We All Live in the John Birch Society's World NowHistorians in the News
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A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism
by Edward H. Miller
When Lionel Trilling dismissed America’s conservative intellectual tradition as a series of “irritable mental gestures,” it’s a safe bet that he had people like Robert Welch in mind. Welch, the irascible candy executive who founded the John Birch Society, spent an enormous amount of time and energy lovingly crafting irritable gestures in the minds of his hard-right acolytes, from the conviction that the New Deal was a Communist plot to the claim that Dwight D. Eisenhower was also a Communist. Over time, Welch and the Birchers launched a host of other woolly propositions about American public life. Their claims that the corporate media hates capitalism and their complaints of a secular assault on the traditional family are now familiar refrains in today’s Trumpian right.
Over Welch’s long career, his penchant for conspiracy eventually outgrew the idea of the grand Communist plot for world domination; the scheme of forcible Soviet control over all available means of production was in fact “only a tool of the total conspiracy,” Welch concluded. The real puppet masters—whom Welch came to call simply “the Insiders”—were a heady cabal of East Coast cultural and financial elites, the globalist power brokers of the Bilderberg Group, the grand strategists of the Council of Foreign Relations, and of course their obliging surrogates in the mainstream press.
For Trilling and the other apostles of America’s postwar liberal consensus, Welch and the Birchers were a terminally backward-looking movement, ill equipped for the complex challenges of sober governance and distrustful of anything resembling modernity and progress. In this analysis, the reactionary right of the 1950s and beyond was profoundly maladaptive, steeped in cultural resentments, status anxieties, ethnic and religious bigotries, and grandiose conspiracy-mongering. The reactionary right sought to restore a world order that was, in essence, everything that the modern world was not: proudly Christian and Americanist over against a doubt-ridden regime of science-bred skepticism; morally Manichean in opposition to a new age of statecraft that embraced agonizing complexity; culturally confrontational and traditionalist in an era of upheaval in the universities, the press, and the country’s civic life writ large.
Yet on the far side of the midcentury liberal consensus, it’s clear that figures like Welch were much closer to the emerging ideological mainstream than any Cold War liberal could have imagined. In his new biography of Welch, A Conspiratorial Life, Edward H. Miller makes a provocative and persuasive case that Welch was a vanguard figure rather than a retrograde one. The Birch society was the first major group on the right to pioneer modern culture warfare, with committees opposing the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, high taxation, and sex education. And once Ronald Reagan—who drew heavily on Bircher ideas, though without any formal affiliation with the group—ascended to the presidency in 1981, Welch’s organization became known “for its espousal of any issues that the Reagan revolution … cared about.”
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