Editor’s note- This is the first of a three-part series looking at some of the extreme political groups active in Idaho today.
In every society, there exists a group of individuals whose ideas oppose conventional thought. While a diversity of opinion is good and can lead to great progress, for these groups progress is not the goal.
The problem with outlier groups is not always their thoughts. Often it is their methods. These groups often take extreme positions and are unwilling to see other viewpoints. They tend to be aggressive in the support of their position, often using questionable tactics to force the point.
Often trying to appear mainstream, they can be easy to spot once one understands how they work. Then once spotted, the trick is learning how to deal with them.
The Birth of the John Birch Society
In 1958, Robert Welch, Jr. formed an organization named The John Birch Society. Welch named the group after a John Birch, who was killed by Chinese Communist soldiers shortly before the end of WWII. According to Birch’s biography, he was “a Christian fundamentalist almost devoid of political interest.”(1). Welch wanted to use Birch’s death at the hands of Communists to rally support for his cause.
At their peak, the John Birch society had up to 100,000 members engaged working to defeat communism. While an honorable pursuit, it was their conspiracy theories that got them in trouble.
Welch used the basis of McCarthyism to grow the audience for the group. His argument wasn’t that communism in America wasn’t defeated, rather it had gone underground. But, as the ’60s progressed, his very black and white approach to the issue began to alienate many people.
A 1967 Saturday Evening Post article cited critics calling it a “neo-fascist threat to our basic freedoms” (3). The article also stated how members “infiltrated Republican organizations and disrupted school boards, near and far. With the rallying cry of “Less government, more responsibility, and with God’s help- a better world”, members pushed the ideal far and wide. Yet, many insiders found it difficult to see measurable results.
Per a 2017 story by the Saturday Evening Post, “The zealotry of the John Birch Society alienated its potential allies.” (2). When Welch accused President Eisenhower of being a communist sympathizer many felt he had gone too far. This caused many to leave the group and diminish its influence.
The Society Pushes On
Still, despite the setbacks of high ranking officials leaving and a growing anti-bircher sentiment, Welch pushed on. In the 1967 Post article, he admitted his original membership target of a million members was a mistake. He also made the curious statement of how if they had hit the mark, they “would have been a dangerous threat to our sort of government.”
As the ’60s came to a close, the Bircher’s influence and membership began to dwindle. Also, the country’s attitude towards communism had softened. As this happened, people grew tired of the Bircher’s extreme rhetoric. Yet, there were still some prominent people who subscribed to some of Welch’s thoughts.
A Notable Member of the Society
From 1953 to 1961, Ezra Taft Benson served as Secretary of Agriculture to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. What is interesting about his appointment was that he served as an Apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. During this time, Elder Benson was an advocate of the Birch Society and its fight against communism.
For many in the leadership of the Church, Elder Benson’s anti-communist crusade and positions were grating. For example, in 1968 the Deseret Book Company published a pamphlet written by Elder Benson. It contained his controversial opinion on the Civil Rights movement. In the pamphlet, he stated, “There is no doubt that the so-called Civil Rights movement as it exists today is used as a communist program for revolution in America.”
In an essay written for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, author Michael Quinn outlines some of the conflicts that arose from Elder Benson’s political positions. (5) In the essay, Quinn provides a detailed look at how the church’s leadership was often at odds with Elder Benson’s push to promote the Birch Society. While never publicly censured, leadership often felt Elder Benson’s comments were divisive.
While Benson was a prominent advocate for the John Birch Society, he never paid any dues to solidify his membership.
The Bircher Society of Today
A 2017 article in Politico magazine proclaimed the John Birch Society is back and ready to roll. (6) Per the article, much of the organization’s original fight against communism is gone. But, “what remains is a hodgepodge of isolationist, religious and right-wing goals that vary from concrete to abstract, from legitimate to conspiracy-minded.”
The article goes on to say, “the Society’s ideas, once on the fringe, are increasingly commonplace in today’s Republican Party.” For many of today’s voters, the ideas presented by the Bircher’s may not sound outlandish. But, they mask the real beliefs and intents.
Today’s Bircher Society
Birchers profess to be constitutional scholars. However, it is based on their interpretation and world views, not the views of the founding fathers. If one closely examines the Bircher viewpoint one would have to ask, what would a world run by the John Birch Society look like?
It often appears as if they don’t have a real plan of action beyond stirring up controversy. It is difficult to find a plan of action beyond, “NO! It’s communist socialism and it must be stopped.” Historically, their track record of getting things done isn’t very good. In fact, that was one of the problems many of the early defectors had with Welch. He was full of rhetoric and books, but not much real action.
Another trait of the Bircher Society is their refusal to budge on a position. Real progress is made when people come together to talk about their differences and find ways to work together. Yet, for the Birchers, this is not an option. For them, debates have always been a black or white proposition. It is either their way or the highway.
This hardline stance is accentuated by them not having an alternative plan other than “let’s burn it down to keep the communists out!” With no constructive alternatives, they often resort to personal attacks on their opponents. By doing this they play on the fears of those listening to help mask their lack of a solution. Society cannot move forward with leaders or people who function in this manner.
The Advantages of a Bircher Membership
Membership in the Society is a privileged thing. One applies through a local chapter and waits for evaluation and approval. Once approved, $5,000 gets a lifetime membership and access to all of their archives.
However, all memberships come with this disclaimer: “your membership may be rescinded at any time, by a duly appointed officer of the Society, without the reason being stated.” So, if your level of “patriotism” doesn’t match up to the Societies ideals, you can expect to be shown the door. Toe the line or go home.
The Conspiracy Theory Ground Zero
What is driving all their conspiracies? They have books, pamphlets, and DVDs you can buy for a low price to provide you with the rationale behind them. A review of their library reveals there isn’t a subject their conspiracy theories don’t touch.
Yet, most of their theories eventually end up with some type of communist plot. It would be an interesting exercise to see what would happen if public policy was driven by conspiracy theorists.
Ponder the thought of how much damage it would cause if every decision were made from this type of viewpoint. If every school board, planning and zoning, city council, county commission, and state legislature were a boogeyman in disguise, what would our communities look like? What a sad way to live, thinking everything and everyone is out to get you.
The Birchers Society and Cattle
The New American, the publication of the Bircher Society, ran an article about the United States Mexico and Canada Agreement (USMCA). (7) This agreement is the replacement of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). As expected, they are in adamant opposition to these trade agreements. They also had an article in the New American written by Steve Byas with commentary from Bill Bullard of R-CALF USA.
R-CALF USA has been an impediment to the United States cattle industry. They oppose developing international marketing and trade agreements that are unequivocally beneficial to the profitability of American ranchers. This hits home to me as a rancher, since these trade agreements have added $323.14 per head in 2018. That, folks, is not chump change.
Our domestic consumer demand has hit a wall and we must be an able market outside our country. Yet, R-CALF USA lobbies relentlessly against agreements that make us profitable as ranchers. R-CALF believes that if a big corporation or national organizations are involved it is inherently a conspiracy to defraud ranchers. To add insult to injury from R-CALF they have now partnered up with Public Justice, a radical legal advocacy firm that lobbies against farming and is home to employees of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The ultimate goal of HSUS is the demise of animal agriculture. You can tell a tiger by its stripes and a group by the company they keep and the lawyers they employ.
Going Forward with the John Birch Society
As society shifts, the Bircher philosophy will continue to gain some traction. But, under scrutiny, the current ideology doesn’t hold up. The true Birchers are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They hide behind irrational constitutional arguments and conspiracy theories. If elected officials don’t follow their ideological line of thinking the name calling begins “Socialist”, “Republican in name only (RINO)”, “DemoRat” etc. These names have become synonyms for the old rallying cry of “You are a communist!” The jury has reached its verdict, and as an elected official you didn’t even know you were on trial.
In the end, one must consider the effect these trickle-down conspiracy theories have. Often, these theories have no basis in truth and play upon fear. By focusing on fears surrounding children and families, the Birchers can present arguments without feasible solutions. For Birchers, you must be a patriot, anything else is communism. President Eisenhower had the following to say about the “super-patriotism” of groups like the Birchers. He said, “I don’t think the United States needs super-patriots. We need patriotism, honestly practiced by all. And we don’t need these people that are more patriotic than you or anybody else.”
That statement rings true today, more than ever.
Kassidy Ellis-Telford is a registered nurse and rancher from Blackfoot Idaho. She works at a local hospital and with her husband on their ranch. They work along side his parents as well as hers in their ranching operation. She has two toddlers that keep her running!