These are the most common questions I’m asked by readers and commentators. They dig into my life, details about the John Birch Society, and what I’ve learned since my book was published.
Q: Wrapped in the Flag was published in 2013. Does it still matter in 2016?
It matters. More than ever before. When my book was released in 2013, very few people knew or cared about that radical right. Even fewer made the connection between old radicals and the new extremists who are running the GOP. Recently, more and more Americans are becoming aware of the Koch Brothers and their extremist roots. My book and my social media posts have helped build a greater understanding of the connections between John Birch extremism and today’s Republican party.
Q: The John Birch Society? Most people have either forgotten about the Birchers or never heard of them. Can you give us a short introduction?
In the 1960s, the JBS was the largest, most effective, and most powerful far right-wing group in the United States. The first mission of the Society was to stop the Communist takeover of the country; a takeover they insisted would be complete before 1976.
Getting rid of the Commies was not enough for the Birchers. In fact, they believed that all progressive legislation passed since the early 1900s had to be repealed or privatized. Here are few examples what had to go:
- Social Security and Medicare
- Medicaid, Food stamps, and unemployment benefits
- Healthcare reform
- Environmental regulation and regulation of business
Q: That’s a lot of cutting. What kind of government did the John Birch Society want?
The JBS imagined an America where the federal government was tiny, taxes were next to nothing, the IRS was dismantled and all regulations on business were eliminated. These federal departments would be eliminated:
- Education and Commerce
- Health and Human Services
- Energy and Labor
- IRS and the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)
Almost everything the federal government did would be privatized or block-granted back to the states without oversight. The JBS called their efforts, “taking the country back.”
Robert Welch, JBS founder, envisioned America like it existed in the early 1900s. He even talked about the benefits of “healthy poverty,” when poor people were free and unencumbered by interference from the government. For the Birchers, any government assistance makes people lazy and dependent.
Q: How did your parents get involved?
My mother and father met Robert Welch, the founder of the Birch Society, in 1955—three years before the society came into being. They immediately became allies and friends. A month after the John Birch Society was organized in Indianapolis, December 1958, my father joined. He was so committed that he wrote a check for $2,000 (about $15,000 today) to the organization for two life memberships—one for himself and one for my mother.
My father was the first Bircher in the city of Chicago. My mother was the second. I became a member early in 1959—I was 13. My father assumed a leadership position in the Society in 1960 when he was invited to join the National Council, where he worked directly with Robert Welch, Fred Koch and other prominent right wingers.
For years, Dad was a Birch spokesperson, traveling around the country, recruiting members, and supporting the Birch cause. He remained in leadership for 32 years until his death in 1992. My mother was an avid Bircher, too. She was a powerhouse in organization and planning, managing Birch chapters in Chicago and later on in Wisconsin. Robert Welch credited my parents with building the Birch infrastructure in the Midwest. When Mother died , she’d been a Birch member for 48 years.
Q: You were a member of this powerful, secret political group. How did the Birch Society keep everything secret?
I want people to understand that the Birch Society kept its rolls secret; even refusing to discuss membership numbers. Leaders, like my father, were identified but everything else was hidden in the national office in Belmont Massachusetts.
I am often asked whether specific people were Birch members. Unless they were on the National Council or they made their membership public, there is no way to know. I did know about some members because they belonged to the chapters my parents ran, or I met them at Birch events.
The JBS was powerful. Members who did not contribute or who criticized the Society had their memberships canceled. Everyone was expected to pull his weight and follow the agenda outlined from headquarters.
Q: Were leaders elected?
There was no democracy in the John Birch Society. This was a monolithic organization with all directions coming from the top.
All activities and priorities were determined by Robert Welch and the National Council. Chapter leaders were appointed and managed by the Birch field staff. In the Birch society, there were no elections. The JBS uses the same model today.
Q: Did that control work?
At first it was extremely successful. People flocked to the organization. From 1958 when the Birch society was founded until 1960 (two years), membership grew to about 100,000 paid members. Of course, those numbers were never released; they are estimates from what Birch materials suggested.
Today JBS is having another huge growth spurt. One researcher who works for the society told me that they are experiencing their largest growth ever since the election of President Obama.
For me, I was 13 when I became a member. My parents told me I was old enough to help save the country and I signed my application.. I was a good little Bircher. I wrote letters, signed petitions, helped my mother with her projects, attended meetings several times a week, read Birch materials and anything else my parents told me to do.
Q: So, when did you start to wonder about the Birchers?
My first doubts came in the person of Revilo P. Oliver, a classics professor at the University of Illinois and a member of the John Birch Society National Council with my dad. My parents seemed to love him, but he gave me the creeps. He preached that the Holocaust never happened and coined the term “Holohoax.”
After only a few months with Oliver, my parents began to downplay the Holocaust saying that the Germans were not targeting Jews, but Communists. This made no sense to me. We lived in Rogers Park, a section of Chicago that was home to many Jews and a few Catholics. I knew about the terrors of Nazi Germany long before I knew Revilo Oliver.
Q: Were there other issues that raised warning signs for you?
I separated from my parents and the Birch society on the Civil Rights Movement, Healthcare for the elderly (before it was called Medicare), and the anger, hatred, and paranoia that fueled almost everything my parents did. As I grew more liberal in my thinking, I found less and less in the JBS that made sense. From issues like funding food stamps to concerns about protecting the environment, my parents and I were almost always in opposite camps.
Still, it took me until I was almost 30 years old to finally say NO to anything associated with the John Birch Society.
Q: What happened to the Birchers? They vanished for almost 40 years.
Ironically, the Birchers were kicked out of the GOP because of a secret book written by Robert Welch. This book, The Politician—still available from the JBS—claimed that President Dwight Eisenhower was a conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy for all of his adult life. This accusation created a firestorm for the Birchers and they were pushed out of the mainstream of the Republican Party.
But, while everyone was declaring the Birchers dead and done, the JBS was building a strong base of support in the South where white citizens were terrified by the Civil Rights movement. The JBS called Martin Luther King a Communist while they opposed every piece of Civil Rights legislation.
Q: The Birchers called President Eisenhower a traitor. What about the other presidents?
The JBS hated Franklin Roosevelt, the creator of the New Deal. They were no fan of Harry Truman either. John Kennedy was hated for the Bay of Big fiasco and other policies perceived as pro-Communist. Of course, Lyndon Johnson was castigated for the War on Poverty; Nixon for going to China; Jimmy Carter for Iran; Bill Clinton for everything.
President Obama is under attack for healthcare, the IRS, Benghazi, Fast and Furious and anything else they can find. JBS has welcomed the Birthers, who insist that President Obama is not an American citizen and thus an illegal president.
Q: It sounds like the John Birch Society isn’t fond of any modern presidents.
It’s not just the president. The JBS has issues with the Constitution, too. They actually want the US to repeal:
- The 16th Amendment creating income taxes.
- The 17th Amendment allowing for the direct election of Senators.
- The 14th Amendment with its guarantees of citizenship.
Listen closely and you’ll hear candidates for office, including the office of the president, saying the same things. The 14th Amendment is under constant fire during the debate about immigration reform.
While they’re at it, the Birch Society and many right-wing Republicans want to repeal or dramatically curtail:
- Social Security and Medicare
- Civil Rights Legislation and the Voting Rights Act
- Environmental protections
- Most labor laws and federal minimum wage legislation
- Unemployment compensation, food stamps, and the Earned Income tax credit
- Federal gas taxes and federal highway programs
- Amtrak and all federally-funded transportation initiatives
- Federal Aviation Administration and FDA
- The Federal Reserve
- Membership in the United Nations
- Women’s reproductive rights with the ultimate goal of overturning Roe v Wade
- Healthcare Reform
Q: Why do you say that the Tea Party is the John Birch Society in a new suit.
Look at the list of legislation the JBS opposes. Then, turn on your television, read your local paper and listen to the newest crop of right-wing, Tea Party candidates. I guarantee that you’ll hear some or all of these Birch issues as standard right-wing talking points.
Listen to the Republicans running for President and you’ll hear all of these programs attacked in the angriest, nastiest way possible.
Q: But are they Birch members?
It’s really not a question of having a membership card. It’s the ideas, the plans, the policies, and the legislation that impacts all of us. Birch-Tea Party is same-same.
In addition, the Tea Party and the radical right-wing of the Republican Party has raked in hundred of millions of dollars from men like David and Charles Koch, who have deep John Birch Society ties. Other wealthy Birch families are funding candidates all over the country.
Q: Why are people so unaware of these connections?
This is so important to grasp. For almost 40 years, the JBS has been mocked as a 1960s flash-in-the-pan gang of extremist nuts who spent their time looking for Communists under the bed. “Bircher” became a synonym for crackpot. The notion that the JBS could ever have any impact on American politics was dismissed as ridiculous.
I was raised in the JBS. For thirty years, I’d heard my Birch parents preach the Birch line.
As the Republican Party pushed to the right, I recognized their “new” ideas as old, recycled Birch extremism. In 2003, I wrote the first draft of my book. It took me over ten years of work to see Wrapped in the Flag published.
During that time, the radical right has become stronger, more organized, better funded and more dangerous. Ideas that are being spouted as “conservative” talking points are not conservative at all; they are radical.
Wrapped in the Flag connects the dots.
Now everyone can discover what I learned growing up in America’s radical right, how I escaped, and why my story matters today. My award-winning book is available today in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and Audible versions.
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 ...