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). Night after night, the family’s living room was filled with conspiracy-minded adults determined to expose the network of Communists and internationalists that controlled the world. Their work was too important to be disturbed, even by the children, who were left to fend for themselves.
By the age of thirteen, Conner herself felt the tug of the radical right. Prodded by a mother who insisted that “we’re doing this for you, young lady” and a father who brandished a JBS membership application, Conner officially became a Bircher. But her place in this political world was fragile. It was Conner, not the adults, who would be called away from meetings to tend to the younger children. The image is a haunting one. While her parents swap conspiracy tales with their fellow Birchers downstairs, Conner remains upstairs drying her toddler sister’s body cast.
Wrapped in the Flag contains several stories. On one level, it is a painful memoir of neglect, laying out the resentment and confusion of a child whose mother seems more devoted to strangers than to her own children. Remembering her mother’s battles with Chicago’s schools over alleged Communist messages in textbooks, Conner recalls that “as my mother devoted more and more time to save ‘the children,’ she had less and less time for her children.” This fits a common criticism of women activists on the right. Her mother, like Phyllis Schlafly and Sarah Palin in a later generation, is taken to task for the hypocrisy of claiming to save American families while being oblivious to the needs of their own.
Yet Conner’s grievance is deeper, rooted in the uncomfortable memories of a childhood on the political margins. “For me, life would be perfect if my mother and dad gave up their politics and embraced the suburban life.” Children of leftist activist parents often temper the hurt of being different with pride that their families stood up for moral principles. Many also find their parents’ political efforts vindicated by the passage of time. Such compensations don’t exist for the child of Bircher parents. The JBS’s paranoia and nonsensical claims, including the purported Communist leanings of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, cemented its reputation as fringe group of political crackpots and made it the subject of continual exposés in the media. Even ardent conservatives found that distancing themselves from the JBS could bolster their own political legitimacy. All this left Conner no way to find merit in her parents’ politics. Worse, she worried that her worst fears about them might be true, even that her father and his JBS comrades may have played a part in the assassination of President John Kennedy.
Conner moved from her parents’ house in Chicago to the college they demanded she attend (but wouldn’t pay for) in Dallas and into marriage and motherhood in Wisconsin. Along the way, she struggled to free herself from the weight of her JBS-obsessed parents and the avalanche of negative publicity their political efforts attracted. She struggled alone. “What happened to us kids … [was] not on anybody’s radar,” she writes.
On another level, Wrapped in the Flag is an insider story of one of America’s largest and most secretive radical right movements. At its peak, the JBS enlisted an estimated 80,000 official members with a much larger network of sympathizers, likely in the millions. Despite the vast number of people who were in and around the JBS in its heyday, very little is known about how it worked. The JBS always operated largely out of the public eye. It issued denunciations of school officials, Supreme Court judges, and government officials whom it considered agents of the Communist conspiracy. And it mustered its troops to support selected candidates, most notably Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for president in 1960. Such efforts were hatched in secret meetings of JBS leadership and enacted in gatherings carefully shielded from outside view.
By taking us into the Bircher meetings in her parents’ house, Conner shines a fresh light on this chapter of radical rightist politics. For one thing, she shows that women like her mother were central to the spread of JBS ideas. Most accounts of the JBS focus on male leaders such as its highly visible founder Robert Welch. (Although there is speculation that women made up a good portion of its membership, this is difficult to verify because the JBS—still active, headquartered in Wisconsin—has been unwilling to release membership rolls or other records.) Conner depicts her mother as an energetic activist on her own account, not merely a pawn of her father or other JBS men. Fueled by her beliefs in strict Catholicism and strict conservatism, Conner’s mother helped build a significant JBS chapter in Chicago. And she took firm action on her beliefs, unafraid to be seen as an annoyance even to officials in Conner’s Catholic schools. To Conner, her mother’s persistent effort to rid schools of all Communist influence was embarrassing. For the JBS, her tactics could be quite effective.
Conner’s insider perspective also illuminates links among movements of the radical right over time. Histories of the American right after World War II commonly break at 1970. Before that date, a hierarchical Old Right preached the politics of nationalism, free enterprise, and support for the financial and political elites. After 1970, a more grassroots New (Christian) Right emerged that was energized by social issues. Conner’s account suggests that it is misleading to overstate the divide between the old and new right. Her mother’s efforts to cleanse school textbooks of Communist influence acquainted her with Norma and Mel Gabler, who became infamous with their campaign to impose conservative values on the textbooks approved for schools in Texas and elsewhere. Textbook politics also brought her mother into contact with Phyllis Schlafly, who subsequently headed the successful effort to block passage of the federal Equal Rights Amendment. Conner’s parents were part of a shift to more orthodox Catholicism that opposed Communism, large government, and social-gospel Christianity, and favored business and just war; this helped usher in later Catholic-led efforts to criminalize abortion and block rights for sexual minorities. They also became involved with an American Party candidate who was exposed as a recruiter for the antigovernment Posse Comitatus, which subsequently was at the forefront of today’s patriot/militia movement.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Wrapped in the Flag is its glimpse into the world of right-wing conspiracy thinking. Conner shows that conspiracies were everywhere in the world of the JBS, whose members needed no evidence to believe in them. In fact, the circularity of conspiratorial ideas meant that lack of evidence only confirmed the power of the conspirators to hide their actions. When the anti-Communist crusading Senator Joe McCarthy died, he must have been murdered by unnamed enemies. Racial segregation was a conspiracy of the Antichrist. Wars were sparked by the Illuminati, a secret society held responsible for a diverse set of historical events including world depressions and the French and Russian revolutions. Sometimes conspiracy thinking could lead to surprising conclusions. Since Birchers believed that Communists dominated US foreign policy, they concluded that the Vietnam War must be wrong, a logic that positioned them with quite unlikely allies.
Conspiratorial ideas, and the fear with which they are associated, connect the JBS to more extreme and violent fringes of the radical right. Conner’s book has many revealing examples of this bridge. A founding member of Chicago’s chapter of the JBS was a Holocaust denier; under his influence, Conner’s parents flirted with the idea that the Holocaust wasn’t so bad, that its negative image was contrived by powerful Jews themselves. The Southern-born Robert Welch fomented fear that race riots were the inevitable result of the changing terrain of race. “Thanks to Welsh, my parents were terrified,” writes Conner; they began to pin their hopes on George Wallace and other white supremacists.
As might be expected, Conner eventually broke from the conspiratorial, insular world of her parents. Her journey away from Bircher politics had many causes. It was prompted by moments of disillusionment, as she realized the rigidity and often nonsensical nature of her parent’s beliefs. It had personal triggers, as happened when one of her children revealed himself to be gay. And no doubt, Conner’s distance from the world of the JBS reflected the virtual collapse of the group as its anti-Communist agenda lost steam and was replaced by different, no less dangerous forms of radical right-wing politics, such as white supremacism and the Tea Party.
Kathleen Bleeis distinguished professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her books include Inside Organized Racism: Women in the Hate Movement (2002)and Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s (2010).