Shortly after Obama became President of the United States, I noticed something interesting. Some people in the Tea Party movement started to talk about Fluoride. They claimed that it was a toxin and that people shouldn’t ingest it because it was — insert dramatic music here — a government conspiracy. This may not mean much to you, but to me it meant everything: the John Birch Society rides again!
It was founded in 1958, following the death of Joseph McCarthy from hepatitis. Or was it? Certainly those who started the John Birch Society didn’t think it was. They thought he was murdered because he knew too much. And who was he murdered by? Why all the communists inside the government! The founder, Robert Welch, even thought that President Eisenhower was a “conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist Conspiracy.” I know it sounds loony, but for many years, the group was part of the mainstream conservative movement. And, in fact, even in 1964, the group was hugely important in getting Goldwater the Republican nomination for president.
So the rise of the Tea Party did not surprise me. There is always about 20% of the population who gobble up this kind of extremism. The Tea Party was just another manifestation of it. And early on, there were John Birch Society booths at Tea Party events. Despite its terrible reputation, in 2010, CPAC finally allowed the group to sponsor the event. The only thing that had changed in the previous fifty years was the rhetoric. And how could it not? With the fall of the Soviet Union, it was impossible to continue to claim that the commies were coming. But calling the president an illegitimate socialist is pretty much the same thing.
Another person who was not surprised by the rise of the Tea Party was Claire Conner. She was a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s and her parents were some of the founding and lifelong members of the John Birch Society. She chronicles all of this in her book, Wrapped in the Flag. It provides an amazing look inside the cult of conservative extremism. And make no mistake: it is a cult.
In fact, the book works more as a memoir of a family tragedy than it does anything else. I think most people will learn a lot about conservatives from the book, but I already knew most of it. What kept me reading was watching how people let their political obsessions bankrupt every part of their lives. If Conner’s parents feared communism, they also created their own kind of authoritarianism. Their entire lives circled around their political activities. And this was enforced onto the children. Conner was forced to write her “letters” each day: to newspapers, to politicians, to whomever.
This is hardly surprising: the communists and the fascists always hated each other, even though they were effectively the same thing. And the John Birch Society and the Tea Party are, at base, theocratic fascist groups. They are against “socialism” — the word. They don’t seem to know exactly what “socialism” the concept is. This is why the Tea Party talks about “freedom” but all they same to stand for are restrictions on reproductive rights and same sex marriage. The John Birch Society slogan was, “Less government, more responsibility, and — with God’s help — a better word.” That’s the Tea Party rhetoric.
At the start of the book, Conner’s father has a very successful business. But over time, his work with the John Birch Society takes its toll. In addition to everything else, he becomes a very public figure — notorious to many people. And this has a negative effect on his business. Eventually, his partners force him out and into a less promising part of the company. But the most telling part of the book comes when Conner is in college. Her parents have not helped her at all with college — she had to do it herself with work and scholarships. But even as they won’t help her with anything, her father is flying off to expensive John Birch Society conferences. A man’s got to have his priorities!
The take away from the book is that for both her parents, the political struggle was more important than she was. They were so blinded by ideology and fear of nonexistent threats that they lost sight of what was genuine and important in their lives. There is a similar disease on the left — the parents of the so called red diaper babies. But this was an extremely small group that simply doesn’t exist today. People on the left have turned in their ideologies for a pragmatic approach to politics. I think they’ve gone too far in this regard. But at least no one on the left sees their children as nothing but future warriors in the battle between Good and Evil.
If you want to understand the modern conservative movement, you really need to read Wrapped in the Flag. It explains a lot about how we got to where we are. And it explains why conservatives are so resistant to logical thought. But it is also chilling. Because 20% of the population that is crazy and fearful enough really can transform a nation if they are well organized. And they are.