A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society and the Revolution of American Conservatism 
by Edward H. Miller.
Chicago, 456 pp., £24, January, 978 0 226 44886 2
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So abrasively​ right-wing was George W. Bush’s gravel-voiced vice-president, Dick Cheney, that he got the nickname Darth Vader. Out of office he hammed up the part, making public entrances to the Imperial March from Star Wars. He once asked his wife, Lynne, if it annoyed her that people referred to him as Darth Vader. Not at all, she said, ‘it humanises you.’ Cheney’s daughter, Liz, a media-friendly blonde soccer mom and the Republican Representative for Wyoming’s statewide congressional district, has none of her father’s gruffness, but she is just as hawkishly conservative. She opposes Obamacare and gun control, and has described the Democrats as a party of ‘antisemitism, infanticide and socialism’. On certain subjects she is more tendentious than the orthodoxies of the hard right demand: she defends waterboarding and has been reluctant to condemn birtherism. It’s disconcerting to see someone with these views being tarred as a liberal RINO (‘Republican in name only’). Her offence? Disloyalty to Donald Trump – despite voting the Trump line 93 per cent of the time during his presidency. Disgusted at the way he conjured an insurrectionist mob in an attempt to overturn the election result, Cheney supported impeachment efforts and is vice-chair of the congressional investigation into the failed coup. As a result she has lost her leadership role in the House Republican Conference and faces a serious primary challenge in 2022. Along with Mitt Romney, Adam Kinzinger and the never-Trumpers of the Lincoln Project, Cheney is one of the last standard-bearers of a Republican conservatism grounded in some version of rationality. But it seems likely that she and her kind will be sidelined, if not obliterated, by a movement in thrall to conspiracies: anti-vaxxer, QAnon, birtherism, Biden’s election ‘steal’.

In the early 1960s, the historian Richard Hofstadter identified a ‘paranoid style’ in American political culture. The Whigs of the mid-19th century had emerged, at least in part, out of the Anti-Masonic Party, and the Republican Party that succeeded the Whigs in the 1850s was not only hostile to the slave South, but had pronounced anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon prejudices. From the Jacksonians to the late 19th-century agrarian populists, the rhetoric of the Democrats focused on the unaccountable power of banks and other sinister financial interests. Half a century or so after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, around 60 per cent of Americans still dissent from the official verdict that a lone gunman was responsible, though there’s no consensus about the identity of the conspirators: variously the Mafia, the CIA or Castro’s Cuba. In the interim we have heard on Nixon’s Watergate tapes evidence of the ‘paranoid style’ in the Oval Office itself.

Despite all this, Edward Miller thinks things have got measurably worse. Conspiratorial ideas that once belonged on the eccentric margins of American conservatism have become part of the mainstream. Miller’s study of Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, presents a plausible account of America’s slow descent from the 1950s into the abyss of post-truth politics. Welch has tended to be written off as a not particularly successful ‘candyman’. But this is only part of his curious backstory. Born in 1899, he was a child prodigy, enrolling at the University of North Carolina at the age of twelve, his father having had to be dissuaded from sending him to college a year earlier. At UNC Welch took courses in French and German, although his real passions were mathematics and poetry. These interests endured. He and his wife, Marian, would read poetry together, and on vacations he immersed himself in mathematical equations; he later estimated that he had devoted two years of his life to wrestling with Fermat’s Theorem. He also studied at Harvard Law School, paying his way, in part, by offering private tuition in Spanish to Harvard men bound for business careers in Latin America.

Welch never intended to practise law, and dropped out of Harvard to set up a fudge business. His specialty was the Sugar Daddy, a caramel lolly on a stick. By 1927 the Oxford Candy Company employed 160 people. But the business expanded too quickly, and a combination of rising chocolate prices, unsustainable debt and the Wall Street Crash bankrupted Welch. Further humiliation followed. He took a job at a rival candy firm run by his younger brother, James, whom he had trained up as a confectioner. As well as being head of the sales department at the James O. Welch Candy Company, Robert also took a percentage – which dwindled over the years – from sales of the Sugar Daddies he had brought to his brother’s business.

Welch shared the antipathy of many in the business world to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The outbreak of war in Europe drew him into the isolationist America First Committee. Welch – like Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, the leading heartland Republican – wanted no part in ‘Europe’s war’. Before Pearl Harbor, isolationism of this sort wasn’t far from the mainstream of American politics. Welch seemed to be a conventional Taft Republican: for untrammelled free markets; against dangerous foreign entanglements.

The ‘loss’ of China to communist rule in 1949 was as painful to conservatives then as the loss of Afghanistan is today. How had the American-backed Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek been defeated by Mao’s communists? Surely there were hidden factors at play – perhaps a fifth column of communist sympathisers in the State Department? Just after the end of the Second World War, a uniformed intelligence officer by the name of John Birch had been executed by communist forces in Eastern China. Why had this been hushed up? In 1954, Welch published The Life of John Birch, an account of the martyrdom of the first victim of the Cold War. There were other ominous signs and portents in Asia. In April 1951, just as the US began to exert itself militarily in Korea and in defence of the Kuomintang holdout in Taiwan, President Truman brusquely sacked his victorious commander in the region, General Douglas MacArthur. According to a Gallup poll, 69 per cent of Americans backed MacArthur. For Welch, such incidents were coming to seem part of a deeper pattern. Was the United States – guided either by crypto-communists or communist dupes – deliberately conceding its potential dominance in East Asia?

Events in the Republican Party itself were just as disturbing. Going into the Republican Convention of 1952, Taft had 530 delegates, Eisenhower 427. Yet with some wheedling and gamesmanship in the application of the rules, Eisenhower emerged with the presidential nomination on the first round of voting. What, Welch asked, was the difference between ‘Tweedledum Eisenhower’ and the Democratic candidate, ‘Tweedledee Stevenson’? And who was pulling the strings of these more or less identical puppets? Welch thought that Eisenhower was at the very least a cat’s paw of communist interests, or more likely an agent, ‘a disciplined member of the Communist Party who has been acting on orders [from the party] for at least fifteen years’. He began to compile a mammoth letter on the topic of Ike’s hidden communism, which he circulated in confidence to friends. Inevitably, it leaked out and caused consternation among the extremist – but not quite that extreme – members of an emergent conservative movement.

In particular, the Eisenhower letter provided an opening for William F. Buckley, the founder-editor of the National Review, to establish some distance between the honest-to-goodness hard right and deluded fantasists like Welch. Although Welch gave financial support to the National Review in 1955, he received little in return. Yet Buckley’s claim to have successfully excommunicated Welch from the conservative fold was an empty boast. As Miller sees it, America has turned into ‘Welchland’.

In the course of the 1950s, Welch’s brand of ultra-conservatism took institutional shape. In 1956, he started the magazine One Man’s Opinion (later renamed American Opinion), and at a meeting in Indianapolis in 1958 he established the John Birch Society, which would eventually become, in Miller’s assessment, the leading body ‘on the rightmost edge of acceptable conservatism’. The society was secretive and cellular: whenever a chapter reached a ceiling of 24 members it had to divide. Although it never had a mass membership – Miller thinks its peak was around 30,000 in 1965 – the society’s reach and influence were much broader. Birch Research provided off-the-peg speeches, opposition data and other services for political candidates. The Birch Log, a syndicated column, was carried in 140 newspapers by 1976. The society’s publishing division, Western Islands Press, sold books at county fairs and business conventions. Teddy Bare, an account of Teddy Kennedy’s behaviour at Chappaquiddick, spent three months on the New York Times bestseller list.

Welch’s grand conspiracy changed and became a hydra. Anti-communism was superseded by a more generalised suspicion of the internationalism that flourished among America’s East Coast elites. The anxiety was no longer specific to communist subversion; anything that seemed to dilute American sovereignty was problematic. The United Nations provided an obvious source of concern, but so did initiatives for disarmament and the deliberations of think-tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations, whose purpose appeared to be the containment rather than defeat of communism. According to Miller, Dan Smoot’s The Invisible Government (1962), an indictment of an ‘all-controlling deep establishment’, exercised a powerful influence on Welch and his movement. Talk of communist conspiracy now seemed crude. Welch came to believe that a cosmopolitan cabal of ‘insiders’, ensconced on Wall Street and in Washington but descended from the Illuminati, an 18th-century Bavarian secret society, had been responsible not only for the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, but also for dragging the US into both world wars and for civil rights, the Federal Reserve banking system and income tax. Anything liberal, relativist, internationalist, secularist or merely innovative was woven into a ‘tapestry of conspiracy’ that eventually included the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, sex education and even fluoride in the water supply.

Republican elites, Welch believed, were themselves part of the deep state establishment. Birchers called for the impeachment of the most prominent liberal Republican, Earl Warren, chief justice of the Supreme Court and a former governor of California. But ostensibly illiberal Republicans also attracted Welch’s ire, not least Nixon, whom he called ‘one of the ablest, shrewdest, most disingenuous and slipperiest politicians that ever showed up on the American scene’. Nixon had been part of the corrupt bargain back in 1952 when the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket dangled the chief justiceship in front of Warren in order to win over the California delegation at the Republican convention. The bilking of Taft still rankled. The prospect of Eisenhower being succeeded in 1960 by the likes of Nixon or Kennedy was described by one of Welch’s lieutenants as ‘like leaving the diaper on the baby and just changing the pin’. Welch and Buckley reconciled briefly in 1959 to explore the possibility of a ‘New Party’, which might unite genuine conservatives in the North and anti-integrationist states’ rights supporters in the South. But the plan came to nothing. Except for rare moments, such as the 1970 Senate election in New York when Buckley’s brother James ran successfully on a Conservative ticket against a Democrat and a liberal Republican, the movement has been forced, for lack of an alternative, to fasten on the Republican Party as its vehicle.

Welch died in 1985 during the Reagan administration (another supposedly conservative Republican about whom he had long harboured doubts), but his influence lives on in Trumpism and its several subcultures. The incoherence of Trump’s foreign policy – lurching between big stick swagger and the repudiation of neoconservative Bush-Cheney adventurism – was no doubt at some level an expression of his capricious, untutored ego. But there are also echoes not only of Taft’s isolationism, but of Welch’s own vacillation. Ambivalent about war and the military-industrial complex, Welch was troubled – despite his anti-communism – by the belief that conflicts like the one in Vietnam were being run for the benefit of a secretive elite of profiteers.

Miller is alert to the many stages of the American right’s ‘theme park journey’: the careers of Joe McCarthy, Barry Goldwater and George Wallace; the conversion of blue-collar ethnic Catholics in the North and white supremacists in the South to a new model of Republicanism; the politicisation of evangelical Protestantism, especially its millenarian variants; the emergence of the Tea Party and the rise of alt-right social media, such as 4Chan and 8Chan. A crucial milestone was Richard Viguerie’s creation of a conservative direct-mailing operation in the late 1970s. Without Viguerie’s database, Miller concedes, there would have been no ‘Reagan revolution’ in the 1980s; but, he adds, ‘without Birchers it is highly likely there would have been no list.’

Of course, the slow unfolding of right-wing delusion falls short of explaining our present grotesqueries. Some of the most outlandish phenomena of the past year are highly contingent outcomes of the pandemic: the libertarian opposition to mask mandates, anxieties about the security of mail-in voting, bizarre quack cures. But they are shaped by attitudes that existed before the internet, Covid or Trump. In ‘Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues’, released in 1962, Bob Dylan sang with prophetic sarcasm: ‘If you got a cold you take a shot of malaria.’

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