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Matthew Dallek: The Birchers Won By Losing

Review of Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right by Matthew Dallek (Basic Books, 2023).

Who is Harlan Crow? Prior to ProPublica’s bombshell investigation into his financial relationship with Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, few had heard the name outside of Republican political circles and elite conservative think tanks. Yet for a period of more than twenty years, the Dallas real estate mogul subsidized Thomas’s luxury vacations across the globe: a super-yacht cruise around the islands of Indonesia and, more ominously, a stay at the exclusive, all-male retreat known as Bohemian Grove in Monte Rio, California, to name just two. One week after its initial report, ProPublica revealed that Thomas failed to disclose the sale of several personal properties to Crow, possibly above market rate. These properties include the home of Thomas’s mother, Leola Williams, where she has continued to live rent-free for nearly a decade.

That Thomas has violated government ethics law seems all but certain. New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had called for his impeachment even before Bloomberg reported that the Supreme Court justice failed to recuse himself from a case directly tied to his billionaire benefactor. As incriminating as these findings may prove, however, they have nonetheless lacked the florid weirdness of the reporting on Crow himself. Last month, the Washingtonian affirmed that the GOP mega-donor has constructed his own personal “Garden of Evil,” with busts of the worst despots of the twentieth century — a roster that features Joseph Stalin, Nicolae Ceausescu, and, somewhat confusingly, Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, among others. In Crow’s consumerist, post-historical telling, he detests both communism and fascism alike, so there’s nothing amiss with his collecting a set of Nazi linens or a copy of Mein Kampf autographed by Adolf Hitler.

Why the scion of a Dallas real estate empire feels compelled to surround himself with mementos of political movements he claims to hate is a question only he can answer. But Crow is hardly the first eccentric billionaire to buttress the radical right and almost certainly won’t be the last. In Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right, historian and George Washington University professor Matthew Dallek traces how a band of predominantly white, wealthy reactionaries infiltrated the Republican Party and remade it in their own image over a period of decades.

Sixty years removed from Barry Goldwater’s defeat in the 1964 presidential election, the Birchers’ nativism, paranoia, and fundamental contempt for multiracial democracy have become hallmarks of contemporary conservatism, while the GOP nomination in 2024 remains Donald Trump’s to lose. Still, Dallek’s book makes clear that this hostile takeover was not a foregone conclusion. Mainstream Republicans have courted extremists for their own political gain, but their opponents have failed to keep the fringe in check as well.

In 1958, long before Clarence Thomas’s sojourn to Bohemian Grove, a group of seventeen industrialists gathered in Indianapolis at the request of Robert Welch, a retired candy manufacturer from Belmont, Massachusetts. Among them was the chemical engineer Fred Koch, who founded the oil refinery that would become Koch Industries, and whose children, David and Charles, later financed a bevy of right-wing causes through the political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. Many of the attendees, Dallek observes, were members of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). All of them shared a deep-seated contempt for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which they believed had set the United States on a path toward communist rule.

Together, these industrialists resolved to form a new organization with the express aim of reclaiming the country from the “communist symps” they were convinced had stolen it. To do so, however, they would need a martyr for their resistance, and the group’s founder settled on an obscure Baptist missionary and army intelligence officer killed by Mao’s forces in the waning days of World War II. In The Life of John Birch, Welch portrays his eponymous hero as a Christ-like figure in a new “holy war” against communism. Dallek notes that what lent the book its gravitas was its author’s conviction, likely fantastical, that Birch had been forsaken by his own State Department.

Read entire article at Jacobin