Return of the Fright Wing

As right-wingers ready for CPAC, the convention reveals a shocking sponsor: the conspiracy-spewing John Birch Society. John Avlon—author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America, available from Beast Books—on how the original Wingnuts have entered the mainstream.

As right-wingers cheer at CPAC, the convention reveals a shocking sponsor: the conspiracy-spewing John Birch Society. John Avlon—author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America, available from Beast Books—on how the original Wingnuts have entered the mainstream.

It's CPAC time again—the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual Washington cattle call. This year, they’ve attracted an all-star lineup in a bid for renewed respectability: a half-dozen GOP presidential hopefuls (Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, etc.), conservative congressional darlings, a keynote address by Glenn Beck. And co-sponsorship by the John Birch Society.

Wait, what?

With the fiscal crisis, more people are willing to listen to tales about colluding bankers trying to undermine capitalism.

The John Birch Society—a stridently anti-communist, paleo-conservative group—was exiled from the mainstream conservative movement back in the 1960s because of its penchant for conspiracy theories. The group had a starring role in Richard Hofstadter’s classic The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and founder Robert Welch infamously described President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy.”

But calling the Republican Cold War president and World War II commander a Soviet spy was only the beginning of the skullduggery asserted by the well-funded Birchers. They believed that Ike was taking orders from his brother Milton (“actually his superior and boss within the whole left-wing establishment”) and that then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was also part of the cabal. The conspiracy included, of course, key members of the Democratic Roosevelt and Truman administrations, and the Birchers estimated that by the summer of 1961 the federal government was 50-70 percent communist-controlled. They made McCarthy seem like a cautious amateur.

So while a bunch of presidential hopefuls offer their sunny visions of America this week, it's all going to be done under a banner that might as well read "brought to you by the John Birch Society." It doesn't exactly send a message of next-generation conservatism looking to the future—instead, it's a reminder of the ugliest aspects of the conservative movement's past, tailor-made to alienate the moderate majority of Americans. As animated Everyman philospher Homer Simpson might say: 'D'oh!"

For decades, the John Birch Society found itself exiled from polite conservative society. No less a figure than William F. Buckley Jr. leveled a 5,000-word condemnation in the pages of National Review, concluding, “How can the John Birch Society be an effective political instrument while it is led by a man whose views on current affairs are, at so many critical points, removed from common sense?” In 1965, a coordinating committee of the RNC sought to formally disavow the Birchers as being a radical extremist group.

But the Birchers are back—and they never really went away. From their headquarters in Appleton, Wisconsin, they had an obscure few intervening years, which included having a Georgia congressman who served as head of the organization that shot down on KAL Flight 007 and a Michigan congressional candidate who was not only a member of the Birchers but also the KKK and the American Nazi Party. They even sat out the Reagan Revolution, telling supporters in 1980 to “forget the presidency” and calling Reagan a “lackey.”

What’s significant now is that as the fringe blurs with the base, the Birchers are closer to the conservative movement mainstream than they have been in half a century. They were railing against the Federal Reserve long before Ron Paul’s “End the Fed” effort. The neo-isolationist movement has given new encouragement to U.S.-out-of-U.N. efforts. The 9/11 Truthers parrot longstanding Bircher claims about the sinister New World Order. With the fiscal crisis, more people are willing to listen to tales about colluding bankers trying to undermine capitalism.

When Judge Roy Moore railed against the specter of forced disarmament and “U.N. guards stationed outside every house” at the National Tea Party Convention to wild applause, he was singing from the Bircher hymnal. Whenever an anti-Obama protester accuses the president of trying to surrender U.S. sovereignty to the U.N. and create a one-world socialist state, he or she is echoing John Birch Society fear-mongering that is a half-century old. And when Glenn Beck warns that “We are a country that is headed toward socialism, totalitarianism, beyond your wildest imagination,” it is worth hearing his apocalyptic urgency alongside such Bircher Cold War formulations as “unless we can reverse forces which now seem inexorable… we have only a few more years before [the United States] will become four separate provinces in a worldwide communist dominion ruled by police-state methods from the Kremlin.”

The Birchers have tried to rebrand themselves without changing their essential message, with a slick new Web site featuring a multicultural set of children emblazoned with American flags, announcing that they are simply “Standing for Family and Freedom.” But inside, the forums offer support for the 9/11 Truth-associated Texas gubernatorial candidate Debra Medina and tales that “the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ‘collapse of communism’ were not planned and implemented by the Soviet Union’s KGB.” DVDs for sale purport to tell the truth about alleged conservative impostor Newt Gingrich. Even Nelson Mandela is described as “nothing more than a communist, terrorist thug.”

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John Avlon: Wingnuts Praying for Obama’s Death When the John Birch Society announced that it would be co-sponsoring CPAC, its press release declared that “true conservative leaders are hard to find these days, especially in a movement dominated by neoconservatives and RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).” With all the enthusiasm for RINO hunting these days, it’s worth remembering that the Birchers initiated some of the first obsessive attempts to characterize any dissidents as heretics. They introduced the term “ComSymp”—for “communist sympathizer”—that allowed any skeptic to be stigmatized without the difficulty of proving he or she was communist. At the time, Republican Senator Milton R. Young of North Dakota reflected on the Birchers’ obsession with what would become known as RINO hunting: “Strangely enough, most of the criticism is leveled not against liberal public officials but against more middle of the road, and even conservative Republicans.”

The re-emergence of the John Birch Society with a veneer of respectability given to it by co-sponsorship of CPAC is a troubling sign of the times, a decision on par with the National Tea Party Convention giving prime-time speaking slots to Tom Tancredo and WorldNet Daily editor Joseph Farah. It is an invitation to isolation and ridicule. As a report by the California attorney general’s office on the John Birch Society in 1961 stated, “In America, preposterousness prevents the acceptance but not the expression of ideas.” The question for those at CPAC is: Are they tolerating the Birchers? Or accepting them?

John Avlon’s new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.