If you’re looking for the roots of today’s bizarre conspiracy and anger-driven policies, look no further than Donald Trump’s presidency or even the advent of social media or talk radio – back to the accusatory, inflammatory, wild-eyed rhetoric of the John Birch Society in 1960 ‘ the 1970s and 1970s.
It begins to fade into history, but the John Birch Society was once the most formidable anti-communist organization of the Cold War era. Named after an American army captain killed by Chinese Communists, it was founded in 1958 by Robert Welch, a North Carolina-born candy magnate. (His company created the caramel “Sugar Daddy” on a stick.) Most Americans learned from society after March 20, 1961, when it was widely reported that Welch had called former President Eisenhower a Communist.
It was a scandalous and ridiculous claim, but Welch had just begun to weave his wallpaper of paranoia. He saw communist conspiracies lurking in high schools, colleges and the government.
Fluoride was used to irritate Americans ahead of the coming communist occupation, he said.
Welch also called the civil rights movement a communist conspiracy.
Welch’s conspiracies fueled post-war America’s growing suspicion of the government and its belief in obscurity in high places. He had a particular influence in California, which played a major role in the growth of the John Birch Society.
With epicenters in Orange County and Los Angeles, California’s “Birchers” helped secure Richard Nixon’s gubernatorial loss in 1962, Barry Goldwater’s Republican presidential candidate in 1964, and Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial victory in 1966. Several California members of Congress were Birchers. Reps. Edgar Hiestand and John Rousselot, who both represented parts of Los Angeles County.
As the years passed, Welch’s theories became wilder. He finally concluded that communism was just another name for the conspiracy initiated by the Bavarian Illuminati in 1776. He also said that the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Bilderbergs (a group that sought to promote dialogue between Europe and North America) were puppet masters of American foreign and economic interests. The community also called for the United States to withdraw from the UN and to sue Chief Justice Earl Warren.
In the 1970s, the John Birch Society became even more influential. Despite widespread belief that William F. Buckley’s “responsible” court had purged the Conservative movement of Birchers, Welch was never excommunicated. His style of American conservatism remained potent.
In those years, Welch broadened society’s focus by opposing abortion, high taxes, and sex education — issues that drove the Reagan revolution. Bircher Lewis Uhler was instrumental in adopting Proposition 13 to reduce California’s property taxes in 1978.
All the while, Welch continued to push for his extreme theories.
In the 1970s, Americans began to receive some confirmation that conspiracies might not be as rare and cute as they seemed. In 1973 and 1974, Watergate demonstrated that a president could secretly abuse his constitutional authority. Americans learned that several government officials had spied on the Soviet Union and had worked with gangsters in a failed attempt to assassinate a foreign head of state. The CIA turned out to have performed LSD experiments on Americans. After a while, everything seemed plausible. Over the years that followed, the number of people who said they trusted the government declined.
Welch is important today because his world from the early 1980s and continues to be ours. The depth of his influence on the transformation of the Republican Party – and therefore on America – has never been fully appreciated. His political style remained extremely potent after his death in 1985.
Reagan supported conspiracy theories, such as his claim that Gerald Ford staged assassination attempts against himself to win sympathy votes. In the 1990s, bias became more central, ideology more crucial. On the radical fringe of the far right, private militia members armed themselves to the tooth. Both major parties, it claimed, wanted to bring American sovereignty to an end. Following the sieges of Ruby Ridge and Waco in 1992 and 1993, the militia movement became even more conspiracy-focused.
It was only a few years later, in 1996, that Alex Jones started his conspiratorial radio program “The Final Edition”. Jones claimed that the government had planned the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995 and had planned to assassinate the Branch Davidians in Waco. Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Bill and Hillary Clinton were similar. Hillary covered up the murder of Vince Foster, Limbaugh suggested.
In the afternoon of September 11, 2001, Jones declared it “All the terrorism we’ve been looking at, from the World Trade Center, Oklahoma City to Waco, has been government action.” At least in 2006 thought a third of Americans their government had either planned the 9/11 attacks or allowed them to happen. And conspiracy theories began to thrive on new social media: Facebook. Youtube. Twitter. Facts went unchecked.
Tea party members claimed that a conspiracy by globalists had caused the economic downturn. IN 2012 Donald Trump tweeted “an extremely credible source … told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a scam.” In 2015, Trump ran as a presidential candidate.
And so it goes on. Welch-like logic and Welch-like rhetoric have taken over much of the right wing with false myths tempting the weak mind. More than two-thirds of Republicans still do not believe Joe Biden won the 2020 election. The QAnon conspiracy theory – which claims that Democrats in the so-called Deep State undermined Trump to cover up their child sex racket – has at least one supporter in Congress .
Millions of Americans will not take vaccines to prevent COVID-19 because they do not trust science.
Today, we are all stuck on the roller coaster of Robert Welch’s political imagination, and we can not get away.
Edward H. Miller is an associate professor at Northeastern University and author of the forthcoming book “A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, The John Birch Society and the Revolution of American Conservatism. “