How the GOP Surrendered to Extremism

Rockefeller and Goldwater at the 1964 convention
Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican National Convention (Francis Miller / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty)

It’s an image that still shocks in its feral intensity: On July 14, 1964, supporters of Barry Goldwater, the arch-conservative senator from Arizona whom the Republican Party was preparing to crown as its presidential nominee, unleashed a torrent of boos against New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller as he spoke at the party’s national convention in San Francisco.

More than half a century later, Goldwater’s army of conservatives from cookie-cutter Sun Belt subdivisions howling their discontent at Rockefeller—the embodiment of the GOP’s centrist, East Coast establishment—remains a milestone in the right’s conquest of the party. The atmosphere was so heated that Jackie Robinson, who was a Rockefeller supporter, nearly got into a fight on the floor with a Goldwater acolyte from Alabama.

What’s less remembered is why Rockefeller, who had lost the nomination to Goldwater, was standing behind the lectern in the first place: to speak in support of an amendment to the party platform that would condemn political extremism. The resolution repudiated “the efforts of irresponsible extremist organizations,” including the Communist Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and the John Birch Society, a rapidly growing far-right grassroots group obsessed with the alleged communist infiltration of America.

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The resolution failed, which testifies to the GOP’s long-standing reluctance to draw a bright line against the extremists who congregate at its fringes. But the fact that such a resolution was debated at all—in such a visible venue, with such high-profile advocates—also says something about Republicans today: In the past, 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.

“There were a lot more Republican leaders, and their constituents, who attempted to push back then than there are now,” says Matthew Dallek, a political historian at George Washington University and the author of an upcoming history of the John Birch Society. “To a large extent, the people who have inherited the Birch legacy today, I think, are more empowered [and] more visible within the Republican Party. There is much less criticism; there is much less of an effort to drum them out; there is a much greater fear of antagonizing them. They are the so-called Republican base.”

The question of how Republicans deal with the extremists in their ranks is now more urgent than perhaps at any other point since the Birch Society’s heyday in the 1960s. So far, as Dallek notes, the party has done little to uproot them. Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House GOP leader, this week reportedly pressured Greene to apologize for past statements that were racist, anti-Semitic, and encouraged violence, and to relinquish one committee assignment. But ultimately the GOP chose to take no action against her and instead criticized a floor vote Democrats scheduled for today to remove her from all her committees. (By several accounts, many of Greene’s GOP colleagues even gave her a standing ovation after she addressed a caucus meeting yesterday afternoon.) Nor have McCarthy and other GOP leaders shown any interest in acting against the House members who promoted or spoke at Trump’s rally ahead of the January 6 attack on the Capitol. And while GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and some other Senate Republicans have criticized Greene—a relatively easy target—almost all have signaled that they will not vote in Trump’s upcoming impeachment trial to impose any consequences on him for his role in fomenting the attack.

In these accommodating responses, the GOP appears caught on a treadmill. The more the party allows itself to be branded as tolerating (or even welcoming) extremism, the more its support is likely to erode among previously Republican-leaning constituencies, especially white-collar suburbanites. That, in turn, will make the party only more dependent on massive turnout among the most culturally alienated voters who compose the Trump base. And that pressure could further erode any willingness on leaders’ part to isolate people like Greene who push cultural alienation to the point of conspiracy theories, open racism and anti-Semitism, and threats of violence. Greene is hardly alone out there: Polls have found that a significant minority of Republican voters believe the QAnon conspiracy theory (that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles was leading the opposition to Trump). Surveys have also consistently found that the large majority of rank-and-file Republican voters believe Trump’s equally baseless claims that the election was stolen.

Even during the 1960s, the GOP’s response to the rise of the John Birch Society was not exactly a profile in courage. But while today few Republicans are “taking a stand against QAnon and drawing a clear line in the sand and doing it repeatedly,” at least back then “there was a real range of reactions among Republican elected officials” to the Birchers, Dallek told me. Named after a Christian missionary killed in China immediately after World War II, the society was founded by Robert Welch, a bright but paranoid candy salesman living in Boston. Welch spent the 1950s—the Red Scare era of Joseph McCarthy, the Hollywood blacklist, and the House Un-American Activities Committee—spinning elaborate conspiracy theories about communist infiltration in his many writings. (He once said that Dwight Eisenhower had been “consciously serving the communist conspiracy for all of his adult life.”)

In December 1958, Welch formally launched the John Birch Society with funding from 11 wealthy conservatives, including three past presidents of the National Association of Manufacturers, as the historian Rick Perlstein recounts in his energetic history of Goldwater and the conservative movement, Before the Storm.

Welch was nothing if not a salesman, and he steadily built a national organization. He was an innovator in his organizing strategies, particularly the creation of an alternative media world for his members (who probably numbered about 100,000 at the society’s peak). “They were extremely effective at flooding the zone with their own version of reality,” Dallek said. “They had a Birch Society bulletin, Welch’s monthly American Opinion magazine; they had pamphlets galore; they set up dozens of Birch ‘freedom stores,’ where they sold tracts and stickers and booklets. They weren’t the only ones, but they were certainly part of the innovation of this conservative far-right media.”

Ku Klux Klan Goldwater supporters at the 1964 convention
Ku Klux Klan members wave signs in support of Barry Goldwater’s presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention in 1964. An African American man tries to push signs back. (Warren K Leffler / PhotoQuest / Getty)

Through those channels, Welch mobilized his members to support an ill-fated attempt to impeach Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren (whom he called a communist dupe), oppose the fluoridation of water (which he considered a communist plot), and resist the civil-rights movement (which he labeled another communist plot). “They were very out in front on prayer in school, on science denialism. They were anti-globalism, anti-UN, and [pro–]local police—they were ardent defenders of police against these ‘communist’ rioters,” Dallek said.

From the start, Republicans were divided over Welch’s movement. They liked the volunteers and donors who emerged from his ranks, but many in the party recoiled from his wilder claims of treason, particularly those directed against Eisenhower. Some leading GOP moderates condemned the movement outright. Richard Nixon, who generally tried to bridge his party’s differences, forcefully criticized the group during his unsuccessful 1962 race for governor in California, where the group had the most support.

Nixon’s defeat encapsulated the challenge that the Birchers presented to Republicans, similar to the one they’re facing now. During that 1962 race, California’s Democratic governor, Pat Brown, roundly condemned the Birchers as a threat to democracy. That increased pressure on Nixon to separate from the organization, but he lost members’ votes in the process. After many Birchers sat out the election, Republican operatives concluded that their absence was one reason Nixon lost. Subsequently, many leading conservatives—Goldwater and Ronald Reagan among them—settled on a dodge: They denounced Welch personally (particularly for his accusations against Eisenhower) but avoided criticizing, and sometimes even praised, his followers.

With such equivocation from leading conservatives, the Birchers established a secure beachhead in the Republican Party. Several Birch sympathizers were elected to Congress. But the group’s influence remained bounded because enough party leaders and intellectuals held the line on excluding it from the GOP mainstream.

The key figure in that process was William F. Buckley Jr., the conservative intellectual and founder of National Review, the right’s leading journal at the time. Though Welch had been a friend and financial supporter, Buckley came to view his unbalanced extremism as a threat to conservatism, and over time he wrote a succession of editorials and newspaper columns trying to excommunicate the Birchers from the movement. “Buckley believed [that] before he could make conservatism dominant in the Republican Party, he had to be able to compete on equal terms with the moderates and with respectable liberal opinion,” says Geoffrey Kabaservice, the author of Rule and Ruin, a history of moderate Republicans, and the director of political studies at the libertarian Niskanen Center. “It was really important for him for conservatism to be respectable and not tainted by association with these extremists. Buckley understood there is a price to be paid for tolerating people like that.” Contained, if not directly confronted, by this generation of Republicans, the John Birch Society’s institutional strength declined after the 1960s (though the group still operates today).

The response among conservative media organs and right-leaning intellectuals to GOP extremism is very different now. Compared with the Birch era, thinkers on the right are doing “less policing of the borders” between conservatism and extremism, as Bill Kristol, the longtime conservative political strategist, put it succinctly. Buckley’s successors at National Review have condemned QAnon and Greene (even if they’ve blunted that message by relentlessly insisting that conservatives are being unfairly persecuted for their views, as Kabaservice notes). Right-leaning anti-Trump outlets such as The Bulwark have been unequivocal. But the most powerful voices on the right—Fox News and talk-radio hosts—have done backflips to avoid disowning Greene and other radical voices. Tucker Carlson has suggested that criticism of QAnon’s bizarre beliefs represents a step toward “tyranny … and dictatorship.”

Of course, the biggest difference between now and the Birch era is that today’s far-right extremists are operating under an umbrella of protection from a former president who remains the most popular figure to the GOP’s base. “I love Buckley dealing with the Birch Society, but he was able to repudiate a group that never had the support of any president and was sort of repudiated by Goldwater,” Kristol told me. Now most GOP elected officials have concluded that the risk of pushback from Trump is too high to speak out. “They think that the danger of getting in a fight with Trump and splitting the party is so much greater than a little bit of accommodation with some wackos and a little bit of groveling to the Trump base,” said Kristol, one of the leading voices in the conservative Never Trump movement.

Kevin McCarthy’s half-hearted slap on the wrist for Greene this week was a measure of the GOP’s limited appetite for constructing a clear boundary against extremism. The likelihood that the majority of Senate Republicans will soon vote to exempt Trump from any punishment for the Capitol riot underscores that message. As does the likelihood that the large majority of House Republicans will vote to defend Greene when Democrats try to remove her from her committee assignments.

These choices may carry political consequences: In a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey, nearly two-thirds of all Americans, including one-fourth of Republicans, said Trump encourages white-supremacist groups. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last week started running ads tying potentially vulnerable GOP House members to both QAnon’s rising presence and Trump’s role in provoking the riot. Democrats believe that the GOP’s tolerance of extremism, symbolized by its acceptance of Greene, will deepen the party’s retreat in the well-educated suburbs that consistently moved toward Democrats in the Trump era. “They can do QAnon, or they can do college-educated voters. They cannot do both,” Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, the new chair of the DCCC, told Politico this week.

Yet most Republicans appear more comfortable weathering those attacks than confronting what McConnell has called the “cancer” of growing extremist influence in the party. Opening the door to radicals like Greene is part of a much larger shift: As I’ve written before, the GOP is morphing into a quasi-authoritarian party—one that’s becoming more willing to undermine democratic norms to maintain power. Its long-term evolution toward any-means-necessary militance is likely to only intensify as the nation’s growing racial and religious diversity, which triggers so many in the party’s base, unspools through the 2020s. This tug toward conspiracy-theory-laden, often-racist extremism “is in the Republican Party DNA,” Kabaservice told me. “If the party isn’t going to forcefully turn against QAnon and the Proud Boys and the neo-Nazis who invaded the Capitol … then that DNA is going to be passed along in an even more virulent form to the next generation of Republicans.”