A foundation of the folklore of the American right is the story of how National Review’s William F. Buckley, in the early- to mid-1960s, cast the John Birch Society—and by extension the entire kooky, conspiracist wing of the right—out of the conservative movement.
This was part of a larger struggle for the soul of the right. Older conservative publications such as the American Mercury, which had once been the home of such luminaries as H.L. Mencken and Henry Hazlitt, had turned into a forum for antisemitic conspiracy theories—before eventually being taken over outright by neo-Nazis. The response was an effort by Buckley and other conservative thinkers, with the help of political frontmen Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, to create a conservative movement with more ideological and philosophical substance—one based not on conspiracy theories or mere reactionary emotions but on ideas. (Too bad he also tried to get rid of Ayn Rand.)
Looking at American politics today, it sure looks like this seminal conservative achievement is unraveling. The Birchers are back. And they’re winning.
The John Birch Society, to refresh your memory, was started in 1958 by a conservative businessman who thought President Eisenhower was secretly a Soviet agent. It had a certain kind of cracked appeal as an easy explanation for various setbacks in the early years of the Cold War. The Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, the Communist takeover of China, the Soviet development of nuclear weapons—these weren’t the results of Western mistakes, or large and difficult-to-control social forces, or just the fortunes of war. No, it was all a secret plot, and THEY were lying to you.
This worldview was tremendously popular, more popular than today’s conservatives would probably like to admit. In 1962, Barry Goldwater complained, “Every other person in Phoenix is a member of the John Birch Society. I’m not talking about commie-haunted apple pickers or cactus drunks. I’m talking about the highest cast of men of affairs.”
The Birchers had such a big following on the right that Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan hemmed and hawed for years before breaking with them. Even then, it took repeated denunciations, combined with the Birchers’ increasing notoriety as a national laughingstock, to eventually reduce their appeal and relegate them to the crazy fringes.
Consider the elements of this history:
We have a conspiracy theory that explains everything conservatives think has gone wrong in the world by positing the machinations of a secret cabal that controls everything from the intelligence agencies to the schools.
We have the rapid spread of these crackpot theories to otherwise normal and respectable people in the rank and file of the movement.
We have an attempt to make the conspiracists into the ultimate representatives of opposition to totalitarian communism, and a corresponding attempt to dismiss any conservative critics of the conspiracists as weak-kneed appeasers handing over the country to its enemies.
We have the uneasy balancing act of conservatives in the media and in politics who don’t want to denounce the crackpots for fear of angering their party’s base.
Isn’t this also precisely the state of conservatism today?
We tend to think that our culture war is something new, rising out of the unique challenges of our own era. But you’d be surprised how much of it is just the same old culture war being endlessly rehashed.
Today’s equivalent of the John Birch Society is the QAnon conspiracy theory, an online grift that got out of hand and became a worldview. It posits its own spectacularly implausible conspiracy theory: That there is a global network of pedophiles who secretly run the world and control our politics so that they can abuse children. This conspiracy theory has in turn spawned other conspiracy theories which claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. It is currently being mainstreamed in attacks on Disney as a corporation bent on “grooming” children to prepare them for exploitation by pedophiles.
And where are today’s conservative leaders, the intellectuals and politicians, the Buckleys and Reagans, who have the authority to shut this down?
Well, Ben Sasse wrote a piece once. But most of today’s conservative and Republican leaders are actually trying to hitch themselves to the new John Birchers.
Donald Trump famously refused to denounce the QAnon crazies, describing them only as people who are “against pedophilia”—the most flattering possible description of the group. It’s like saying that the John Birchers were “against communism.” In both cases, the actual salient characteristic of these groups is their wild, paranoid, evidence-free conspiracy theories.
Trump’s sympathy for QAnon helped ease it into the conservative mainstream, and we can see the results in two recent incidents.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is the leading candidate to become the “sane Trump”—a Republican who can harness Trump’s populist appeal, but in a disciplined and calculating way. But after DeSantis’s defenders rushed out to assure everyone that his bill targeting teachers was not a “Don’t Say Gay Law” and was not animated by anti-homosexual bias, his press secretary Christina Pushaw declared that the bill “would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill,” adding, “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer.” A “groomer,” for those who are fortunate enough not to know, is a child predator who manipulates his victims to prepare them to accept abuse.
So much for being the “sane Trump.”
The idea that gay teachers are predators preparing to groom children is an old trope with a history in Florida. You may recall that previous iterations of the culture war attempted to ban homosexuals from teaching jobs. But more significant is the way this claim taps into the QAnon conspiracy theory. The whole base of QAnon is the dangerous delusion that their enemies are all secret pedophiles. This is the line that has been taken up by conservatives and endlessly repeated, including in a conservative campaign to boycott the Walt Disney Company (and also to subject it to land-use and antitrust regulations) as a political reprisal for opposing the Florida law. And why not if, as authoritarian conservative Rod Dreher puts it, Disney has “gone groomer”?
Taking a bill with many serious problems—a vaguely worded restriction and an enforcement mechanism designed to facilitate legal harassment—and characterizing any criticism of it as “grooming” and as support for pedophiles and “predators” has created an atmosphere of constant, vicious defamation aimed at any and all opponents. This is being egged on, of course, by the usual unscrupulous carnival barkers.
This mode of conspiracy thinking was also reflected in the scurrilous conduct of the Senate hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson, when Senator Josh Hawley pandered to the QAnon vote by trying to portray the judge’s past sentencing work as “soft on pedophiles.” Many people, including conservative authors such as National Review’s Andrew McCarthy, have debunked the smear, showing that Judge Jackson’s sentences were in line with the consensus view of other judges.
But once given this talking point, the crazies will chant it forever as if it is the gospel truth. Except that practically everyone is one of the crazies now. Hence the spectacle of Mollie Hemingway, of the Federalist and Fox News, trying her hardest to imply that Mitt Romney is a secret pedophile.
The only new info since he voted against her a few months ago was increased awareness of her “soft-on-pedos” approach, which makes this new Romney position super interesting. https://t.co/n0oWhqiZUz
— Mollie (@MZHemingway) April 5, 2022
Which makes as much sense as Eisenhower being a secret communist.
From the top down, the Birchers have won. They now own the conservative movement and the Republican party.
Conspiracy theories have consequences. If you have been arguing these issues on social media, you will find that in among the groomer smears lobbed around carelessly there is an undertone of menace, with reminders that “we know what to do with pedophiles.” Before this is all over, someone is going to take this “groomer” and “pedo” talk literally. There will be blood.
We should also remember what conservatives accomplished by purging their crazies the last time around: By basing the movement on substantive ideas and having the courage and self-discipline to purge the kooks who claimed to be on “our side,” we achieved a few little things like pulling the U.S. out of the “national malaise” of the 1970s and winning the Cold War, followed by a period of peace, prosperity, and the spread of free societies across the globe. It wasn’t just good for the movement, it was good for the country and the world.
If we want to experience anything like those triumphs again, we need build new institutions defined by pro-liberty ideas—and we need to push the conspiracy theorists back to the fringes.