Starting in 2009, crowds of angry Americans burst onto the political scene ranting about debt, deficits, socialism, and healthcare reform. They waved copies of the Constitution, hoisted the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, called the President a traitor, and vowed to take America back. In all of the chaos, many people, including the corporate media, neglected to ask the most important question: What does take our country back mean?
For me, raised in a radical right-wing family, I had a good idea. Simply put: I knew that the radical right was using the economic crisis and high unemployment to push its anti-government agenda. Time Magazine captured this phenomenon in “The Ultras” on December 8, 1961: “The US has always had its far right – sometimes dormant but usually rising up in time of national doubt and uncertainty.”
Doubt and Uncertainty
To understand how this works, let’s take a trip back to the years right after World War II. Despite the images of the 1950s as a time of prosperity, family togetherness, and homemade apple pie, the United States faced gigantic post-war challenges.The economy had to be retooled from wartime production to a peacetime focus. Millions of GIs needed jobs. Domestic issues were complex and the international situation was daunting.
Communist armies were conquering Eastern Europe and Asia. It appeared that no one was willing or able to stop them. You know how terrified Americans are about ISIS? The fear that Americans felt back in the 1950s was more intense and immediate. Any day might be our doomsday.
Political preachers warned of an imminent Communist attack on America. Newspapers, the internet of the day, reported massacres in Eastern Europe and Asia as the Communists overran one country after the other. It wasn’t enough to worry about Stalin and Mao; Americans were investigated as traitors.
Joseph McCarthy Fingers Commies in the Government
No one was fiercer than Joseph McCarthy, the rabid anti-Communist Republican senator from Appleton, Wisconsin. For six years, Joe pointed fingers at Americans who, he said, palled around with Commies or had secret Communist leanings. He accused many State Department employees and a host of other Americans of being in league with the Communists. McCarthy was both popular and powerful.
Then he went too far, attacking a decorated war hero. The Eisenhower administration fought back with the most effective possible tactic: television coverage of the McCarthy vs the Army hearings. For 30 days, Americans watched as their hero behaved like bully. Before long, even the Senate washed its hands of McCarthy. When McCarthy died in 1957, most Americans were well rid of him.
Some Americans Thought We Needed Another McCarthy
One man who felt that way was Robert Welch, a retired candy salesman from Massachusetts. By the early 1950s, Welch had already made a name for himself as a political activist and anti-government crusader. In 1955, Welch and my parents met. Before long, they became political allies and close friends.
In January of 1959, my mother and my father joined Robert Welch’s brand new John Birch Society, a populist, anti-Communist, anti-federal government movement. My parents handed over $2000 to become life members. (That’s about $15,000 in today’s dollars) They were Birchers #1 and #2 in the city of Chicago.
In the winter of 1959, my parents gave me a Birch membership form. I signed on the line and became a full-fledged, adult member of the society. The monthly dues ($1.00 for women) were deducted from my $2 a month allowance. I was 13.
My father became a national John Birch leader in 1960. He remained on the National Council for 32 years—until his death. Let’s be clear – my father didn’t flirt around the edges of this “patriot” movement. He was a leader, a national spokesperson, and an enthusiastic cheerleader for all things Birch.
The Largest, Most Effective, Most Powerful Anti-Government Movement of the Time
The John Birch Society was the largest, most effective, and most powerful anti-government movement of the period. The Birchers were (and still are) anti-communist, libertarian, conspiracy hunters who always support states’ rights and almost always oppose the federal government.
The John Birch Society defined its first mission as saving America from the Communists. Founder Robert Welch scared everyone when he declared that the US was already 60% Communist controlled. He insisted that the US would soon be absorbed into the Soviet Union.
Making matters worse, the problem wasn’t just the USSR or Red China. We had our own home-grown traitors in Congress, the Department of State. and every other federal bureaucracy.
The second Birch mission was undoing every piece of progressive legislation passed since FDR.
The John Birch Society struck a chord with frightened Americans. It grew rapidly. The Republican Party welcomed the Birchers as political allies and friends.
A New World Order
Welch expanded his view of Communism’s menace by insisting that it was one part of the Illuminati, a sinister international conspiracy founded in 1776 in Bavaria. The early members of the Illuminati devised a plan to destroy all governments and institute a New World Order they would control. According to Welch, the Illuminati had influenced every major event in the last 180 years including the World Wars, our Civil War, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. Welch believe that the conspiracy hatched the Progressive Movement as another step on the road to socialist, Marxist control of the United States.
According to Welch, Communists provided the brawn for the New World Order while policy ideas were hatched in think tanks and foundations organized and controlled by “Insiders.” Our only hope was an army of real Americans who would “take our country back.”
Fifty-plus years before the Tea Party, the Birchers set out to return America to its glory days — that period before 1913 when men were free to do anything while the government did practically nothing. To achieve a tiny federal government, virtually every federal program, every federal department and most of the president’s cabinet would be wiped out.
The Federal Government Can Only Do Four Things
The Birchers (and much of today’s Tea Party, anti-government Libertarians, and a host of other radical groups) believe that the federal government is only authorized in the Constitution to do four things
Run the post office
Conduct foreign policy
Raise an army in time of war
Everything else the federal government has done has to be undone. Programs would be eliminated, turned over to the states, or handed to corporations to manage.
The John Birch Society gleefully anticipated the death of Social Security and Medicare, the end of unemployment compensation, and anything called welfare. Good bye to federal funding for highways and bridges. Birchers opposed all regulation of banks, of business, of the environment, even regulation of nuclear materials. All federal civil rights legislation and anything dealing with education from the federal lunch program to any federal funding equation for school had to be stopped.
The John Birch Society wanted a government 60 percent smaller than it was (in 1960). The IRS would be no more and the income tax rate would be zero.
Calling the President a Communist
The Birch Society’s rapid growth came to an abrupt halt in 1960. In a book that was never supposed to be read beyond a small group of men (like my dad) Robert Welch spent 300 pages analyzing the career of Dwight David Eisenhower. This was the conclusion of Welch’s study: “My firm belief that Dwight Eisenhower is a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy is based on an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable that it seems to me to put this conviction beyond any reasonable doubt.,” and “There is only one possible word to describe his (Eisenhower) purposes and actions. That word is treason.”
In 1960, calling the President a traitor was a big deal. When the accusation Welch leveled against President Eisenhower became public, the Birch Society found itself at the center of a media firestorm that lasted for years.
The GOP Turns on the Birchers
Prominent Republicans and Conservatives – Richard Nixon, Bill Buckley and National Review and even Senator Barry Goldwater — denounced the Birchers. The John Birch Society was drummed out of the GOP and exiled to the lunatic fringe with the KKK, the Aryan Nation and a whole assortment of crackpots.
Taking Our Country Back, again
Barry Goldwater waved the “taking our country back” banner throughout his 1964 campaign. Despite his resounding defeat, he did accomplish an important milestone: he yanked five Southern states away from the Democrats.
Richard Nixon expanded “taking our country back” by rallying what he called the “silent majority.” His campaign grabbed 32 states and put him in the White House. Then, along came Ronald Reagan.
Ronald Reagan Makes Government the Problem and Wins the Presidency
While the Birchers were considered a footnote in political history, the anti-federal government movement found a new hero in Ronald Reagan who famously said that the government is not the solution, the government is the problem. Reagan built a coalition with movement conservatives, the religious right and wealthy corporatists.
He pushed the idea that tax cuts for the wealthy would trickle down to the rest of the people. His economic ideas included the nonsense that tax cuts actually increase government revenue. Of course, when his tax cuts exploded the deficit, budget cuts followed. The first programs slashed were those that helped people in need. Through it all, right-wingers cheered.
My Mother Explains What Taking Back the Country Really Means
One day, I asked my Mother about the impact of Birch ideas on the country. “What happens to the poor, the elderly, the unemployed, the disabled if the Birch society achieves all of its goals?
“It doesn’t matter, not at all,” she told me. “It’s all about the Constitution.”
“The Constitution doesn’t feed a hungry child or help an unemployed man, or write a Social Security check,” I argued.
“That’s not my concern,” she said.
She wagged her finger at me. “Our day will come,” she said. “All you socialist-liberals will fail and we’ll finally take back our country.”
The Tea Party is The John Birch Society is the Tea Party
In 2010, when very right-wing Republicans took over the Congress on a promise to take back the country by slashing spending, ending healthcare reform, and cutting taxes, I remembered my mother’s words.
I recognized the anti-government rhetoric and the unlimited money and I realized that the Republicans had locked arms with the Tea Party, anti-government libertarians, big business, the religious right, and the John Birch Society. This powerful coalition grabbed the Senate in 2014 and threatens to win the White House in 2016.
Most Americans have no idea that the “new” ideas being sold by the right-wing Republicans are the same “old” ideas that the John Birch Society preached. Most Americans have no idea that “taking back our country” means smashing the federal government, dismantling the safety net, cutting taxes for the rich, and ending Social Security, Medicare, and healthcare reform.
But, now you know the truth: Take Our Country Back is an old war cry of the extremist right-wing. Since 2008, it’s been dusted off, and used to rally a new generation of anti-government, right-wing radicals.