If you are looking for the roots of the current bizarre conspiracy and anger-driven politics, you have to look beyond Donald Trump’s presidency or even the rise of social media or talk radio – back to accusers, arsonists, rhetoric far-fetched John Birch Society in the 1960s and 1970s.
It’s starting to fade into history, but the John Birch Society was once the most formidable anti-Communist organization of the Cold War era. Named after a U.S. Army captain killed by Chinese Communists, it was founded in 1958 by North Carolina-born candy tycoon Robert Welch. (His company created the caramel “Sugar Daddy” on a stick.) Most Americans heard of the company after March 20, 1961, when it was widely reported that Welch called former President Eisenhower a communist. .
It was an outrageous and ridiculous claim, but Welch was just beginning to weave his paranoia tapestry. He saw Communist plots hiding in middle schools, high schools and the government.
Fluoride was used to piss off Americans before the coming Communist occupation, he said.
Welch also called the civil rights movement a communist conspiracy.
Welch’s plots fueled postwar America’s growing distrust of government and its belief in top cover-ups. He had a particular influence in California, which played an inordinate role in the growth of the John Birch Society.
With epicenters in Orange County and Los Angeles, the California Birchers helped secure the loss of governor Richard Nixon in 1962, the Republican presidential nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964, and victory in office. from Governor Ronald Reagan in 1966. Several members of Congress in California were Birchers, including Representatives Edgar Hiestand and John Rousselot, both of whom represented parts of Los Angeles County.
Over the years, Welch’s theories have grown wilder. He eventually concluded that communism was just another name for the conspiracy started by the Bavarian Illuminati in 1776. He also said that the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Bilderbergers (a group that sought to fostering dialogue between Europe and North America) were the puppeteers of the foreign and economic interests of the United States. The company also called on the United States to withdraw from the United Nations and remove Chief Justice Earl Warren from office.
In the 1970s, the John Birch Society became even more influential. Despite a widespread belief that William F. Buckley’s “responsible” right wing had purged the Conservative Bircher movement, Welch was never excommunicated. His style of American conservatism has remained strong.
During these years Welch broadened the reach of society by opposing abortion, high taxes, and sex education – issues that propelled the Reagan Revolution. Bircher Lewis Uhler was instrumental in passing Proposition 13 to lower California property taxes in 1978.
All the while, Welch continued to argue his extreme theories.
In the 1970s, Americans began to receive confirmation that conspiracies might not be as rare and crazy as they seemed. In 1973 and 1974, Watergate demonstrated that a president could secretly abuse his constitutional authority. The Americans learned that more government officials had spied for the Soviet Union and worked with mobsters in a futile effort to kill a foreign head of state. The CIA was found to have carried out LSD experiments on Americans. After a while, everything seemed plausible. In the years that followed, the number of people who said they trusted the government plummeted.
Welch matters today because from the 1980s and beyond his world became ours. The depth of his influence in transforming the Republican Party – and therefore America – has never been fully appreciated. His political style remained extremely powerful after his death in 1985.
Reagan espoused conspiracy theories, such as his claim that Gerald Ford organized assassination attempts against himself to gain sympathy votes. In the 1990s, partisanship became more central, ideology more crucial. On the radical fringes of the far right, private militiamen have armed themselves to the teeth. Both major parties, they said, wanted to end US sovereignty. After the sieges of Ruby Ridge and Waco in 1992 and 1993, the militia movement became even more conspiratorial.
It wasn’t until a few years later, in 1996, that Alex Jones launched his conspiratorial radio show “The Final Edition”. Jones claimed the government planned the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995 and plotted to assassinate Branch Davidians in Waco. Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Bill and Hillary Clinton were in the same vein. Hillary covered up the murder of Vince Foster, suggested Limbaugh.
On the afternoon of September 11, 2001, Jones declared that “every act of terrorism that we have reviewed, from the World Trade Center, from Oklahoma City to Waco, was government action.” In 2006, at least a third of Americans believed their government planned or allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen. And conspiracy theories started to flourish on the new social media sites: Facebook. Youtube. Twitter. The facts have not been verified.
Tea Party members argued that a globalist conspiracy caused the economic downturn. In 2012, Donald Trump tweeted “an extremely credible source … told me @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud.” In 2015, Trump was a presidential candidate.
And so it continues. Welsh logic and Welsh rhetoric have taken over much of the right with false myths tempting the weak mind. More than two-thirds of Republicans still don’t believe Joe Biden won the 2020 election. The QAnon conspiracy theory – which argues that Democrats in the so-called deep state undermined Trump to cover up their child sex racket – has at least one member of the Congress.
Millions of Americans will not take vaccines to prevent COVID-19 because they don’t trust the science.
Today we are all stuck in the roller coaster of Robert Welch’s political imagination, and we can’t take it anymore.
Edward H. Miller is Associate Professor at Northeastern University and author of the forthcoming book “A Life of Conspiracy: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism.