The Tea Party, the John Birch Society, and the Fear of “Mob Rule”: An Interview with Claire Conner

Claire Conner, author of Wrapped in the Flag

Claire Conner, author of Wrapped in the Flag

Claire Conner’s parents were early members of the John Birch Society (JBS), an aggressively right-wing organization that was founded in 1958 by Robert Welch. It drew much of its energy from opposition to the New Deal and Great Society programs that dramatically expanded the social safety net in the United States. The JBS was also active in opposing the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. In foreign policy, many of its members believed that U.S. participation in the United Nations was part of a communist conspiracy to create a “one-world” government. The JBS also viewed mainstream politicians from both major parties, including Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, as communist sympathizers.

Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right (Boston: Beacon Press, 2013) is Conner’s memoir about growing up in Chicago as the daughter of two of the organization’s earliest and most dedicated members. Kirkus Reviews named Wrapped in the Flag one of the best nonfiction books of 2013 and described it as “an invaluable contribution to understanding the mentality of extremist conservatism.” A paperback edition will be published in March 2014.

In the following interview, Conner discusses the organization’s early years and its influence on the contemporary conservative movement. For more about the history and recent resurgence of the organization, see PRA’s brief profile of the JBS and the article “Nullification, Neo-Confederates, and the Revenge of the Old Right”—both by PRA fellow Rachel Tabachnick.

What motivated you to write this book now? 

When I started writing it more than 10 years ago, no one was interested in the story. People didn’t really want to hear about what it was like growing up in the radical Right. In 2003, I revisited it again and did some more work. And again, no one was interested. Then in 2008, we were sitting in the family room watching television, and Sarah Palin was really digging into Obama. And a group of people started shouting [at the mention of Obama], “Terrorist!” That said to me, “Finish your book.”

It became clear to me that something was happening. The level of hatred, fear, and paranoia was so familiar to me that I began to realize that the Right was making a comeback. They were emerging again from their cocoon. And as I say in the book, all it took was the election of the first African-American president, health care reform, and an economic crisis. And they were back in the saddle. This time they were called the Tea Party. Basically they had the same ideas, the same policy prescriptions for the United States, as the John Birch Society (JBS) had back in the 1960s and ’70s.

You mentioned the hatred and paranoia that are shared by the JBS and the Tea Party. What accounts for that? 

It comes from a very different view of what government is—and what government should or could be. The John Birch Society came from the principle that the federal government is essentially evil. That’s extremely difficult for liberals to grasp. But it was exactly where they were coming from. They believe the government is essentially evil and should either be privatized or completely done away with.

For example, the John Birch Society said that Social Security should never exist, because it is a giant embezzlement. They also held that the 16th Amendment to the Constitution—the amendment creating a federal income tax—should be repealed because the federal government did not have the authority to collect those sorts of taxes. The John Birch Society basically believes that anything the federal government does, beyond what is specifically mentioned in the Constitution, is wrong.

Here are the things that, according to the John Birch Society, the federal government can properly do. It can negotiate treaties with federal powers, declare and conduct war, run a postal system, and deal with disputes between the states. Because those are the essential functions of the federal government, those are the only things the John Birch Society sees them as having the right to do. From that particular point of view, you can see why they don’t believe in the Department of Education or the Highway Department. They don’t believe in any regulation of business. They don’t even believe in nuclear regulations or the Federal Aviation Administration. We’re talking about reducing the government to a level that would be, at the very least, astounding.

I said to my mother one time, “What would happen if we actually did all these things?” What if there was no Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, food stamps—no safety net at all. And she said, “Oh, it would be glorious. It would be what the Constitution intended.” I’d say, “Mom, the Constitution is not going to feed a hungry child”. I can still see her face looking up from her teacup, saying, “That’s not my concern, dear.”

One of the messages I have for liberals is that they’re not going to change that basic viewpoint. We are not going to convert people who hold that viewpoint to a liberal view of government. So we have to find a different way to mobilize Americans to understand that government is a good thing. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everything government does is without glitches, mistakes, or problems, like the rollout of the health care website. But I believe that government is human beings, communities, Americans banding together to do the things that we can’t do alone. Like building bridges, schools, and guaranteeing civil rights.

You became a member of the JBS at a very young age. Why? 

I was 13 years old, and my father was a very powerful guy. I loved my parents and didn’t want to disobey them. I tried to be a good, right-wing girl. But there were things that happened along the way that didn’t feel right to me.

The first one had to do with my parents’ view of the Holocaust. They ran into a fellow who was part of the leadership of the John Birch Society, named Revilo Oliver, one of the most vile, hateful, and nasty human beings I have ever had the unpleasant experience of knowing. He’d come to our house and was full of religious and racial hatred. He hated people of colors, Jews, immigrants—practically anyone who wasn’t White, it seemed to be beyond his capability of caring for. He was a professor at the University of Illinois.

Before we knew Oliver, my father had taught me about the Holocaust, and about how our soldiers freed the camps and found bodies stacked like wood, and crematoriums, and how the ashes floated over everything. And I knew it as well as my name—that Hitler had tried to kill all the Jews in Europe. Well, when Revilo Oliver started coming to dinner, suddenly my parents were less appalled by the Holocaust. They began saying that Hitler really wasn’t trying to kill all the Jews. He was trying to kill the communists, and most of the people that were detained in the camps were actually traitors to Germany. And the military was just following orders. That did not sit well with my experience as a kid growing up in a very Jewish neighborhood.

Another thing really bothered me was the attitude of the John Birch Society towards people who were in need. I always felt, as a kid, that if somebody was hungry, you fed them. If the churches weren’t able to help and the need was too great, the government had to help. That made perfect sense. And then I discovered that it was totally against the principles of the John Birch Society. They actually believed in what they called “healthy poverty.” That sounds like a complete contradiction, but that’s what they called it.

Robert Welch wrote about this at great length in 1976. He talked about the fact that healthy poverty was what existed in the United States at the turn of the century—about 1900 to 1920—and that it was an ideal time of economic growth and increase in productivity in the United States. He admitted that there were pockets of poverty, but he said that it was a healthy kind of poverty, free from government interference. I’m telling you, when I heard the debates in the House of Representatives in 2013 about eliminating food stamps completely from the farm budget, all I could say was, “Oh my God, they sound just like John Birchers!”

Ken Blackwell, the secretary of state in Ohio during the uproar over who could vote in Ohio in 2004, left the state of Ohio and went to work for the Family Research Council. He said that getting rid of food stamps would be an exercise in Christian compassion, because it would allow people to participate in their own uplift. That is the same JBS idea: If you’re poor or in need, or your child is disabled, then somehow you’re in the wrong.

As an adult with some perspective on all of this, how have you made sense of your parents’ ideas and their involvement with the JBS?

For a long time, I wanted to say that my parents had just put their apples in the wrong cart. And then I had a real wake-up moment and realized that my father wasn’t just someone who was led around. He was on the leadership of the John Birch Society for 32 years. He was out selling the John Birch Society all over the United States, as one of its speakers, and was often paid for his speeches.

When it came to compelling speech giving, he was better than either Revilo Oliver or Robert Welch. So I had to face the reality that my parents weren’t just led around. My parents believed all of this. And my father was one of the leaders. And I have to say, it was a hard realization for me. It’s easy to say that your parents were just going along. It’s hard to say that they were leading the pack.

The question is: Why did he believe all of this? I think it’s partially because of World War II and seeing the communists [emerge as a threat]. He picked up on a level of fear and paranoia that was prevalent in the country in the 1950s. We have this imaginary view of the ‘50s—women in their aprons making cupcakes, children quietly playing Monopoly, and it was always a good day, like in the movie Pleasantville. But the United States was in turmoil during the 1950s, because after World War II, communist boots were marching across Eastern Europe and Asia. And it looked for all the world like they were coming for us. And then Sen. Joe McCarthy [R-WI] just threw gasoline on that fire and said that the government of the United States was run by these guys.

After McCarthy was discredited, my father didn’t stop believing what he was selling. He always said, “We’re going to need a lot more Joes to save this country.” And he found people who agreed with him—lots of them. Robert Welch wasn’t a particularly good speaker, but he had a plan. He had an idea to actually get something to happen. Whereas, as my dad used to say, “All the rest of these anti-communists were just debating societies.” They just gave speeches. My father wanted to change the country. So he looked for someone who had a method to his madness. Robert Welch had a method.

[The] John Birch Society did something that nobody else has ever done. They organized all their volunteers to do the same thing—at the same time. Before that, people who were upset about the country would go to these speeches, and everybody would take home a pamphlet. But Robert Welch believed that they weren’t going to change the country that way. So he actually put in place a structure and said, “Everybody’s going to do this at the same time.” And if you didn’t, you got kicked out. They didn’t tolerate deadwood in the organization.

Robert Welch made no bones that he thought democracy was the worst form of government—not just for his organization, but for a country. The John Birch Society believes that democracy is mob rule. So, that explains a lot about the way the government is organized. It also explains a lot about some of the things that are happening in the United States today, in terms of that belief system.

A whole bunch of people on the Right don’t think that everyone ought to vote. Why? Because if you’ve got everybody voting, you have yourself a mob. And that idea comes from [National Review founder and editor] Bill Buckley, who is sort of a patron saint of the Right. Buckley, the John Birch Society, my father, and a very prominent political science professor [who taught at Yale], Willmoore Kendall, all believed that the franchise, or the right to vote, had to be limited, as it was in colonial in times, when you had to be White, free, over a particular age, and a landowner in order to vote.

JBS members often believe in conspiracies, and many of them view the Catholic Church as part of a grand, global conspiracy. So it’s interesting that your parents were very dedicated Roman Catholics. 

My parents were very right-wing Catholics. And it was a big surprise to me that they could find common ground with Robert Welch, who was a Baptist. My mother used to say all the time, “Once we save the country, then we can argue about theology.” But I would say, “You do know that these people hate you, right?”

My parents, being Roman Catholics, wanted the United States to be governed by papal law. So my parents loved [the Roman Catholic Spanish dictator Francisco] Franco, and the idea that the church and the state were inseparable. I always figured that if the John Birch Society ever took over the United States, they’d have a religious war, because members wouldn’t agree about how to interpret the Bible, or what was the role of the Pope, or any of that. And many Protestants and evangelicals saw the Catholic Church as the “Whore of Babylon.” As I got much older, and much more aware of these things, I would say to my parents, “How could you possibly do this?” I mean, just in terms of religion. And my mother would say, “We have to save the country first, and then we’ll worry about theology.”

There’s an interesting tension there, between believing that there’s a grand conspiracy—and everything is already determined—and believing that they can somehow “save” the country.  

First of all, they never think they’re losing. After the government shutdown fiasco [in October 2013], if you read what the Right says about it, they loved what they did. They think they won. And that’s how my parents were. They always said they were in for the long haul. My mother might have a day where she was frustrated, but she never did stop. And where I thought that the Right had suffered a great loss, she didn’t see it that way. So they looked at the government shutdown as a success. And the corollary is, “Let’s do it again.” They don’t mind being a minority. In fact, my father used to say all the time, “Minorities take over countries.” And he’s right. Historically, they do.

The other thing my father used to say is that “you have to shut down the government before you can take it apart.” They hate the government. They want to break it. That’s the hardest thing to grasp. Why would you want to wreck the government? But if you think it is essentially evil, and you think, as Robert Welch said, that the people who work for it are going to destroy the country, then you think you are doing a good thing if you wreck it.

Earlier in the interview, you said that you see the JBS and the Tea Party as essentially the same thing. Can you expand a little on the parallels? 

There are some differences between the two, but in terms of policy, I see very little difference. The Tea Partiers would probably take exception to that, because they don’t want to think they’re just leftovers from a bygone era. They want to think they’re original and unique. But the fact is that the early funding for the Tea Party came from Americans for Prosperity, which is a Koch Brothers group.

The Koch Brothers are Birch kids. They were raised by a John Birch Society father. So we’re talking about people who were raised with that same hatred of government that I was. So, I like to look at the continuity of ideas from the 1950s to today, and it is extremely difficult to find much difference between them. The only differences are, where we used to focus only on this communist conspiracy, they’ve expanded that word to include socialists, because you don’t see the communists as one marching group like they used to before the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But basically, the ideas are the same. Government should be 60 percent smaller than it is, there should be no Social Security, no income tax, no direct election of U.S. Senators, no safety net or Department of Education or Environmental Protection Agency—exactly what we heard during the circus that was the GOP Presidential debates in 2012. The same exact thing. People always say to me, “But they’re not Birchers.” But what difference does it make? It’s the same exact idea.

One theme of your book is how concerned your parents were with the “corruption” of the school system. This has been a defining issue for the JBS and the conservative movement more generally, hasn’t it? 

We forget that people have been arguing about the content of textbooks since the mid-nineteenth century. So this has been an ongoing fight in America. In the 1960s, my mom and dad had literally piles of textbooks in our apartment flat in Chicago, and they would go through every textbook I had, every textbook my brother had, every textbook in the Catholic school system, and then they branched out to the public schools in Chicago. That’s a lot of books. They went through every line of every textbook to find any hint of socialist, communist, or collectivist, “un-American” ideas. They used to study my lessons at home, then send me to school with directions as to what to tell the teacher was wrong in the book.

Now, I went to the Catholic schools in Chicago in the 1950s, so you can imagine that I was not the most popular girl as far as the teachers were concerned. Because you didn’t stand up in the class and say, “By the way, this is wrong.” In my book, I tell this story about when I was in seventh grade, and my father asked me what was going on at school that day, and I made the mistake of saying to him, “Well, we learned in geography that the farms in Sweden had electricity in their barns before the barns in the United States.”

Well, my father jumped out of his chair like he’d been shot out of a cannon. He was so furious with me for saying such a thing, because Sweden, being a socialist country—there was absolutely no way it could possibly have anything before the United States did. It wasn’t until I got to college, and I was taking a history class, that I found out that my book had been correct. Sweden did electrify their farms, 20 or more years before the United States. But for my mother and dad, the idea that Sweden could do something better than we did it, or sooner, could not possibly be the case.

They just didn’t care about the actual facts? 

Well, they just assumed there were no facts. It wasn’t like they investigated it. They said, “No, that can’t be, and I don’t want to hear another word about it.” It’s a very strange way of looking at the world, because my parents, as well read as they were, they read only books that were on the approved list. And it’s probably a very good lesson for all of us: You can’t just read what you already agree with. You can’t, and we shouldn’t. But it is certainly more comfortable.

But even though they may have ignored inconvenient facts, your parents were very intelligent people. One point you make in the book is that, even if we find some of their ideas outrageous, we’re mistaken if we think conservatives are ignorant. 

My father had a degree from Northwestern University. His degree was in speech. He actually raised part of his tuition by giving speeches. He was on the debate team at Northwestern and never lost a debate. He was very well read, very professional, and he owned six businesses.

The leadership of the Right has never been uneducated. It has never been poor, uneducated, or uninterested. Look at the Koch brothers—both of them are engineers. If you are laughing at these people, you are completely wrong and doing great harm. If you look at one of those silly Facebook posts where some goofball has tea bags on his hat, and a sign with three or four misspelled words, everyone goes, “Gee, they’re fools.”

But they are winning on ideas. For example, let’s take the government shutdown. This is the perfect example. We ended up calling it a victory to reopen the government at sequestration budget levels, which were originally an absolute no-go for the Democrats. So, while we are saying that these folks are foolish and are losing the battle, in fact, our policy debates are now on right-wing terms. Which is why I say to people that you have to quit underestimating our competition. Look at Ted Cruz. Someone said to me that he’s just a dumb cowboy. No he’s not. He’s a Harvard [Law School] educated lawyer that never lost a debate in college, who has argued many cases in front of the Supreme Court—successfully. This is not a guy we should be dismissing. This is, in my opinion, the most potentially dangerous guy out there, because he’s a demagogue in training. He has the command of the room. When you hear him speak, you may disagree with everything he says, but you can’t look away.

When you look at the list of Birch leaders, you’re talking about former military men and very successful businessmen. Robert Welch was a multimillionaire. And I think that is the most important message: You have to take this seriously. They are very smart. They have a belief about the United States. They want to change the way we are governed. They want to change the nature of the federal government, and take it back to a time before any New Deal programs.