The John Birch Society Never LeftRoundup
tags: conspiracy theories, Republican Party, conservatism, far right, John Birch Society
Rick Perlstein is a historian and the author of the newly released Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976–1980.
Edward H. “Ted” Miller, an associate teaching professor at Northeastern University, is the author of Nut Country and the forthcoming A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism.
The Republican Party is facing what many observers are describing as a William F. Buckley moment—a make-or-break opportunity to purge the racists and conspiracy theorists who are rapidly gaining control of the GOP.
Marjorie Taylor Greene, the congresswoman who has questioned whether a plane hit the Pentagon on 9/11 and suggested that Democratic political leaders could be executed for “treason,” is more popular among Republicans than Liz Cheney. A full 75 percent of Republican don’t believe that Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election, laying the groundwork for Donald Trump to incite an insurrection to steal it for real. The QAnon conspiracy theory—which holds that Democrats in the Deep State undermined Trump’s presidency in order to cover up their child-sex racket, and claims Greene among its more prominent adherents—is favorably viewed by nearly one-third of Republicans, while polling shows that violent anti-democratic sentiment is rampant in the conservative movement.
And when Republican lawmakers had a chance to draw a bright line between their party and the conspiracy theorists and the insurrectionists during Trump’s impeachment trial, the vast majority voted to acquit.
Journalistic commentators have settled into a narrative about what it all means: The American right is reverting to what it looked like before the mid-1960s, when William F. Buckley single-handedly purged the conservative movement of the outright racists and conspiracy theorists, like Robert Welch and his John Birch Society, who threatened to condemn American conservatism to permanent exile on the political fringes. What’s necessary now is for the GOP to show some of Buckley’s backbone, they say. “In the past,” wrote Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic, “the GOP had a stronger core of resistance to extremism than it’s had in the era of Donald Trump, QAnon, the Proud Boys, and Marjorie Taylor Greene.”
“William F. Buckley got it right the first time,” Jonathan Zimmerman wrote in USA Today, adding, “The only question is whether Republican leaders will have the courage to stand up and say so.”
Such confident appeals to past GOP precedent could not be more misleading. They fly directly in the face of the facts—discovered by a new generation of historians who have dismantled the claim that the GOP and the conservative movement ever split with their addled, racist fringe.
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