GRAND CHUTE, Wis. — They’ve been labeled a fringe group, called racist, derided as paranoid and brushed aside as a footnote of Cold War history.
But not so fast, say leaders of the Wisconsin-based ultra-conservative John Birch Society, who claim they are still very much alive, still active and, despite what they call decades of smear attacks, still holding sway on American politics.
“Almost all the issues that are being discussed in the (presidential) campaign are issues that we’ve been involved with for a long time,” said CEO Arthur Thompson.
Leaders of the John Birch Society — perhaps the most recognizable name on the far right — insist they’re growing and see new inroads in today’s turbulent political landscape.
The Grand Chute, Wis., group has long been a lightning rod. Known for its anti-communist campaigning, the society advocates for slashing the federal government and withdrawal from the United Nations. Their members preach against police militarization and regulated trade agreements. They say they’re educational; not political.
“The American people can stop a totalitarian world if they understand what’s going on, because of strength,” Thompson said. “Not just the strength in industry and the Army and all that, but our moral strength.”
It’s that often hostile political landscape, one that has elevated political outsider Donald Trump to the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, that has political observers and critics wondering whether a resurgence of the John Birch Society is upon us.
Author Claire Conner figures the factors that led to Trump’s ascendancy suggest an expanding audience for the John Birch message.
“The John Birch Society is as far to the right as they go,” she said, “and right now it’s difficult to see much daylight between them and the rest of the GOP.”
Conner said she sees the society’s fingerprints all over the modern political divide and accompanying gridlock.
Her 2013 memoir, Wrapped in the Flag, details her childhood as a daughter of an early and influential John Birch member. She said the talking points heard at conservative rallies today resemble those she heard around the family dinner table.
It’s not just a matter of ideology, but tactics, she said.
Conner said to hear Trump say “our president is a traitor, he wasn’t born here, he has terrorist ties” is reminiscent of the John Birch Society rhetoric of decades past.
On Friday, Trump said, “President Obama was born in the United States — period.” The issue was one Trump had used to appeal to ultra-conservative audiences.
The society’s ideas are dangerous, Conner said.
“They believe government by its nature is evil,” Conner said. “They don’t believe in the federal parks, they don’t believe in Social Security or Medicare or any assistance for the poor.”
The John Birch Society was founded by retired candy manufacturer Robert Welch in 1958 and is named for a missionary and Army captain killed in China 10 days after World War II concluded. John Birch is considered by many the first casualty of the Cold War, and both he and Welch hold places of reverence within the society.
Spokesman Bill Hahn said the society is still hampered by reputation — what he says is mostly “unfair baggage.”
They’d been demonized by the left, and often dismissed by the not-so-far right. History painted them as a raucous organization — one that shook up politics during their Cold War heyday and made enemies through accusations and conspiracy warnings.
Hahn, meanwhile, contends that the group’s work has always boiled down to preserving America as its founders saw it.
He said the group maintains its original mission — “to bring about less government, more responsibility, and, with God’s help, a better world.”
“We’re not a one-issue organization,” Hahn said. “If we had to call ourselves one, we’d point at the Constitution and say that’s our issue.”
There’s room for debate on whether the John Birch Society has had a hand in pushing the conservative conversation further to the right. Darren Mulloy, history professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, said it’s difficult to cite any direct influence on today’s politics given the reluctance of many to associate with the group.
“But to my mind, the anti-government and anti-statist attitudes of the organization are now very much the commonly accepted beliefs of many members of the Republican Party, and especially the Tea Party wing,” said Mulloy, whose book, The World of the John Birch Society was published in 2014.
The John Birch Society has never disclosed its membership numbers, but by all accounts it’s not the organization it was at the height of the Cold War.
Mulloy said the society was in decline during the 1980s and 1990s, but they were able to take advantage of the rising Tea Party Movement and their parallel positions to bring up their membership rolls in the 2000s.
Reclaiming their reputation
Mulloy said there’s no reason the society couldn’t grow further, both in numbers and influence, “but its historical reputation does give it a barrier that it needs to overcome.”
The group says it has taken steps to pave the way for growth, including new outreach to millennials. Hahn said most Americans younger than 40 aren’t familiar with the society’s reputation, making it easier to get their messages across without running into preconceived notions.
They’ve been called racist, but Jim Fitzgerald, national director of field activities for the John Birch Society, said the diversity of its membership belies those claims. They have members of all backgrounds, races and faiths, he said.
“If somebody does join and has ideas that are completely unacceptable to us — for instance, you might find someone who doesn’t like Jews or blacks,” he said. “In our organization, we terminate that membership. We don’t tolerate it. That means they can never again join the John Birch Society.”
Thompson also dismissed the extremist label.
“We don’t want everybody as members of the John Birch Society,” Thompson said. “We want people who are responsible, we want people who are moral; good character — we’re not interested in the classic image of extremist, we’re not into that at all.”
Contributing: David Jackson, USA TODAY. Follow Jim Collar on Twitter: @JimCollar
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