The Extremist Flag Flies...Again

I had the privilege of interviewing Claire Conner for an upcoming episode of the MOMocrats podcast last week. She offered to send over a guest post sharing her concerns over the Tea Party and their extremism, as it relates to her own firsthand experience being raised inside the John Birch Society. Claire's book is titled "Wrapped In The Flag", and it's available in bookstores and on Amazon.com. I can't recommend it highly enough. It's a book that will draw you in and hold you there until the last page, whether you've grown up in that era or not. Please visit Claire's website and "like" her Facebook page, too.

Here is her guest post. Enjoy.

By 2007, I thought I’d heard the end of conspiracies, Communists and America’s looming collapse. The Cold War had been over for twenty years, my parents and their old radical right-wing buddies were dead and the Bush administration was killing America’s appetite for right-wing GOPers. “There’s no one left to hoist the extremist flag,” I told myself.

I was so wrong.

When the economy tanked in 2008 and Barack Obama emerged as the Democratic candidate for president, the radical right went off the rails. I heard frenzied voters at a Republican rally in Florida shouting, “Treason,” and “Kill him,” in response to one of Sarah Palin’s anti-Obama rants and I worried. “My parents are back,” I told anyone who’d listen.

People thought I’d lost my mind.

For as long as I could remember, my father and my mother hated Communists and Democrats. Anyone who said “Roosevelt” or “Truman” was sure to get an earful about “Commie-socialist traitors.”

So, in 1955 when Mother and Dad met Robert Welch, a candy-company executive turned conspiracy hunter, they embraced a kindred soul. My father said Welch was “a brilliant mind and the finest patriot I’ve ever had the privilege to know.”

Three years later in December 1958, Welch founded the John Birch Society. My parents didn’t hesitate—they became the first two members in the city of Chicago. My father wrote a check for $2,000—the equivalent of $15,000 today—for two lifetime John Birch Society memberships.

The Birch goal: “Taking Back the Country” meshed perfectly with my parents’ ideas. Dad would serve on the John Birch Society (JBS) National Council for 32 years.

While anti-Communism was the first banner the Birchers waved, it was dismantling federal programs and slashing 75% of the federal budget that became their centerplank. As my Dad often complained, “Socialism is taking over the joint.”

For my parents and their John Birch Society allies, socialism was every government program not specifically mentioned in the Constitution. The only cure for the socialist plague was to purge them all, as quickly as possible.

Mother and Dad gleefully anticipated the end of Social Security, the demise of all welfare programs and the elimination of federal funding for anything. They insisted that regulation was such a threat to business that it all had to be done away with. Nothing could stand in the way of unrestrained free enterprise and profit.

The resulting utopia, according to my parents, would free business and individuals to do anything while dismantling labor unions, ending the safety net, cutting corporate taxes, and slashing taxes on the wealthy.

“What happens to the poor, the old, the unemployed, the disabled if you succeed?” I asked my mother. “It doesn’t matter, not at all,” she told me. “It’s all about the Constitution.” “The Constitution doesn’t feed a hungry child,” I said.

“That’s not my concern,” she answered.

At first, the GOP applauded the John Birchers for their patriotic zeal and embraced them as good Republicans. Then, in 1960, a political scandal revealed that Robert Welch had labeled President Dwight D. Eisenhower a Communist and a traitor. Republican leaders along with conservatives like William F. Buckley, Jr, painted the Birchers as crackpots and pushed them out of the party.

The effort worked. The Birchers were tagged as extreme reactionaries, exiled from mainstream American politics and forgotten. Birch leaders were not defeated or deterred.

Fred Koch, one of the original Birch founding members and a National Council member with my father, invested a small fortune on his pet projects, including the so-called right-to-work laws, designed to hamper union organizing.

Two of his sons, David and Charles Koch, inherited their father’s multi-millions, turned them into multi-billions, and invested in their political creations: the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, American Enterprise Institute and the Tea Party among others. These organizations have incorporated John Birch Society tenets and used them to drive American politics to the far right.

The Kochs and their allies envision the same framework for American government that I heard from my father and his John Birch Society pals: the New Deal dismantled, the federal government reduced to a quarter of its current size, and most federal programs gutted. Thus “improved,” America would assume its rightful place as a libertarian paradise where everyone who worked hard was rich, business had a free reign, and the central government was tiny, weak and poor.

For the old, unemployed, sick, disabled or needy, private charity might help. Otherwise, embrace your poverty and be glad you’re living in a free country.

Six months after President Obama was inaugurated, a new right-wing, populist movement arose. The Tea Party, bankrolled by the Koch brothers and the Americans for Prosperity—staged rallies and protests across the country. The economic meltdown was blamed on high business taxes, too many regulations and poor people. A parade of candidates preached that government couldn’t create jobs, stimulus programs never work, and a strong military had to have an ever-larger piece of the budget. They dragged out the old saw about “tax and spend liberals,” while ignoring the real dollar costs of two wars and three tax cuts.

Real Americans were encouraged to stock pile guns and bullets as the last defense against a tyrannical liberal government. All of this was sworn on the Bible, declared to be the will of the founders, and wrapped in the flag.

This is the old John Birch Society, born again.

This time around, the movement has political muscle, unlimited dollars, and right-wing media control. It will take an enormous effort to awaken Americans to the dangers of the radical right wing and push fanatics to the dustbin of history where they belong.

I know all of this because I lived it. I know that right-wing extremism broke my family. I don’t want it to break my country.

Claire Conner, the author of Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right (Beacon Press, 2013), was 12 years old when her parents dove into the world of paranoid politics and joined the John Birch Society. She became a member at age 13. Her book offers keen insight into the impact of extremism on one woman, her family and, if unchecked, on our country. Claire holds a degree in English with honors from the University of Dallas and a graduate degree from the University of Wisconsin. She lives in Dunedin, Florida and speaks widely on the John Birch Society and the danger of the radical right.

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