Advertisement
  1. Opinion

The new John Birch Society

Published Nov. 22, 2013

If you've ever wondered what happened to the John Birch Society, author Claire Conner of Dunedin can tell you. The radical right-wing group that was briefly a player in national conservative politics in the 1960s is back, under a different name: tea party.

She should know. Conner's new memoir Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America's Radical Right is a fascinating inside look at the Birchers in their heyday and her story packed the house last month at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading at University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

True believers don't get any truer than Claire Conner's parents, who sacrificed their livelihood and even their relationship with their children in the name of the cause. Her father, Stillwell Conner, was a founding John Birch Society member in 1958 and its Midwest recruiter. As a child Claire was pressed into service and at 13 years old was the Birchers' youngest member.

She said it took years of incremental revelations on the correctness of the civil rights movement and seeing through the groups' anti-government and Communist-hunting lies to break free of its control.

Eventually Conner, now a self-described progressive, realized "it's good when the government does things. Old people having health care (Medicare) is a good thing. Social Security is a very good thing," Conner said. Her parents didn't believe in either — though they both accepted the benefits, of course.

This distaste for government-run entitlement programs remains a pillar in conservative politics. Paul Ryan's House-passed budget would transform Medicare into a voucher system. President George W. Bush pushed to partially privatize Social Security. And as to food stamps, well, you know.

Conner contends that today's tea party is the modern-day rebirth of the John Birch Society. They share a worldview, she says. The same paranoid distrust of government. The same desire to protect the rich. The same cruel streak that blames the poor for their poverty and seeks to deny government help on that basis. The same willingness to believe all manner of bizarre claims against political leaders they don't like.

A few days after President John F. Kennedy's funeral, a national day of mourning that took place 50 years ago Monday, Conner talked to her father from Dallas where she was a college student.

"Don't get emotional," Stillwell Conner told his shattered daughter. "Kennedy was a traitor. The Commies killed one of their own."

Claire's father was parroting the distorted views of John Birch Society founder Robert Welch who also wrote that Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist — another blatant absurdity. This one drove a wedge between the formerly friendly Birchers and mainstream Republicans.

The Birchers' agenda was to shrink government, except the military which should be massively powerful, eliminate New Deal programs, gut regulations, get out of the United Nations and hobble civil rights legislation. Sound familiar?

Beyond the ideological similarities, Conner points out that the John Birch Society and the tea party have something else rather startling in common: Funding by the Kochs.

Fred Koch, father to Charles and David, was an original John Birch Society member and part of Welch's inner circle alongside Claire Conner's father. Koch had made a fortune in the oil-refining business in Stalin's Soviet Union, helping to build that economy. When he came home he spent his money on virulent anti-Communist and anti-worker causes and published a book contending that Communists would infiltrate the presidency.

His four sons inherited his fortune, and Charles and David expanded it. They are now worth a combined $60 billion. Through Americans for Prosperity and other sources, the Koch brothers have bankrolled the tea party, pulling the GOP to the right, making government the enemy and imbuing people like Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Michele Bachmann with destructive political power.

This spigot of money has given new life to the John Birch Society's latent ideas for the transformation of America into a right-wing mecca. Anyone who wants to know what that means should read Claire Conner's book for a peek inside.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Editorial cartoon for Saturday/Sunday Andy Marlette/Creators Syndicate
  2. Stock photo. MORGAN DAVID DE LOSSY  |  Getty Images/iStockphoto
    I’m a new mom -- again -- and please remember that many mothers would welcome government policies that make it easier for them to stay home with their kids than returning to work. | Column
  3. Josh Hensley, 43, was found in the waters of Kings Bay in Crystal River. He was known for dressing as Jack Sparrow. Facebook
    Here’s what readers had to say in Saturday’s letters to the editor.
  4. David Colburn was the former provost and senior vice president of the University of Florida. JAMIE FRANCIS  |  Tampa Bay Times
    He believed that diversity is our strength, and that the way to overcome division is to shine light in dark corners, writes Cynthia Barnett.
  5. Adam Goodman, national Republican media consultant
    With Washington once again failing to embrace reforms following mass shootings, it’s up to Americans to create a movement to demand change. | Adam Goodman
  6. Couple, Lewis Bryan, 36, (back left) and Amber Eckloff, 33, pose for a portrait with their children, (From left) D'Angelo Eckloff, 14, Rasmus Bryan, 4, Ramiro Bryan, 10, Lothario Bryan, 6, and Alonzo Bailey, 17. The family has been living at the Bayway Inn on 34th St S. Friday, Aug. 30, 2019 in St. Petersburg.  MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE   |   TIMES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    When about 40 percent of city households are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, something has to change.
  7. A judge ruled in June that it is up to Hillsborough County Commissioners to decide how much money the bus agency and other transportation projects get from the one-cent transportation sales tax voters approved in November. The board did just that this week.[SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
    Hillsborough commissioners follow through on transportation funding.
  8. From left to right: Florida Department of Transportation workers inspect damage to the Interstate 175 overpass at Sixth Street S caused by a roll-off dumpster truck that left its hydraulic arm upright, according to St. Petersburg police [JAMES BORCHUCK | Tampa Bay Times]; Former Pinellas school guardian Erick Russell, 37, is accused of pawning the Glock 17 9mm semiautomatic pistol, body armor and two magazines he was issued to protect students [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]; Johnna Lynn Flores [AUSTIN ANTHONY | Tampa Bay Times] Tampa Bay Times
    Here are three examples of routine information Tampa Bay governments kept from the public this week.
  9. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos; Florida state Sen. Tom Lee presides over the Senate's committee on infrastructure and security in Tallahassee, Fla., Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. The committee is considering new legislation to help address mass violence. (AP Photo/Bobby Caina Calvan) Times files/Associated Press
    Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos and state Sen. Tom Lee speak up. When will others?
  10. Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren addresses supporters at a rally, Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle) CRAIG RUTTLE  |  AP
    Experts don’t agree with us? Research, evidence and math prove inconvenient? Just trust us, the far left says. Our plans do everything we say they will. | Catherine Rampell
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement