashing wing of U.S. politics in the 21st century.

The author uncovers every stone and switchback along their winding path. He names names and reveals that the Birchers were the “birthers” of the Tea Party, the America First movement and the cowardly and demented Republican Party of Donald Trump.

They inspired Phyllis Schlafly, anti-feminist campaigner and Christian homophobe; Pat Buchanan, Republican presidential candidate and fan of Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco; and Robert Matthews, violent criminal and founder of the white supremacist Order who died in a shootout with the FBI in Washington state in 1984.

Although they lost many battles (like discrediting the civil rights movement as a communist plot), the Birchers won the war.

“In defeat, they planted seeds that later bore fruit,” according to the author, while “the Republican establishment ultimately lost control of the far right as it continued to cater to its concerns.”

Matthew Dallek’s excellent book is essential reading for today’s activists.

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