What separates Wrapped In The Flag from other critiques of the far right is my personal connection to the John Birch Society, which paved the way for the Tea Party. In my book, I open up about growing up in an ultra-conservative household and the beliefs that drive the radical right. This excerpt is reprinted here with the permission of Beacon Press.
I Know What Extremism Looks Like
Ten years ago, I was sure I’d heard the last of conspiracies, secret Communists, and America’s imminent collapse. After all, the Cold War had been over for twenty years, my parents and most of their fanatic friends were dead, and the Bush administration was killing America’s appetite for right-wing Republicans. “There’s no one left to hoist the extremist flag,” I told myself.
I was wrong. By 2008, political discourse sounded eerily similar to that of 1958, when a brand-new right-wing, populist movement—the John Birch Society—burst onto the American scene. All across the country, newly awakened Birchers rallied to “take our county back.” Two dedicated Birch leaders mobilized the Midwest: Stillwell and Laurene Conner—my parents.
Dad and Mother Were Ready Be Right Wingers
My parents had been primed for their lurch to the right for many years. They loved Joseph McCarthy and hated the Communists. They’d decided that government assistance made people weak and lazy, and that the New Deal was really a bad deal. They loathed Franklin Roosevelt and blamed Democrats for destroying our free-enterprise system.
So in 1955, when Mother and Dad were introduced to Robert Welch, a candy-company executive turned conspiracy hunter, they immediately recognized 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, when Welch founded his John Birch Society, Mother and Dad didn’t hesitate— they signed up and immediately handed over $2,000 for lifetime memberships, the equivalent of about $15,000 today.
The John Birch Society became my parents’ lifelong obsession; nothing was allowed to interfere with the next meeting, the next project, the next mailing. At fourteen and thirteen, respectively, my older brother and I were deemed old enough to take up the cause as full-fledged adult members. During Birch activities, the other Conner children were banished upstairs, where my ten-year-old sister was put in charge of the baby (eighteen months) and my six-year-old brother fended for himself. In only a few months, the entire Conner family lived and breathed Birch.
Night after night, Birch activists and new recruits filled our living room. They received hours of instruction about the secret conspiracy, the New World Order, hidden codes on the dollar bill, and Communist spies inside our government. Birchers were schooled in the evils of creeping socialism, Communism, and Marxism. Good Birchers understood the sins of welfare and Social Security. It was time to rise up against the unholy alliance of the Left—Communists, socialists, liberals, union bosses, and the liberal press.
Communists in our Country
Robert Welch identified Communists as one enemy in this epic struggle to save the country. Of course, in the 1950s the march of the Communists across Eastern Europe and Asia was scary to Americans, but Welch was more worried about the Communists lurking inside our country, often holding positions of influence. These home-grown American Communists were ready to spring into action to take down our Constitution and replace it with a socialist manifesto.
Birchers believed that those American Communists were all over the place.They served on school boards, advocated putting fluoride in drinking water, and taught subversive university classes. Others organized labor unions, led the civil rights movement and served in the Congress.
The Birch message resonated. Membership exploded and revenue spiked. My father was rewarded for his dedication with a promotion to the Birch National Council, where he served for thirty-two years.
From Heroes to Crackpots
From the outset, the GOP applauded the Birchers for their patriotic zeal and embraced them as good Republicans. But after a scandal rocked the society in 1961, the GOP worried that its closeness to the Birchers would taint the Republican brand. It could not afford to be painted by the Democrats as the political arm of the radical right. Republican leaders decided to label the Birchers as crackpots and push them out of the party. Problem solved.
The effort worked. Before long, the Birchers had joined the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, and other kooks as the most extreme reactionaries in American politics. The Republican Party took credit for saving the United States from fringe-of-the-fringe crusaders who imagined that even the president was a Commie.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, while the politicians and pundits declared the Birchers dead and buried, the moneyed Birch leadership went to plan B, redirecting their cash and their influence into think tanks and foundations. My parents joined in that diversifying effort. They founded a right-wing Catholic organization, the Wanderer Foundation, in St. Paul, Minnesota and donated to every right-wing organization and political-action committee they could.
My parents never had big money, but other Birch families spent huge sums to bankroll Birch ideas. 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.
His sons, David and Charles Koch, inherited their father’s multimillions, turned them into multibillions, and invested liberally in their favorite political causes: the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, and others. Those organizations incorporated many John Birch Society ideas and effectively increased both their reach and their impact on American politics. Since Citizens United, the 2011 Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates to unlimited and unregulated corporate political donations, the Kochs have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to individual candidates and political-action committees.
The Kochs and their allies envision the same framework for American government that I heard from my father and his John Birch Society allies: the New Deal dismantled, the federal government reduced to a quarter of its current size, and most federal programs gutted. In this right-wing, libertarian utopia, businesses and individuals would be free to do anything, unrestrained by rules or taxes.
In 2008, when the economy tanked and Barack Obama emerged as the Democratic nominee for president, the radical right went on the offense. The Democrat was labeled a Marxist, a Socialist, and a friend of terrorists. Folks unfurled the yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and shouted about trees of liberty being watered with the blood of tyrants.
When I heard frenzied voters at a Republican rally shouting, “Treason,” and “Kill him,” in response to one of Sarah Palin’s anti-Obama rants, I worried. “My parents are back,” I told anyone who’d listen.
People looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I realized that the Birch Society had faded out of America’s memory. It had been confined to a footnote on a footnote for political wonks.
Six months after President Obama was inaugurated, a new right-wing, populist movement arose. The Tea Party—bankrolled by the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity—staged rallies and protests across the country. Self-appointed zealots suggested “Second Amendment remedies” if they didn’t achieve their goals at the ballot box. I shuddered when I heard my father’s favorite rally cry: “We’ve come to take our country back.”
These newly minted right-wingers were rattling off old Birch slogans:
• Immigrants are the enemy. Protect our borders and deport all illegal aliens.
• Gays are ungodly. Pray the gay away from children and teens.
• Unemployed people don’t want to work, and poor people keep themselves poor, on purpose. If we cut the minimum wage and eliminate unemployment compensation, everyone will have a job.
• Unions caused the economic collapse by shielding lazy, incompetent public employees.
• Rich folks are “job creators,” and we need to protect their wealth.
• Social Security is unsustainable, and Medicare and Medicaid have to be restricted so that corporations and “job creators” have lower tax rates.
• Abortion is murder and must be outlawed even in cases of rape and incest.
• No exception means no exceptions; even in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.
• The economic meltdown of 2008 came from high taxes on corporations, too many regulations, and poor people taking out mortgages they couldn’t afford.
• The government can’t create jobs, so stimulus programs don’t work.
• Cutting taxes creates jobs.
• The government can’t limit the right to own or carry guns. If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.
• America is God’s chosen nation, but our president can’t understand our exceptionalism. After all, he’s not a “real” American; he’s a Marxist, Socialist, Muslim racist who hates America.
I know that this new radical Right is a rewrite of the old John Birch Society. This time, however, the movement has enormous political muscle, unlimited dollars, and right-wing media support. This reality hit me after studying my parents’ files and personal writing, combing historical archives, and reading contemporary accounts and documents produced by the Birch Society itself.
My notes credit published works and archival documents, but much of this narrative comes from my experience. This book chronicles the history of the John Birch Society and its impact on America, past and present.
But above all, Wrapped in the Flag is my story.
In these two clips, I explain who the Birchers are and what they believe. In Clip 1, I share a short overview of the Birchers. In Clip 2, I learn that the Conspiracy had secret messages on our dollar bill.
Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right by Claire Conner. Copyright 2013. with permission from Beacon Press.
Kirkus Reviews May 1, 2013 "Prompted by the rise of the modern-day tea party, Conner writes of her experiences as the child of leaders in the radical right-wing John Birch Society. “My parents are back.” That was the author’s response to the rise of the tea party after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. In this memoir/history, she opens new insights into the conservative political movement, … Read more...
April 13, 2013 I know what extremism looks like," declares Conner in the preface to her memoir. Her parents were leaders of the ultraconservative John Birch Society (JBS). From early adolescence, she was expected to be part of her parents' JBS activities, doing everything from serving refreshments at recruitment meetings to writing letters to political figures. As Conner grew up, however, the … Read more...
April 14, 2013 Conner’s memoir of being raised in a family whose political beliefs were shaped by the radical right-wing John Birch Society is an affecting portrait of late-20th-century America on the fringe. The eldest daughter of Stillwell “Jay” Conner, a national spokesman for the John Birch Society, Claire grew up in Chicago in a house of harsh discipline and even harsher political … Read more...
Review: Growing up on the right wing Colette Bancroft, Times Book Editor After Barry Goldwater's crushing defeat in the 1964 presidential election, college student Claire Conner said to a friend who proclaimed it would be "a cold day in hell" before another conservative was nominated, "'The whole right wing is kaput. My parents and the Birchers just became ancient history.' "Good … Read more...
Growing Up Right Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right By Claire Conner Boston: Beacon Press, 2013, 264 pp., $29.95, hardcover Reviewed by Kathleen Blee In Wrapped in the Flag, Claire Conner recounts the pain of growing up in a household in which “all reason went out the window,” as her parents slid further into the John Birch Society (JBS). … Read more...
Review of Wrapped in the Flag written for the Hampshire Daily Gazette by John Sheirer, author and political blogger August 10, 2013 Where did these people come from? Back in 2009, a friend saw a tea party rally on Fox News and asked me, “Where did these crazy people come from, the John Birch Society?” She was joking, but like all the best jokes, this one was grounded in reality. Wrapped in … Read more...
What separates Wrapped In The Flag from other critiques of the far right is my personal connection to the John Birch Society, which paved the way for the Tea Party. In my book, I open up about growing up in an ultra-conservative household and the beliefs that drive the radical right. This excerpt is reprinted here with the permission of Beacon Press. I Know What Extremism … Read more...
. . . Five Minutes Later, He Was Dead From my book, Wrapped in the Flag, © 2013. With permission from Beacon Press. Texas Nice At 11 a.m. on Friday, November 22, 1963, I stood in the crowd on Main Street. The early morning rain had stopped and it was nearly seventy degrees. For a Chicago girl used to bundling up in November, that morning in Dallas was glorious. I stripped off my light jacket … Read more...
My parents had gotten their views about African Americans and the civil rights movement from Robert Welch, an old Southern boy [and co-founder of the John Birch Society]. He’d always thought the Negroes had it good in the United States, a view he explained in a pamphlet published in the early 1960s, Two Revolutions at Once. In it, Welch claimed that “educational opportunities [for Negroes] have … Read more...
My parents had barely unpacked from their trip to Spain when they announced a new rule To my surprise, my parents had barely unpacked when they announced a new house rule: my brother and I were instructed to bring our schoolbooks home every day. “We want to know what you’re being taught,” Mother explained. “What do I tell Sister?” I asked. “We are only allowed to take workbooks out of the … Read more . . .
Let me introduce you to the Koch Brothers and their father, Fred, infamous John Birch Society founding member. This video is an outtake from my interview with Jen Senko, documentary filmmaker. Her new film, "The Brainwashing of My Dad" premieres on March 18, 2016. It is impossible to understand where the radical right got its mojo without knowing the Kochs. David and Charles are the architects of … Read more...
I've spent a lot of time connecting the dots between old right-wing radicals, particularly John Birch Society radicals and today's new radicals in the Republican party. At first, I felt like I was the only one who realized that the GOP absorbed so much Birch thought that they had become nearly identical twins. The GOP doesn't like the comparison. The older establishment Republican types remember … Read more...
Let me introduce you to the Koch Brothers and their father, Fred, infamous John Birch Society founding member. This video is an outtake from my interview with Jen Senko, documentary filmmaker. Her new film, "The Brainwashing of My Dad" premieres on March 18, 2016. It is impossible to understand where the radical right got its mojo without knowing the Kochs. David and Charles are the architects of … More...
Intelligence Report, Spring 2013, Issue Number: 149 Bringing Back Birch by Don Terry SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In a hotel near the outer limits of California’s capital, just down the hall from the pain management conference and the baseball card show, three banquet tables along the back wall of the Cherrywood Room are covered with dozens of … Read more...
Growing Up in the John Birch Society A new memoir exposes the trauma of growing up in an extreme-right-wing family—and the way those traumas were visited, politically, on the rest of us. By Rick Perlstein August 6, 2013 Old Enough to Save the Country Claire Conner was about 13 years old when her parents handed her a John Birch Society membership … Read more...
. . . and Its Relevance Today By Rachel Tabachnick, on January 21, 2014 Rachel Tabachnick is a PRA research fellow and member of the Public Eye editorial board. She researches the impact of the Religious Right on policy and politics in education, economics, the environment, and foreign policy. The John Birch Society, Libertarians, and Nullification Founded in 1958, the John Birch … Read more...
by Robyn E. Blumner, Columnist/Editorial Writer If you've ever wondered what happened to the John Birch Society, author Claire Conner of Dunedin can tell you. The radical right-wing group that was briefly a player in national conservative politics in the 1960s is back, under a different name: tea party. She should know. Conner's new memoir Wrapped in the Flag: A … Read more...
Make no mistake. Donald Trump would like to be America's dictator. Based on primary election results, a majority of the Republican party is okay with it. As of today, the GOP establishment, Evangelical Christians, Tea Party types, anti-government groups, and rank-and-file Republicans are falling in line with Trump. If you ever thought the GOP was conservative, it's time to stop. The GOP in 2016 … Read more ...