How Far-Right Movements Die

The decline of the John Birch Society offers possible strategies for containing the MAGA movement.

Illustration with a photo of Trump speaking to a crowd, a vertical red ribbon, and a photo of Robert Welch in front of a microphone
Donald Trump (left); Robert Welch (right) (Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.)

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Most Americans who have heard of the John Birch Society associate it with the political fringe—and rightly so. Founded in 1958 by a small band of anti–New Deal businessmen, the society rejected virtually the entire post–World War II, U.S.-led international order. Birchers urged the United States to get out of the United Nations, denounced the foreign-policy establishment as a communist cabal, and called on political leaders to confront what they saw as the gravest threat to the country: a homegrown plot to take away Americans’ liberties. Many Birchers promoted baseless conspiracy theories—fluoridation in the water supply represented, as one Bircher document charged, “a massive wedge for socialized medicine.”

But at the height of their influence, in the mid-1960s, the Birchers were hardly a marginalized force in American society. Across hundreds of chapters in almost every state, Birch activists—mostly white, upwardly mobile, Christian, suburban men and women—won seats on local school boards, traded ideas in their neighborhood bookstores, and volunteered for like-minded political candidates. Birchers helped secure the 1964 GOP presidential nomination for Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. The founder, Robert Welch, twice appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press. Herblock featured the society in his cartoons. Bob Dylan composed a song called “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.” The movement was creeping into the mainstream.

Yet those who are familiar with the John Birch Society also know that its time in the spotlight ended decades ago. The organization bequeathed a set of ideas to a host of successors who kept Bircher ideas alive through the decades: Phyllis Schlafly, Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan, Michele Bachmann, Marjorie Taylor Greene, among others. But little more than a decade after its founding, the society began to shrivel. Its membership declined, and its finances suffered. To many Americans, it soon came to resemble a historical artifact.

How did it happen? And what does it mean for today’s far-right forces?

The decline of the John Birch Society is partly a story about political leaders, grassroots activists, and liberal institutions intervening to defend American democracy. But it is also a story of an implosion from within. As the group attracted ever more conspiratorial members, some prone to bigotry and even violence, the society was consumed by internal strife. Some members resigned. Others protested that Birchers weren’t anti-Semitic enough. The leadership sometimes tried to police and expel more troublesome individuals, but that process proved fractious and chaotic. By the mid-’60s, “John Birch”—the name came from an evangelist turned warrior who had been killed by Chinese Communist forces—became a common epithet.

The factors that prevented the society from metastasizing are relevant to a country now struggling to contain election denialism, white supremacy, and political violence. Former President Donald Trump’s millions of supporters might be more powerful than the Birchers’ estimated 60,000 to 100,000 members ever were. But the MAGA movement, too, has begun to see how extremism—in the form of white supremacists, militia members, conspiracy theorists—can lead to marginalization. As numerous commentators have noted over the past decade, the guardrails of American democracy are not as strong as they once were. Yet America’s institutions have still helped constrain the reach and power of MAGA Republicans.

The far right’s victory in the 21st century is hardly assured. And the story of the decline of the John Birch Society offers possible strategies for containment.

By the 1960s, the John Birch Society had become, to its legion of critics, an authoritarian movement seeking to topple the nation’s fledgling multiracial democracy. Welch had once charged that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a communist agent. Birch members called to impeach Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren (a radical step at the time), smeared Martin Luther King Jr. as a communist, promoted “America First”–style isolationism, and dabbled in anti-Semitism and racism. Liberals fretted that the society would use secretive, violent means to disrupt free and fair elections and help tip the United States into a civil war. Many in the GOP were worried too. Patricia Hitt, a prominent California Republican and an ally of President Richard Nixon, called Birchers “haters beyond anything I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Around this time, a coalition of public agencies and liberal organizations arose to tarnish the Birch movement, acting both independently and in concert. These included presidents and former presidents, other federal and state actors, members of Congress, civil-rights NGOs, and the news media.

Attorneys general, activists, the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, the Defense Department, and the FBI all at various times worked to discredit the movement, in some cases investigating Birchers or publishing mocking and even scathing reports about them. Military leaders reprimanded Birch-preaching officers (the society’s supporters criticized the practice as “muzzling”), while some mayors and police chiefs threatened to punish police officers for being members. Human-rights and civil-rights groups—including the NAACP, the union-backed Group Research, and Americans for Democratic Action—put out press releases, speeches, and reports branding Birchers as conspiratorial, malicious, and hostile to racial equality and to democracy.

No institution took more aggressive (and, arguably, effective) steps to discredit the society than the Anti-Defamation League, the nation’s foremost organization devoted to combatting anti-Semitism. Like many liberals, the ADL’s leaders feared that a Bircher-led movement fueled by anti-government zeal and easy access to firearms could explode into violence against racial and religious minorities, and they felt a moral obligation to stamp the movement out. Starting around 1959 and continuing through at least the early ’70s, the ADL mounted an extensive counterintelligence operation to infiltrate the John Birch Society and dig up damaging information about it.

Operatives gathered Birch chapter-membership lists, studied individual Birchers’ personal and professional associations, and ferreted out their credit reports, employment records, financial transactions, license-plate numbers, and even a codicil to one Birch donor’s will. These efforts resulted in thousands of pages of materials giving the ADL insights into the personalities of Birch leaders and the activities of chapters and members. (The ADL’s efforts to counter the Birchers are documented in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society in New York, and are chronicled in my new book.)

The information the ADL collected amounted to one of the country’s most comprehensive assessments of the Birch Society, painting a detailed picture of Birchers as agents of hate and serving as source material for countless ADL books, press releases, and pamphlets. The ADL also fed choice bits of information to the press, which helped shape public opinion of the society as an enemy of fact, reason, and democracy.

The relatively consolidated media landscape of the era also helped elites relegate Birchers to the margins. In the ’60s, virtually every major news outlet in the country scrutinized the group. In The Nation, the journalist Hans Engh spoke for many reporters when he wrote that the Birch Society “represents a basic, continuing phenomenon in American society: that regressive force which, under one guise or another, seems to pop up whenever the country as a whole seems destined to move into a more progressive era.” Although the condemnation in the mass media engendered some sympathy among those on the right who thought the Birchers were martyrs, it also warned conservative leaders such as Goldwater, Nixon, and the National Review editor William F. Buckley Jr. to put at least some distance between themselves and the most extreme members of their coalition.

After Goldwater was trounced in the 1964 presidential election, a handful of Republican leaders got the message, denouncing the society as a threat to the GOP’s prospects and a movement out of step with the values of the party establishment. At a time of urban uprisings, anti-war protests, and student-led movements, some Republican Party officials sought to expel Birchers from their ranks while depicting Democrats as the ones who refused to extirpate extremists from theirs.

In September 1965, Republicans’ two most powerful elected leaders, House Minority Leader Gerald Ford and Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, held a joint press conference devoted to repudiating the John Birch Society. Birchers, Dirksen emphasized, were “NOT a part of the Republican Party” and resembled the “Know-Nothings” of the 19th century. “We do not believe in extremism,” he added. The society’s views of Eisenhower and former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles as agents of communism were “at complete variance with a whole tradition of the Republican Party,” in Dirksen’s words. And the GOP’s legislative record—its backing for the United Nations and U.S. international treaties, its partial acceptance of civil rights, its pro-public-health stands—was “in substantial conflict with the views of the John Birch Society,” Ford, the future vice president and president, said.

Over time, the society evinced a pattern that is familiar to many extremist groups: Its conspiracy theories drew more and more radicals into its ranks, and it became less cohesive, with Birchers fighting over how far to go. Even as some members of the society welcomed the hatred of their enemies, others worried that their affiliation made it impossible for them to live their lives freely and pursue their careers. Reports circulated that some Birchers were being hounded at work, losing business or friends. Some members resigned as a result.

By the mid-’60s, Welch accused some Birchers of putting their personal agendas above the society’s by feuding with fellow chapter members or ignoring his directives, and he issued an ultimatum: follow him or resign. In August 1966, The New York Times reported that “acrimonious disputes” had forced Welch to travel the United States to try to resolve problems one chapter at a time. For a group with a dues-paying membership model, the squabbles exacerbated existing financial woes; the society had to refund money to lifetime members who had been expelled for various violations, recoup equipment from chapters that had gone defunct, and figure out how to handle members who had lost their own money on Birch-affiliated bookstores.

Adding to the dissension, many Birchers who joined in the society’s later years were more radical than the group’s earlier members. The Birch leadership at times used militant rhetoric—Welch once said the fight against communism required courage “greater than that called for in meeting an armed enemy … on a physical battlefield.” Yet he also believed that the group would be tainted by members who threatened physical harm to their enemies or who had criminal records or associations with the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis. That set up a clash with members who urged the society to be more bigoted. In September 1968, a Bircher named Robert Jones resigned because he found the Birchers too soft on American Jews. “Whoever holds the propaganda power holds the real power,” he explained, “and the tragic thing about the Jews is that although they are very important in the field of propaganda here, most of them do not relate to being Americans first.”

As the society lost members and money, it also lost clout. It occasionally resurfaced in the late 1970s and ’80s—three players for the San Diego Padres were exposed as members in 1984—and still exists today in a much-diminished form. But the organization has never come close to matching the intensity and impact it achieved in the ’60s. Most observers seemingly agreed with a Los Angeles Times reporter who, in 1974, predicted that the society’s “ideology may be so narrowly based and require so much precise faith” that “gaining mass popular support” would be nearly impossible. Years of institutional pushback weakened the group, and the organization burned itself out.

Could the MAGA movement eventually ebb in the way that the Birchers did?

Today’s far right has numerous differences from the John Birch Society. MAGA is the dominant force in the Republican Party, with a leader who occupied the nation’s highest office, and Birchers never achieved that level of political power. (Only a few Birchers were elected to Congress, and the GOP often governed in ways that rejected the fringe’s most insistent demands.) Trump’s movement has capitalized on larger developments that Birchers didn’t enjoy: a more fractured media landscape, a full-blown culture war, and the ideological sorting-out of the two parties, among many other changes in American life. Today’s defenders of American democracy face a much steeper challenge.

Yet the decline of the Birch Society has some echoes in our current moment.

Although American democracy might be battered today, events of the past few years have demonstrated how the nation’s institutions still can curb fringe actors, as they did the Birchers. Police heroically fended off pro-Trump insurrectionists at the Capitol on January 6. Since that day, the Justice Department, the FBI, local and state prosecutors, and the federal judiciary have investigated, arrested, tried, or jailed hundreds of pro-Trump rioters and secured seditious conspiracy convictions against leaders of the pro-Trump Oath Keepers militia. The House’s bipartisan January 6 committee documented Trump’s central role in efforts to overturn a free and fair election. And Trump himself and his top lieutenants might eventually face criminal charges.

The mass media obviously have lost much of their cultural authority since the Birchers’ heyday, but not all of it. Journalists have chronicled Trump’s lies, conspiracy theories, and racist statements in detail, making it harder for him to expand his popularity. Even some of Trump’s own voters have tired of his penchant for chaos and now consider him unelectable.

MAGA’s growing radicalism is breeding dissent within a movement that was never particularly harmonious to begin with. After years of Trump’s batty screeds and violent rhetoric, his movement unsurprisingly has lured more extremist acolytes, such as the anti-Semitic rapper Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) and the white-supremacist leader Nick Fuentes, with whom Trump dined in November. (Birchers, Fuentes has remarked, were “a prelude” to his Groyper movement.) MAGA’s ever more fringy orientation and conspiratorial mindset have damaged it electorally, as voters handed election deniers a series of defeats in otherwise winnable races in 2022.

Even if the MAGA movement continues to follow a similar trajectory to that of the John Birch Society, the far right’s racist, anti-Semitic, and conspiratorial elements won’t disappear from our politics. They will eventually find new homes, as they did after the John Birch Society became a shadow of its old self. But the tale of the society’s decline at least offers one model of how radical groups can be constrained, from the outside and the inside, even in a highly fractured and polarized America. Similar constraints could cause MAGA to wither, at least for a time. It is not too late to push the radical right back toward the fringes.

This article was adapted from the forthcoming book Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right.

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