Birch of a Nation: How a group of conspiratorial far-right business tycoons in the 1950s and '60s helped lay the groundwork for the MAGA movement decades later.

AuthorHeilbrunn, Jacob
PositionMatthew Dallek's "Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right"

Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right

by Matthew Dallek

Basic Books, 384 pp.

The search for the origin story of modern conservatism has taken many routes. Some historians have found it in the 1930s, when a truculent right, led by figures such as Herbert Hoover and Robert McCormick, the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, warned that the true dictator was not Adolf Hitler but Franklin D. Roosevelt. Others have pointed to the early 1950s and the rise of Senator Joe McCarthy and his defenders at William F. Buckley Jr.'s fledgling magazine, National Review.

Now comes Matthew Dallek to argue that the John Birch Society, formerly dismissed as a bunch of kooks, was a key influence in the formation of the political right. Dallek, a professor at George Washington University, has waded through thousands of documents to offer a compelling and richly detailed account of the society's activities in the 1960s. His new book, Birchers, maintains that the group was the ultimate counter-establishment movement on the right and that many of its themes were later adopted and mainstreamed by Donald Trump.

The John Birch Society founder, Robert H. W. Welch Jr., was a Harvard Law School graduate and wealthy candy manufacturer from Belmont, Massachusetts. He pinned the blame for what he saw as America's decline on Woodrow Wilson, who had, in Welch's words, set "this nation on its road to totalitarianism." The New Deal heightened the peril. Welch had a charitable view of Hitler and the Nazis, and believed that communism was the real threat to America. He opposed entry into World War II and joined the America First movement. In 1941, he wrote The Road to Salesmanship, which bemoaned federal intrusions into the free market.

After the war, Welch railed against federal agencies, global financiers, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the UN, which he believed represented sinister forces out to destroy American free enterprise and liberty. In 1954, he wrote The Life of John Birch, a biography of a U.S. Army intelligence officer who was killed in Mao Zedong's communist insurgency in 1945. Welch was convinced that the State Department was engaged in a cover-up of the killing by officials sympathetic to Mao. He hoped that President Dwight D. Eisenhower would stymie the worldwide communist revolution, but he lost faith in the GOP after his hero McCarthy was censured by the Senate. In his book The Politician, Welch speculated that Eisenhower might...

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