In the Holland Church of Christ, around the corner from a main street lined with abandoned buildings, Carter sits down to talk. She says that the John Birch Society—a group she was convinced could save the nation from a global conspiracy of leftists and communists more than half a century ago—has come roaring back to life in the nick of time. The more she thinks about the situation, the more she sees parallels to the 1950s and 1960s: evil domestic and international terrorists threatening to undo all that is good and holy in the United States.
“There definitely is an increase in [our] activity, particularly in Texas, because Americans are seeking answers, but they can’t quite put their finger on what some of the real problems are,” says Bill Hahn, the John Birch Society’s vice president of communications, who spoke to Politico Magazine on the phone from the Society’s headquarters in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Carter, the head of the Central Texas Chapter, says that statewide, the group’s membership has doubled over the last three years (she declined to disclose exact numbers, as did Hahn, citing Society policy). “State legislators are joining the group,” she says, citing it as proof that their ideas are gaining salience as “more and more people are ready to fight the liberals who preach globalism and want to take away our freedom, our guns, religious values and our heritage.”
In that quest, they have common cause with powerful allies in Texas, including Senator Ted Cruz, Representative Louie Gohmert and a smattering of local officials. Recently at the state level, legislators have authored Bircher-esque bills that have made it further through the lawmaking process than many thought possible in Texas, even just a few years ago—though these are less the cause of the John Birch Society’s influence than an indication of the rise of its particular strain of politics. These include bills that would forbid any government entity from participating in “Agenda 21,” a UN sustainable development effort which JBS pamphlets describe as central to the “UN’s plan to establish control over all human activity”; prevent the theoretical sale of the Alamo to foreigners (since 1885 the state has owned the former mission, Texas’ most visited historic landmark, where the most famous battle of the Texas Revolution occurred); and repeal the Texas DREAM Act, which allows undocumented students who graduate from Texas high schools to pay in-state tuition at public colleges. And last month, Governor Greg Abbott signed the “American Laws for American Courts” Act into law, guarding against what the society has called “Sharia-creep” by prohibiting the use of Islamic Sharia law in Texas’ court system.
This is what the 21st-century John Birch Society looks like. Gone is the organization’s past obsession with ending the supposed communist plot to achieve mind-control through water fluoridation. What remains is a hodgepodge of isolationist, religious and right-wing goals that vary from concrete to abstract, from legitimate to conspiracy minded—goals that don’t look so different from the ideology coming out of the White House. It wants to pull the United States out of NAFTA (which it sees as the slippery slope that will lead us to a single-government North American Union), return America to what they call its Christian foundations, defund the UN, abolish the departments of education and energy, and slash the federal government drastically. The John Birch Society once fulminated on the idea of Soviet infiltration of the U.S. government; now, it wants to stop the investigation into Russia’s 2016 election meddling and possible collusion with the campaign of President Donald Trump.
The Society’s ideas, once on the fringe, are increasingly commonplace in today’s Republican Party. And where Birchers once looked upon national Republican leaders as mortal enemies, the ones I met in Texas see an ally in the president. “All of us here voted for Trump,” says Carter. “And we’re optimistic about what he will do.”
***The John Birch Society formed on a frigid Monday morning in December 1958, when 11 of the nation’s richest businessmen braved single-digit temperatures to attend a mysterious meeting in suburban Indianapolis.
They had arrived at the behest of candy magnate Robert Welch, who had made a fortune with his caramel-on-a-stick confection known as the “Sugar Daddy,” and now intended to spend that money defeating the wide-slung Communist conspiracy he was certain had infiltrated the federal government. Welch had invited these men to Indianapolis without giving a reason, and asked them to stay for two days.
After exchanging firm handshakes in the breakfast room of a sprawling, Tudor-style house in the tony Meridian Park neighborhood, Welch explained why he had brought this group together: The United States faced an existential threat from an “international Communist conspiracy” hatched by an “amoral gang of sophisticated criminals.” The power-hungry, God-hating, government worshipers had infiltrated newsrooms, public schools, legislative chambers and houses of worship. They were frighteningly close to total victory—Welch felt it in his gut. “These cunning megalomaniacs seek to make themselves the absolute rulers of a human race of enslaved robots, in which every civilized trait has been destroyed,” Welch wrote in The Blue Book of the John Birch Society, the organization’s founding history.
The chosen few gathered here would form the vanguard of a new political movement, an army of brave American patriots dedicated to preserving the country’s Christian and constitutional foundations. Welch christened the group the John Birch Society—named in memory of a U.S. soldier-turned-Baptist missionary killed by Chinese Communists in 1945—and laid out its goal: Destroying the “Communist conspiracy … or at least breaking its grip on our government and shattering its power within the United States.”
Prominent Texans quickly became fans. Dallas oilman H.L Hunt, the richest man in the world and a major Republican donor, espoused Bircher views on his popular radio program starting in the 1950s. Dallas Reverend W.A. Criswell, a segregationist and head of the largest Southern Baptist congregation in the world, praised Bircher positions from his pulpit and railed against “the leftists, the liberals, the pinks, and the welfare statists who are soft on communism and easy towards Russia.” Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker, born in small-town Texas and commander of 10,000 troops stationed in post-war Europe, distributed Bircher material to the men under his command. Walker, who called Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt “definitely pink,” resigned after being investigated by the Kennedy administration for engaging in partisan political activity on the job in 1961. East Texas Congressman Martin Dies, the founder of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, was a regular contributor to the Society’s publications in the mid-1960s. These sons of the Lone Star State saw a nation careening towards unfettered Communism. They refused to remain silent.
Popular as Welch’s brand of post-McCarthy McCarthyism was with a certain segment of the right-wing populace, many other conservatives found his beliefs a mixture of detestable and impolitic—including, most famously, William F. Buckley, the founder and editor of National Review.
In the 1950s, Buckley was friendly with Welch, writes Buckley biographer Alvin Felzenberg, even promising to give a “little publicity” to his upstart organization. But the acidity of Welch’s anti-communist paranoia—alleging, for instance, that the cabal of communist agents atop the U.S. government included President Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles among its ranks—ate away at any relationship with Buckley, who saw such ramblings as a danger to conservatives.
By 1961, Buckley began to see the John Birch Society in general and Welch in particular as threats to the nascent presidential campaign of Senator Barry Goldwater, the rock-ribbed conservative whom Buckley wanted to receive the GOP’s presidential nomination in 1964. If conservatives counted the Birchers as allies, Buckley wrote in an April 1961 National Review column, the left could “anathematize the entire American right wing.”
In the popular memory, it was the first in a series of increasingly antagonistic columns in which Buckley “expelled” the Birchers from the conservative movement. But in reality, the John Birch Society never went away. It was weakened, yes, and its ranks have atrophied drastically. As an organization, the Society lacks its former influence and numbers. It is a pale imitation of its former self. But the increased popularity of the brand of paranoid, conspiracy-minded conservatism it pioneered suggests its finger is still firmly on the pulse of a certain type of anti-government ideology—one that is closer to the levers of power than ever before, especially in Texas, home of Alex Jones, Ron Paul and Ted Cruz.
***In the annex of the Holland Church of Christ, Carter invites me to look at the assorted John Birch Society literature spread across a white plastic table. Pamphlets forecast the threat posed by Agenda 21, the “UN’s plan to establish control over all human activity.” The New American magazine, the Society’s house organ, warns about the federal government gathering personal data from the pervasive technology all around us—toys, smartphones, appliances, even pacemakers. Nearby, there’s a stack of DVDs with titles like “Exposing Terrorism: Inside the Terror Triangle,” which promises to reveal the real culprits behind global terrorism.
Six people have shown up for part one of the “Constitution Is the Solution” workshop, which consists of six 45-minute lectures on DVD, divided over two Saturday mornings. The session’s official facilitator is Dr. Joyce Jones, a thin, neatly coiffed, middle-aged woman who is, by day, a professor of psychology at Central Texas College in Killeen. Jones hands us worksheets with fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice questions to answer while we watch. “In other words, we won’t be just zoning out in front of the TV,” she says.
In the first video, “The Dangers of Democracy,” lecturer Robert Brown, a clean-cut white man in a dark suit, defines democracy as “mob rule,” and emphasizes that the United States is a republic, not a democracy. “It wasn’t what government did that made America great,” Brown says in the recording. “It was what government was prevented from doing that made the difference.”
After the first video lecture ends, Dr. Jones offers a quote from Mao Zedong: “Democracies inevitably lead to collectivism, which leads to socialism, which leads to communism, which leads to totalitarianism.”
Welch, who called democracy a “weapon of demagoguery,” ran the JBS as an autocracy, based on his own opinions about what was best, governing it without the democratic nods found in many other members-based groups, lest it suffer from, as he put it, “infiltration, distortion, or disruption.” Considering how much the JBS has declined since its glory days when Welch governed it by fiat, it’s hard not to read the Birchers’ opinions of democracy as words spoken from experience.
The second video lecture stresses that the federal government has overstepped its constitutional authority and encroached on states’ rights. Most of the attendees, all of whom who are white, nod their heads at the mention of state’s rights. Two hours into the workshop we start the third video, which advocates that the Federal Reserve be abolished and the United States return to the gold standard.
One week later, I returned to Holland for part two. While the lectures from the first weekend explained a political theory that could be boiled down to a few things—government programs and socialism are bad; the free market and Christianity are good—the titles of the second set of lectures suggested a more provocative call to action: “Exposing the Enemies of Freedom” and “Constitutional War Powers and the Enemy Within.”
I picked up the worksheet for this week’s video lessons. A multiple-choice question asks you to identify “the Illuminati.” Is it: (A) a myth, (B) an alien race of shape-shifters, or (C) a group founded in the late 1700s, seeking world government? Correct answer: C.
After learning about the Illuminati, we are lectured about a much newer, but no less pernicious conspiracy: the Council on Foreign Relations. Founded in 1921, the nonpartisan think tank and publisher’s mission is to advocate globalization and free trade. Board members have included banker David Rockefeller, journalist Tom Brokaw and former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell. For $19.95, you can order a documentary film from the John Birch Society website called “ShadowRing,” which promises to “set the record straight” on the “criminal deeds” of the Council on Foreign Relations. To the Birchers, CFR shares the same goals as the Illuminati: “to destroy the freedom and independence of the United States and lead our nation into a world government,” in the words of John McManus, the John Birch Society’s president emeritus.
And the last, best hope of fighting these nefarious elitist outfits happens to be a group founded by a millionaire at an invitation-only meeting of wealthy industrialists.
***The John Birch Society isn’t just gaining purchase in the Lone Star state’s tiny backwaters. Texas’s largest cities, Houston and Dallas, are home to active JBS chapters. At 10 minutes past noon on a Thursday in February, about 40 members of the Houston chapter gather at Christine’s Steaks and Seafood in the Bayou City. They have come to the restaurant, which sits next to an eight-lane road lined with shopping centers, to hear a speech from the most famous of the country’s founding fathers.
But George Washington is running late.
Mark Collins, who has a robust career as both a pastor at a Baptist church and an impersonator of America’s first president, had to drive in from Yorktown, Texas, about an hour away. He has portrayed Washington on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives, at former Texas Governor Rick Perry’s Prayer Breakfast, and in the Nicholas Cage movie “National Treasure 2: The Book of Secrets.” When he finally enters the dining room, the 6’4” Collins looks every bit the part, bedecked in yellow breeches, a blue military coat with gold epaulettes and brass buttons the size of half dollars, and a gray revolutionary pigtail. “So happy to be here with you patriots,” he bellows. “The JBS is the tip of the spear.”
Today, Collins is preaching his Americanist gospel to fervent believers in frenetic Houston. The sprawling metropolis, home to the nation’s biggest oil companies, the world’s largest rodeo and former President George H.W. Bush, has exploded from a sleepy mid-sized town to become the nation’s fourth largest city. It’s also among the most ethnically diverse cities in America, though Collins’ audience in the restaurant is entirely white. The pastor stands in front of a banner featuring a bald eagle, a slogan (“Less government, more responsibility, and—with God’s help—a better world.”) and the John Birch Society’s toll-free telephone number, 1-800-JBS-USA1.
“We must teach our children their heritage,” Collins tells the crowd. “We’ve slowly forgotten our principles.” But there is a powerful reason to rejoice, Collins adds, a reason for renewed optimism: God has sent America a new, powerful leader. He’s a good man, a moral man. God has delivered Donald J. Trump to save the United States of America.
The great struggles American patriots face today are not new, Collins shouts. The enthusiastic crowd—people are smiling and clapping—seems to invigorate Collins. He is pacing back and forth, brimming with energy. “And don’t forget this is not the first time the United States has gone to war with Muslims terrorists. In 1801, we waged war against Muslim terrorists in Tripoli.”
Collins is referencing the First Barbary War, which pitted the United States against Algiers, Morocco, Tunis and Tripoli. In 1801, Tripoli seized American merchant vessels and demanded ransom for their return. President Thomas Jefferson refused to pay, and instead sent the Navy. Academic consensus holds that religion had little to do with the war, but Collins’ remark about fighting Muslim terrorists resonates with the crowd, and many in the audience nod their heads as Collins continues.
“And let us not forget in 1774 the government, the British government, tried to ban the original assault rifle … the Brown Bess. That attempt to seize weapons brought about a revolution.” More than a dozen audience members applaud. “Just horrible,” says an elderly woman sitting next to me in a wheelchair.
Collins’ voice grows louder. “Many today don’t realize that we are facing the same gun-control tactics by our own federal government that our forefathers faced from the British,” he says. “Just horrible,” the elderly woman says again.
For 15 minutes, Collins orates on George Washington’s close relationship with Christ. Washington spent the first and last hour of every day in prayer, Collins says. Then, the presidential impersonator lays down a challenge: “Make no mistake, there is a war for the soul of this nation. But with work and sacrifice the United States can be restored as a nation. All it takes is an on-fire minority setting fire in the minds of men.”
***Chip Berlet, former senior analyst at Political Research Associates in Somerville, Massachusetts, a left-leaning think tank, and co-author of “Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort,” has studied the John Birch Society for three decades.
Berlet tells me the resurgence of the John Birch Society taps into populism which surfaces periodically, especially during times of cultural and demographic upheaval. The nation’s demographic landscape has undergone dramatic shifts since the Birchers’ heyday. From 1955 to 2014, the percentage of U.S. citizens who identified as Protestant sunk from 70 percent to 46 percent, according to polls by Gallup. The percentage of citizens who identified as non-Hispanic white decreased from 89 percent to 63 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Such changes, mixed with man’s evolutionary tendency toward tribalism, means that many white Christian Americans are full of anxiety.
“The John Birch Society views white Anglo-Saxon Protestant ethnocentrism as the true expression of America,” Berlet says. “They use constitutionalist arguments and conspiracist scapegoating to mask this.”
Placing blame on conspiracies is seductive to social conservatives because of the way their brains are hardwired, says Colin Holbrook, an evolutionary psychologist and research scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s not a pathology, nor because they’re less intelligent,” Holbrook tells me.
Holbrook co-authored a 2017 study for the journal Psychological Science, in which subjects were presented with a series of false statements such as, “Terrorist attacks in the U.S. have increased since Sept. 11, 2001,” and “Hotel room keycards are often encoded with personal information that can be read by thieves.”
In Holbrook’s study, social conservatives were more credulous about claims of danger in the world, and the phenomenon has roots in evolutionary psychology—being hyper-aware of threats could potentially save your life. But that evolutionary advantage also makes social conservatives more susceptible to claims about things that could potentially hurt them, according to Holbrook. “That’s what you’re probably seeing with the John Birchers in Texas and the conspiracies they fear,” he says.
After speaking with Holbrook, I thought back to a conversation I had with Jan Carter after the “Constitution is the Solution” workshop in Holland. I told her that it was hard for me to believe that our elected officials are part of a secret conspiracy to form a one-world government, or that they are members of the Illuminati. What about staunchly conservative Texas Republicans, like Gov. Abbott or President George W. Bush?
Carter immediately corrected me. “George W. Bush didn’t have noble intentions. He wanted a one-world government.”
I suggested to Carter that Abbott, at least, seems to genuinely distrust the federal government. He’s a man who, after all, when serving as Texas’ attorney general, sued the Obama administration at least two dozen times. And in April 2015, when some Texans feared that a U.S. military training exercise called “Jade Helm 15” was a covert attempt by the federal government to invade the state, seize Texans’ guns, and imprison conservative citizens in abandoned Wal-Marts, Abbott deployed the Texas State Guard to monitor the U.S. military. It’s tough to imagine a more Bircher-friendly move.
Carter shrugged her shoulders.
“Sometimes politicians do things just for show,” she said.