Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, was central to 20th-century conservative politics. Conservatives thought they excised Welch and his brand of conspiratorial and extreme politics, but the revival of the American far right and the rise of Trump suggest otherwise. Edward Miller finds that understanding Welch is critical for seeing what animated the right, then and now. Trump represents the culmination of the policies and style of the Birch right, long after the organization declined.
Guest: Edward Miller, Northeastern University
Matt Grossmann: Did the Birchers win after all? This week on The Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, was central to mid-20th century conservative and American politics. Conservatives thought they excised Welch and his brand of conspiratorial and extreme politics from their movement. But the revival of the American far right and the rise of Donald Trump suggests more of a through line.
Perhaps the Birchers have more to do with how our politics developed and what the base for conservative politics looks like. Today, I talk the historian, Edward Miller, of Northeastern University. Author of the New Chicago book, A Conspiratorial Life, Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism. He argues that understanding Welch is critical for seeing what animated the right, then and now.
Trump represents the culmination of the Birch right long after the organization declined. Here’s our conversation. We started with how Robert Welch helps to explain our contemporary world.
Edward Miller: Well, my major argument is that we live in the age of Robert Welch, whether we know who he is and what he did or why he matters. I argue in the book, my first point was that he’s more important than we thought. Take the conspiracy theories that were inundated every day. The birther conspiracy. Obama was born elsewhere, QAnon, all the vaccination canards.
Welch’s worldview revolved around conspiracy theories. He thought that a secret band of globalists, as he called them, were running the world. He would ultimately come to the conclusion that it was the Illuminati that was running the world. He thought President Eisenhower was a communist working for the Kremlin. I mean, President Eisenhower was certainly no communist. I mean, we’re talking about the man who planned D-Day and defeated Hitler.
My point is to say that Welch’s worldview, a world of nefarious globalists and conspiracy is seen everywhere in our politics today. I think it’s ratcheted up during the past years with the pandemic and the election of 2020. The other point I wanted to make in the book was that Robert Welch was never really excommunicated. He never became a pariah or ostracized or driven out of the conservative movement.
A myth grew, a myth that was born out of William Buckley’s control of the conservative movement. William Buckley was a proud chronicler of the conservative movement and wanted to control the narrative. And this excommunication canard of prevarication grew over the years. The truth is Welch never left. He changed his tactics, but he hung around there. And his ideas were still there under the surface.
The other point I wanted to make was the connection about Welch and McCarthy. McCarthy went after the Army, of course. And it also led to the Army-McCarthy hearings. It was Welch who continued on in that fashion, going after the head of the Army, going after General Eisenhower. The point was to make that link between McCarthy and Welch, which is a direct connection to the Goldwater movement, as many of Welch’s supporters were actively involved in the Goldwater movement.
Matt Grossmann: So tell us the story behind this book. And I know you wrote a previous book on right-wing Dallas before the Kennedy assassination. So how it developed out of your previous interest.
Edward Miller: Well, I always thought that Nut Country: Dallas Right and the Birth of the Southern Strategy, that I did not fit Welch in enough. Welch, of course, was from Belmont, Massachusetts. And I was doing a book about Dallas at the time. I wanted to go beyond that time-and-place story and do a biography. I wanted to delve deeper into many of the ideas that I wrote about in the book on Dallas in the 1950s and ’60s.
I wanted to talk about the apocalyptic rhetoric that I found. I wanted to talk about the conspiracy theories that I found were ubiquitous in Dallas at the time. The over-the-top, wild-eyed rhetoric that I found in Dallas, I found in Mr. Welch. So in a sense, the book was a more microscopic targeted version of Nut Country. And a biography where I could showcase some of the concepts of Nut Country, but bring it to a personal level and focus on one individual.
The John Birch Society was big in Southern California and Dallas and Welch’s native Massachusetts. But Welch’s ideas were everywhere in Dallas. He actually showed up from time to time speaking at events, speaking at a public luncheon club in Dallas. But as I said, I was writing a monograph about a time and place. So I couldn’t delve into the details that I wanted to, but I eventually got that opportunity.
It’s also, there had never been a full-scale biography of Welch. Historians have scoured the conservative movement, but they really have not addressed in a biographical form, an individual that I argue is central, paramount to the conservative movement in the 20th century, into the 21st century. So it was a great opportunity to fill in that gap.
Matt Grossmann: So how did a failed lieutenant governor primary candidate in Massachusetts become so central to the American right?
Edward Miller: Well, that’s a wonderful question, I think. I’m really happy you asked that, because I think there is a connection. Welch ran for lieutenant governor in Massachusetts, and lost. He did fairly well for a first-time contender. But I think, in Massachusetts, in a way we see the stirrings, the seedlings, the early part of the John Birch Society. Though he lost the race, he was instrumental in Massachusetts in establishing an organizational powerhouse in Massachusetts.
He had Welch campaign committees throughout the state. Virtually, I think there were 200 campaign committees throughout the state. He really did his organizational homework. He recruited some of the first folks who became part of the John Birch Society. After he lost the election, he was despondent. He was frustrated, but he quickly established this educational organization throughout Massachusetts focusing on the ideas that he cared about most. And really established the institutional underpinnings of the early John Birch Society.
Also, I think he wanted to become more involved in politics. He caught the political bug. He liked the attraction of politics. It was something that almost became an obsession to him. He always wanted to run for politics. He was thinking about running against John F. Kennedy in 1958. He was thinking about running for Congress for his district, District 5 in Massachusetts. So he was captivated by politics.
He would eventually leave. After the lieutenant governor race, he would leave his candy organization, James Welch Candy Company. And he would go on to found the John Birch Society in 1958. But I think the Boston experience, the electoral experience certainly helped him find his road. I think an important point is that he felt excluded from the process.
This is something that Richard Hofstadter talks about. He felt perhaps a bit of status envy. And that envy would help drive him to become the founder of the John Birch Society. So I think one of the early seedlings of that society was his failure to be an active participant in Massachusetts politics. His eye was on the Senate. He always wanted to get involved in national politics. I think he saw the lieutenant governor’s race as a stepping stone. As an opportunity for him to get involved in politics and achieve his dreams in politics after he had founded a successful candy company.
Matt Grossmann: So the Birch Society is normally considered the extreme end of the foreign policy leg of the American right. But of course, you can also tell a story that he came out of the National Association of Manufacturers and he was a business executive. So he fits the economic conservatism leads from the business backlash to the New Deal kind of story.
Then, you also tell a story that the Birch Society was a very early form of cultural conservatism. They were on abortion early and some things that we think of not coming to conservatism later. So how well categorized is it to put the Birch Society on the foreign policy leg? Or is another story of, I guess, fusion on the American right that this was happening at the extremes before it happened?
Edward Miller: Well, that’s a wonderful question. Another one of the central arguments of the book is that the John Birch Society really never went away in the 1970s. And this is where we start to see a greater interest in social issues, in cultural issues, in libertarian issues. You see this drift away from a solely anti-communist organization. His conspiratorial worldview changes in the ’60s.
And he comes to the conclusion in a pamphlet called The Truth in Time that it wasn’t the communists who were running the world, but a group of insiders. Globalists, if you will, in the modern-day terms. But he realizes that after the antipathy and the animus towards the society in the 1960s, in the early 1960s, in the mid-1960s, that he could not grow the organization the way he wanted to.
So after that time, he changed his tune. He changed his tactics. John Birch Society established these ad hoc committees that weren’t necessarily comprised of members of the John Birch Society. They were people from all over. The leaders of these ad hoc committees were Birchers, but you didn’t necessarily have to be a member of the John Birch Society to become a member of these ad hoc committees.
These ad hoc committees focused on social, cultural, libertarian issues. They focused on abortion. They were very pro-life. Welch established a committee called TRIM, Tax Relief Immediately, which focused on cutting rates, cutting regulations. And I argue this became central to the Reaganomics of the 1980s. He was also involved in many other social issues. He was a leader in the gun rights movement. And augered many of the same ideas that the National Riffle Association advocates today, really decades before the National Riffle Association reached its apogee. And became much more radicalized as it is today.
He was also against a ERA, the Equal Rights Amendments. What I would argue in the book was a centralist Phyllis Schlaflyian stopping the Equal Rights Amendments, which nearly past.
Matt Grossmann: One historical story of the strength of the American right says that it had to be created by business executives who hoodwinked the masses to find a way to oppose the advance of liberalism after the movement. And Welch is sometimes cited amongst business figures who were involved in the effort. But your story seems more aligned with Welch channeling an existing American right wing. Where would you put it?
Edward Miller: Well, that’s a good question because there was a definite grassroots element to his ideology, that I think is not present in the existing scholarship. First, number one, the campaigns that he was involved in consisted of everyday people who were coming to work for him. They were working the phones. They would be the folks holding the signs. They were the folks who gave a lot back to his campaigns.
Number two, his employees in his candy companies, or his brother’s candy companies, these were grassroots folks who believed in the things that he believed in. He also received a significant amount of grassroots support through the books that he wrote in places in the Midwest, in Chicago. He wrote two books, the story of John Birch and May God Forgive Us. These grassroots folks, I think, are building and they’re garnering support for the John Birch Society at that early stage.
These are the same folks who are going into the bait shop, going into the gasoline station and reading his books. These are the same folks who follow his ideas that appear in daily newspapers in Massachusetts. So yeah, the top-down thesis, this is not just the top-down movement, despite the fact that the 11 other men who formed the foundation of the John Birch Society near Indianapolis at Marguerite Dice’s house where they met for the John Birch Society for the first time, consisted of high-level executives.
Matt Grossmann: So I got the same sense reading your treatment of Welch and racism that I often in reading histories of the American right, where it sounds like race wasn’t racism and segregation weren’t the driving forces behind Welch. But he was, of course, very tolerant and opportunistic about the way that racism would help build the American right. And help join forces with conservatives.
That sounds a lot like how people talk about William F. Buckley, or Phyllis Schlafly, or Clarence Manion, or some of these other figures and their relationship to racism. But there are certainly people who tell a story where the racism is much more central to the rise of the American right in this period. So where does Welch fit?
Edward Miller: Well, of course, racism exists around the 1950s and throughout longer than that, earlier than that. Real backlash occurred following 1965. Many sought law and order in the candidacy of Richard Nixon and George Wallace in 1968. Welch, I think you’re right, it wasn’t his primary concern. But he also became more concerned with the Civil Rights Movement as these events occur.
Now, to be sure he was very active in early opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, he argued that, in Birmingham, Alabama, Bull Connor used his police cards to attack poor African American in the streets. Welch would say it was a false flag. In fact, he argued incorrectly that communists had provoked and started the tension.
But as the events of the 1960s unfold, he begins to emphasize in the form of books, in the form of pamphlets, in the form of hiring writers such as Gary Allen and Alan Stang, to write their tracks on race, such as It’s Very Simple and Communism in the Streets. He’s really making the case that the Civil Rights Movement was being driven by the communists, which is a ridiculous assertion.
So I think you’re right to say that it’s not his primary concern, although his campaigns to impeach Earl Warren are partly driven by Brown v. Board of Education. And his presence at the 1956 States’ Rights Parties convention where he talks about foreign policy, of all things, were also in his wheelhouse. They were in his toolbox. So he could pull out these issues when it was necessary.
But he definitely sees civil rights and race not as the only way the communists were overtaking America, but as just one other way in which the communists were taking over America. I like to think of it as a table where race is one part of it. And there’s other pieces of the table that hold up the table and hold up his ideology.
Matt Grossmann: So you haven’t uncover some new material about his claims that Eisenhower was a communist. And how that had developed and led to backlash about the John Birch Society. It comes off sounding a lot more similar to contemporary, “Well, he’s a RINO,” responses to Republican politicians from the right. So I guess, how distinctive was this? And how important was this to this claim the Birch Society’s roots?
Edward Miller: Oh, this is paramount. This is central. It’s a big part of why the Birch Society would garner so much attention in the early 1960s. I mean, I would argue that it’s the big piece. And it all began with a car ride. He was traveling with some business associates to a conservative organization. He began to make the case that Eisenhower was perhaps a communist. And his passengers, or his fellow travelers, if you will, were a bit confused. And they wanted him to go further to make the case.
They asked him to put it in writing. He did. It became rather an obsession with him. And he wrote a letter that eventually turned into a book, The Politician, arguing that Eisenhower was a communist, based on several reasons. He said that based on the reasonable evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt that Eisenhower is a communist for these reasons. All of which is unfounded, I believe.
Eisenhower, as I said, was the man who planned D-Day, stopped Hitler, and was the furthest thing from being a communist in many ways that I can think of. But one of the main impetuses that is going to tear him for at least a brief period from the conservative movement is this tract which argued that Eisenhower was a communist. Bill Buckley would use this along with other figures who were afraid that a fledgling conservative movement. That’s afraid that a conservative movement is going to be associated with a conspiratorial notion, was going to hurt the cause.
And specifically hurt the cause in 1964 when a possibility of electing a conservative like Barry Goldwater, in their minds hopefully could occur. I’ve said before, the efforts of Buckley and others to excommunicate him, which would’ve made him a pariah, didn’t work. And his ideas continued into the future and beyond.
Matt Grossmann: How central was Welch to the mid-century conservative movement? How successful was William F. Buckley in trying to write Welch out of …
Edward Miller: Ultimately, Welch was a figure who remained central to the conservative movement. He was absolutely paramount to the conservative movement. In fact, there were efforts among William Rusher and especially William F. Buckley to drum him out of the conservative movement, but Welch was … It was Buckley actually who met with Goldwater and suggested that Goldwater make the case that Welch be removed from his leadership position in the John Birch Society. And moved into the editorial room.
But these efforts failed. Welch would not move himself out of the position of founder. And his ideas would remain very central to the conservative movement, into the 20th century and the 21st century. I would suggest that the policy outcomes of the Trump administrations are even more the ultimate victory for the Birch Society and the Republican Party. As I said, the Birch Society was ahead of the evangelicals … I say this in my book … on the abortion issue.
I mean, the Republicans only realized it could win on abortion after James Buckley, William F. Buckley’s brother, won a Senate seat in New York in 1970. Then, Richard Nixon comes to the conclusion that the Republicans can win on the abortion issue, moves the party to the right on abortion, and Richard Nixon becomes a pro-life candidate. The reluctance to embrace gun rights even and back gun control after children are murdered in their classrooms demonstrates the potency, these ideas of the John Birch Society today.
But we can’t underestimate that having Donald John Trump in the White House was a major victory for the ideas of Robert Welch. Trump would finish his campaign with a two-minute video that attacked globalists. And argued that Trump was going to turn back the clock to an earlier time. I think that’s what the John Birch Society was driving to do in a more controversial, more earthy, more grassroots style than William F. Buckley. Even though he argued that we need to yell, “Stop,” to history.
So there’s also been a new scholarship on the history of conservative media, pointing out, of course, that these figures are very old, like Clarence Manion, like Smoot, some of these figures. And in trying to revise the national review centrality, that conservative, that there was a long base of more conspiratorial and more mass-based media.
And of course, the Birch Society was a pretty big part of that kind of media infrastructure, but isn’t usually viewed that well. So should we view the Birch Society as also a precursor to the rise of talk radio and eventually Fox?
Edward Miller: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I think that’s a perfect dissertation topic. It’s also a fascinating question. I really hope somebody someday would take the time to demonstrate that the John Birch Society was a virtual, veritable media empire. I mean, they had subdivisions of media, whether it was in records. Western Islands press produced a bestseller in the 1970s book about Ted Kennedy, called Teddy Bare.
There was a American Opinion magazine which was read in barbershops, and bait shops, gasoline stations, and American homes throughout the United States. Welch would produce records and tapes. Rather, not the most exciting records and tapes, because he would drone on in his monotone voice. He wrote a monthly bulletin that went out to society members.
Despite the fact that he was not a great speaker, he was a great organizer of communication. He definitely had some problems with speaking. But if you take a look at the conspiratorial nature of an Alex Jones, conspiratorial nature of a Tucker Carlson today, or even Rush Limbaugh, one can argue that Welch’s methods of communication … which I really believe gathered from that campaign. I didn’t put that enough in the book … were emulated in the conservative media of contemporary America.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center and part of The Democracy Group Network. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you like this discussion, you should check out our previous related episodes.
Here are those I think you’ll find most interesting: “Conspiracy Beliefs are Not Increasing nor Exclusive to the Right.” “Right-Wing Extremism and the Capital Insurrection. How News and Social Media Shape American Voters.” “How the Left and Right Undermine Trust in Government.” “And Are Americans Becoming Tribal, with Identity Politics Trumping All?” Thanks to Edward Miller for joining me. Please check out A Conspiratorial Life, and then listen in next time.
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