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Bringing Back Birch

The John Birch Society, the conspiracist group exiled by the right a half century ago, is on the march and gaining influence

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In a hotel near the outer limits of California’s capital, just down the hall from the pain management conference and the baseball card show, three banquet tables along the back wall of the Cherrywood Room are covered with dozens of books, magazines and DVDs expressing the rightist of right-wing views of the world.

There’s Call of Duty, a paperback about the “sterling nobility” of Robert E. Lee and his lost cause. There’s Exposing Terrorism, a treatise declaring that Islamic terrorists are actually old-school, Moscow-directed Marxists in Muslim masks. On the next table is a volume titled Just Say No to Big Brother’s Smart Meters: The Latest in Bio-Hazard Technology.

There’s a pamphlet on homeschooling, instructions for “saving freedom,” a DVD about the horrors of “ObamaCare,” and several pamphlets, DVDs and books detailing the evils of the United Nations and its sinister scheme to create a New World Order through Agenda 21, a nonbinding U.N. resolution designed to encourage nations to pursue “sustainable’’ green growth and land use development efforts.

The John Birch Society emerged from an Ozzie-and-Harriet period of American history, but soon grew too fond of baseless conspiracy theories to remain in the political mainstream. Now, however, Birchers are making real gains again and spreading their ideas far and wide.

On this foggy Saturday morning, a few weeks before Christmas, there’s something for sale to suit almost every rightist predilection — almost.

A man steps up to one of the tables and asks, “Do you have anything by George Soros?’’

The woman handling the money looks as if she has just been slapped.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” he says, raising his palms in surrender to apologize for mentioning the liberal billionaire in mixed company.

Another man taps the would-be wisecracker on the shoulder.

“Hey buddy,” he says. “They do have The Communist Manifesto. Will that do? There’s a stack of them over there.”

“Are you serious?” the jokester asks, turning thoughtful. “I guess that makes sense. It’s important to know how the enemy thinks.”

The John Birch Society publishes the Manifesto and sells it for six bucks a pop at gatherings of its conspiracy theory-loving, U.N.-hating, federal government-despising, Ron Paul-supporting, environmentalist-bashing, Glenn Beck-watching true believers, attending, in this case, a luncheon celebrating the group’s 54th anniversary.

After more than five decades of secret socialist plots and accusations of treason at the highest levels of American government — these are the people who once called President Dwight Eisenhower a communist — the arch-conservative John Birch Society is still waging its Cold War-era crusade against the Red menace and American “insiders” who, in the society’s view, are hell-bent on handing the country over to the socialists at the U.N.

“I can remember back in the early ’60s, there were people who were saying the John Birch Society wouldn’t achieve its 10th anniversary,” John McManus, the president of the group, tells the luncheon audience of more than 100 mostly gray-haired people. “Of course, they were hoping that would be the case. Well, I’m pleased to announce all those people who said that are dead and we’re still functioning and functioning quite well.”

Once Again, the Commies

In a bit of political symmetry, the John Birch Society headquarters is located in Appleton, Wis., about two miles from where the remains of Sen. Joseph McCarthy are buried on a serene bluff overlooking the Fox River. The great American commie hunter died in 1957, cut down by a conspiracy of acute hepatitis and alcoholism.

Across town at the Birch Society, the senator’s spiritual kin soldier on from two single-story buildings connected by a subterranean passageway on a bland commercial strip. There, the society publishes its magazine, The New American, and runs a website that lists the group’s various “action projects,” including its campaign to stop Agenda 21. The website also includes weekly video updates presented by the society’s CEO, Arthur R. Thompson, who, sitting in the group’s underground TV studio made up to look like a book-lined study, has covered in recent weeks such topics as “ObamaCare Supports Euthanasia,” “Zombie Attack” and “Russia Rising.”

Communing with the enemy: John Birch Society CEO Arthur Thompson consented to an interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which his organization has long branded as a “Marxist” group.

In an interview with the Intelligence Report in his Appleton office, Thompson, an affable, white-haired man from Seattle who constantly fidgets with his glasses, twirling them in his fingers as he talks, said that two of the hardest “sells” the society has to the American people are that “communism is alive and flourishing” and “what is behind terrorism.”

The answer, Thompson said, is Russia, and it “is so obvious, it’s incredible.”

“While we’re sitting here proclaiming communism is dead, it’s growing everywhere and rapidly,” he said. “It’s flourishing under different names, like the Muslim Brotherhood.”

At least some Americans appear to be buying what the Birchers are selling. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney raised more than a few eyebrows during the 2012 campaign when he said that Russia — not Iran, not North Korea — was, without question, America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe. Anxiety about Russia is straight out of the John Birch Society playbook of fear. For them, the wall is still up, the Cold War still raging.

Race and the Society

Once considered by the right and the left as the political equivalent of an addled uncle sent down to the basement rec room to drink, rant and hopefully pass out before saying anything too nutty in front of the guests, in recent years the John Birch Society has been invited back upstairs and has even hosted a dinner party or two. In 2010, the society was a co-sponsor of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. “It’s a fallacy to say that we ever went into hibernation,” Thompson said in the interview with the Report. “We’ve always been active. We’ve always influenced the conservative movement. We just don’t bang the drum and wave the flag about everything we do.’’

But as has been the case for much of its up-and-down existence, the society often sticks its big right foot in its mouth and is again nudged towards the basement. That’s bound to happen sooner rather than later if the editors of The New American continue to publish on its website the kind of commentary they did two days after 20-year-old Adam Lanza stormed into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 and gunned down 26 people, including 20 first-graders who were only 6 and 7 years old and six educators.

Under the headline, “‘Root Causes’ and Mass Murderer Adam Lanza,” The New American commentator, Jack Kerwick, bemoaned the fact that absence of meaningful gun control was widely discussed in the aftermath of the mass shootings but that the “root causes” of too many abortions and too few executions in the United States never “made the cut.”

Then Kerwick turned to Lanza’s race and gender. “From ‘affirmative action’ to massive Third World immigration,” Kerwick wrote, “from media depictions of white men as either ignoramuses or crazed ‘racists’ to the incessant barrage of giddy proclamations of an ever-diminishing white America, the assault on white men is comprehensive.

“Is it impossible to believe,” he asked, “that a young white man such as Lanza, who has been exposed to this systematic abuse his entire life, may not have been consumed with both self-hatred and rage? For that matter, may not his cultural animus toward whites have figured in Lanza’s choice to leave a trail (judging from news photos) of mostly-white bodies?’’

Near the end of the piece, Kerwick swears he’s being facetious. It’s a lame attempt that sounds painfully like the old John Birch Society. It’s not, however, the John Birch Society William Grigg knows. Grigg was an editor and writer at The New American for years until he was fired in 2006 in a dispute with management about his private political blog postings.

Grigg attended anti-war rallies in Appleton and played lead guitar in a rock and roll band, Slick Willie and the Calzones. Despite being fired, Grigg said in a series of E-mails that he still believes in the principles of the society’s founder, Robert Welch, has a “continued affection” for the group’s volunteers and field staff, and a low opinion of the Southern Poverty Law Center and the current leadership of the Birch Society.

“In my experience it was practically impossible to find a volunteer or staffer who could honestly be described as ‘racist,’” said Grigg, who is of Mexican and Irish descent. “At one speech I gave in San Diego back in 1997, the chapter leader who acted as emcee was a black female ex-Marine, the invocation was given by a local African-American pastor, and the Mexican/Irish speaker was introduced by another chapter leader of ‘Native American’ ancestry. Granted, this wasn’t a typical meeting of its kind, but I had more than a few experiences that were quite similar.’’

It’s because of those experiences that he became so angry that Kerwick’s commentary appeared in The New American. “It is incomprehensible to me,” Grigg said, “that JBS would run such a specimen of ethnic grievance-mongering anytime — let alone in the immediate aftermath of the atrocity at Sandy Hook Elementary.’’

Racist roots: The John Birch Society today denies any racial or anti-Semitic animus, but it wasn’t always so. The society joined others on the far right in accusing Martin Luther King of attending a “Communist training school” in the 1960s.

Charges of racism and anti-Semitism have dogged the John Birch Society since its earliest days. It opposed civil rights legislation in the 1960s, saying the African-American freedom movement was being manipulated from Moscow with the goal of creating a “Soviet Negro Republic” in the Southern United States. The society was a close ally of Alabama’s segregationist governer George Wallace and reportedly had 100 chapters in and around Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city, as well as chapters across the rest of the state. Thompson, the group’s CEO, said the society has never been either racist or anti-Semitic, going so far as to add that once a member is discovered to harbor such views he or she is immediately “booted out.’’

Grigg said Thompson and McManus should be booted out. The men took over leadership of the society in 2005 after a bitter internal power struggle, an ugly coup, as some describe it, that saw the ouster of the previous regime. Grigg said the two men are prisoners of the past and are holding the society back. “The society remains a monolithic, top-down organization in an age of social media,” he said. “At a time when most politically aware students and young adults are worried about the economy and the accelerating erosion of civil liberties, the JBS management remains obsessed with the supposed strategic threat posed by Russia.’’

 During its height in the 1960s, the society may have had as many as 100,000 members, still well short of Welch’s oft-stated goal of 1 million Birchers. But few know for sure how many Birchers exist today. Then and now, the group’s membership rolls are a closely guarded secret. “We’re not vast numbers,” Thompson told the banquet. “We’ve never been vast numbers. You don’t need to be vast numbers. You just need to be the dedicated few, who are focused on doing the same thing, at the same time, with the same intellectual arguments to the right people.”

From Welch to Koch

Robert Welch, who founded the John Birch Society in 1958, named his group after an American intelligence officer executed by the Chinese shortly after the conclusion of World War II. AP IMAGES

“Welch was really quite smart in terms of business models,” said Chip Berlet, a writer and researcher who has been following the John Birch Society for more than 30 years. “The Birchers were one of the first right-wing groups that did computer-generated mail, keeping track of the issues by computers. But JBS was so universally condemned by people on the left and right, Welch really doesn’t get credit for using data tracking to organize people.”

Bob Dylan wrote a song about the society that summed up a widespread view, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” in the early 1960s, around the time patrician right-wing writer William Buckley famously called for the group to be banished from the conservative movement for being too extreme, a danger to both the Republican party and the country. Once a Birch ally, Buckley finally uncapped his poison pen and went after the Birchers in the pages of his magazine, The National Review, when it was revealed in the early 1960s that Welch had accused Eisenhower of being a communist.

 “Being banished from the conservative movement and being banished from the National Review-approved conservative movement are not the same thing,” Jesse Walker, who, as a senior editor at the libertarian-leaning Reason Magazine and, writes about political paranoia among other topics. “John G. Schmitz ran a basically Birchite third-party presidential campaign in 1972 that got over a million votes. That’s a lot of people who don’t take their marching orders from Bill Buckley,’’ he said in an E-mail interview.

In 1980, a few days before Ronald Reagan was elected president, the society’s public relations director, according to The Associated Press, characterized the conservative Republican as a “lackey” of Communist conspirators. The public relations director at the time was none other than John McManus, who is now the president of the Birch Society.

“We’re up against a conspiracy,” McManus told the Birch birthday bash in Sacramento. “People say, ‘You sound like a conspiracy theorist.’ I say, ‘No, no, no. I’m a conspiracy fact-ist.’”

JBS and the GOP

Inside the GOP tent these days, with a black man in the White House and the rest of the country browning more deeply with each generation, the line between the radical right and the conservative mainstream is increasingly difficult to discern.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” McManus chortled at the banquet, “the influence of the John Birch Society has exploded in the last couple of years.”

He was not just whistling “Dixie.”

“The John Birch Society has been aced out of a direct role because they are a political third rail of conservatives and the right wing,” Berlet said. “They have been marginalized by the leadership of the right because of their conspiracy theories. But a lot of the right wing of the Republican Party was and is highly influenced by the John Birch Society. Step one in understanding the Birchers is that they are not that much more far out, compared to other people on the right.’’

Some of the longtime Bircher ideas and themes that have slipped into the conservative mainstream and now sound like Republican talking points include, according to Berlet, the belief that big government leads to collectivism which leads to tyranny; that liberal elites are treacherous; that the U.S. has become a nation of producers versus parasites; that the U.S. is losing its sovereignty to global treaties; that the “New World Order” is an actual plan by secret elites promoting globalization; and that multiculturalism is a conspiracy of “cultural Marxism.”

But Walker, the Reason editor, does not see the society as especially “influential in the inner circle of the GOP.” The Birchers, Walker said in an E-mail, are often “deeply hostile to a wide range of policies the national Republicans have embraced.”

 “It’s worth noting,” he added, “that the JBS has evolved with the times; the modal Bircher of today and the modal Bircher of, say, 1964 would not see eye to eye about everything. It was interesting in the 1990s to watch as a group that we tend to associate with hawkish anti-Communists suddenly discovered its inner isolationism, opposed the first Gulf war, and generally moved toward a stance of skepticism toward military interventions abroad.”

New Bottles, Old Wine

Back from the Birchers: Claire Conner grew up among leading lights of the society, but completely rejected its views later in life. COURTESY CLAIRE CONNER

Conner long ago turned her back on the society. Today, she is an unabashed, proud, Obama-loving liberal. She has written a funny and sometimes sad book about growing up Birch called Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right that is due to be released by Beacon Press in early July. She worries that her fellow liberals are making an old mistake, underestimating the John Birch Society and its ability to “create havoc.”

“I always say to my liberal friends you better stop laughing at these people and pay attention,” she says. “The ideas that you hear today coming from the right were generated in the ’60s by the John Birch Society. It’s new language, but the same ideas. In terms of the intellectual framework of the GOP, it’s the Birch Society every single day.”

She says liberals are still celebrating Obama’s re-election while the Birchers and the rest of the right are back at work. One lost election or 20 years of lost elections, she says, won’t discourage them. “If anything,” she says, “they’re going to be energized. They really believe President Obama is part of the socialist revolution that began with FDR. So, they’re going to dig in their heels. They’re going to get busy and stay busy. As the kids say, that’s how they roll.”