How the 'fringe' John Birch Society's decline offers possible strategies for fighting MAGA extremism: author
In the conservative movement of 2023, there is a major division between Never Trump conservatives and the far-right MAGA ideology. Many Never Trumpers have expressed their disdain for former President Donald Trump and his MAGA beliefs by leaving the Republican Party, including MSNBC's Joe Scarborough (a former GOP congressman), former Republican strategists Tim Miller and Rick Wilson, and veteran Washington Post columnist George Will.
However, another conservative Never Trumper, former Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele, has remained in the GOP as a way to annoy MAGA Republicans. Like Scarborough, Miller and Wilson, Steele supported now-President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election and believes that Trump has been terrible for the conservative movement.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a different ideological battle within the United States' conservative movement — one that found the far-right John Birch Society fighting with Republicans who didn't share their love of way-out conspiracy theories. The late National Review founder William F. Buckley was a vehement critic of the Birchers and banned them from his publication.
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Journalist/author Matthew Dallek looks back on the Birchers in a think piece published by The Atlantic on March 16, arguing that their decline offers insights on possible ways to combat MAGA extremism in 2023.
"Most Americans who have heard of the John Birch Society associate it with the political fringe — and rightly so," Dallek explains. "Founded in 1958 by a small band of anti-New Deal businessmen, the Society rejected virtually the entire post-World War II, U.S.-led international order. Birchers urged the United States to get out of the United Nations, denounced the foreign-policy establishment as a communist cabal, and called on political leaders to confront what they saw as the gravest threat to the country: a homegrown plot to take away Americans' liberties. Many Birchers promoted baseless conspiracy theories — fluoridation in the water supply represented, as one Bircher document charged, 'a massive wedge for socialized medicine.'"
In the mid-1960s, Dallek recalls, the Birchers were "creeping into the mainstream" of the conservative movement.
"The organization bequeathed a set of ideas to a host of successors who kept Bircher ideas alive through the decades: Phyllis Schlafly, Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan, Michele Bachmann, Marjorie Taylor Greene, among others," Dallek argues. "But little more than a decade after its founding, the Society began to shrivel. Its membership declined, and its finances suffered. To many Americans, it soon came to resemble a historical artifact…. The decline of the John Birch Society is partly a story about political leaders, grassroots activists, and liberal institutions intervening to defend American democracy."
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Dallek stresses that although the MAGA movement has become "the dominant force in the Republican Party," that doesn't mean that the collapse of U.S. democracy is inevitable.
"Today's defenders of American democracy face a much steeper challenge," the journalist warns. "Yet the decline of the Birch Society has some echoes in our current moment. Although American democracy might be battered today, events of the past few years have demonstrated how the nation's institutions still can curb fringe actors, as they did the Birchers. Police heroically fended off pro-Trump insurrectionists at the Capitol on January 6. Since that day, the Justice Department, the FBI, local and state prosecutors, and the federal judiciary have investigated, arrested, tried, or jailed hundreds of pro-Trump rioters and secured seditious conspiracy convictions against leaders of the pro-Trump Oath Keepers militia."
Dallek adds, "The House's bipartisan January 6 Committee documented Trump's central role in efforts to overturn a free and fair election. And Trump himself and his top lieutenants might eventually face criminal charges."
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Read The Atlantic's full essay at this link (subscription required).
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