Episode Summary

William Faulkner’s line that “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” is certainly true in regards to today’s Republican Party, which, quite literally, is an outgrowth of a conspiracy revolution that began in the 1940s and fifties, and never really stopped.

A key figure in the through-line of American reaction is Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, a conspiracy group that he founded in 1958, which still exists today.

The John Birch Society has many interesting stories of its own. And we’ll discuss that in this episode, but Welch and his group  are also important in their placement relative to other Republicans. And also how people outside the GOP responded to them,  particularly Democratic and progressive elites.

There’s a tendency among elite Democrats to think that the radicalization loop that the Republican Party has been stuck in is just somehow irrelevant, that people will automatically know that right-wing extremists are foolish and crazy, and so therefore, they don’t need to be countered. But as we’ve seen, this is a terrible error.

Joining me for an in-depth discussion about all this is Edward H. Miller.  He is a teaching professor at Northeastern University and the author of A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society and the Revolution of American Conservatism, which just recently came out. He’s also the author of Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy, which he published in 2015.

The unedited video of our conversation follows. A transcript of the edited audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here today, Ted.

EDWARD H. MILLER: Oh, it’s a great pleasure to be here. Thank you very much for having me on your show.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, all right. So I guess before we get details of what we’re talking about here, tell us a little bit, how did you become interested in this material about right-wing extremism in 20th century America?

MILLER: I attended Boston College for my PhD and I took a seminar with professor Seth Jacobs at Boston College. And it was a graduate seminar on from 1865 to the present, and I read Lisa McGirr’s book Suburban Warriors. It’s a classic, came out in 2001 and it explored the rise of the conservative movement and the suburban warriors of Southern California, looking at the grassroots and how they got involved initially in the early 1960s, and how they came to California and how they helped elect the Governor Reagan in 1966 and then pursued social issues throughout the seventies. And then finally supporting Reagan in 1980.

They also were very much active in the (1964) Barry Goldwater campaign and having read, having read Suburban Warriors, I became interested in other epicenters of American conservatism. And I wondered if there were more. And she mentioned in her book that there were more in Atlanta which Kevin Kruse had explored in White Flight.

And I came upon Dallas, Texas, and I looked at Dallas, Texas, and in very much the same way. I explored, I did a study of Dallas, Texas called Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy that took a look at the individuals, the grassroots figures, as well as the elites, who led a movement for conservatism, getting involved in the Goldwater campaign, getting involved in the Reagan campaign in the 1980s, as well as 1976 when he ran against Gerald Ford for the nomination.

So it was a great moment in my career to discover a topic that I became really fascinated with. And then the rest is history.

I started to pursue that topic. And I had an advisor at the time who mentioned, instead of Dallas, instead of heading all the way down to Dallas to do your dissertation, why don’t you study the John Birch Society?

And I said well, I’m not really, I’m not really sure I know enough about the John Birch Society. I looked at the archives at Brown University where they’re located. And at the time, I thought it was an organization that was not as important as it is. And I thought it would be an outlier and it would not help my professional career, to be honest, to study that.

But I continued to heed his wisdom and pursued that as my next book. I’m looking at Robert Welch and I became interested in biography.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Okay. So the John Birch Society, I think you’re right that a lot of people haven’t heard about them. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. One of them being that sort of Republican elites tried to take attention away from them. And we’ll get into that. But it also kind of fits within this larger tendency among sort of centrist pundits, or, liberal, conventional, liberal professors to think that, right-wing extremism is just the fringe of the fringe. It’s not relevant to anything. And nobody cares about what they think. And this is a tendency that’s, unfortunately, very consistent in American history. And we keep seeing that over and over again.

Even in terms of the history of American conservatism, writing it, for a long time, the only people who wrote about this movement that came along and literally took over a political party were the people who agreed with it. And there were no academics just writing a neutral history. There were a handful of progressive historians that were writing about it. Otherwise, it was just not something that historians were interested.

They wanted to have the 50,000th book about Adolf Hitler and World War II. Because of course we need more of those, right? But something that happened in your own country, a party getting taken over by crazy people, ‘well, that’s not interesting.’ Would you agree that people kind of did that in historian academic world?

MILLER: No, I think it’s absolutely true. The conservative movement, the narrative of the conservative movement was shaped significantly by one of its most important inventors, William F. Buckley, who was a prolific writer and there’s the phrase, “If you write the history, that’s how it’s remembered.” And he, that’s what he did.

He continued to write a lot about the history, not in a monograph form, but in essays and articles. And he was very much a gatekeeper of American conservatism. And him and other folks like George Nash who explored the intellectual history of American conservatism, determined that there were three strands of American conservatism. An anticommunist strand, a traditionalist strand, as well as a libertarian strand.

And both of those folks were very instrumental in determining what historians looked at. And so, a famous historian said in, I think it was the early 1990s, he said, ‘Well, how come we don’t have any books on American conservatism?’

And there it began. And we started to see a plethora of historians exploring American conservatism, starting of course, with the McGirr book, which is probably the most famous.

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