American politics in the last few presidential cycles may seem unusual to observers who most likely are well-educated and intellectually sophisticated but are not academic historians.
It might seem as if the center simply is not holding, while the fringes of both parties are fluttering more and more desperately, blown by some unknown wind, as if someone were holding a gigantic tallis in a mountaintop gale and the strings on both sides are trying to escape in different directions.
But they can’t. They’re attached to the same piece of big cloth.
That might feel new — to be fair, it’s hard to think analytically and find patterns in the middle of a storm — but it’s not.
Dr. Matthew Dallek, a political historian who is a professor of political management at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, is interested in how ideas that sound extreme and often extremely odd move from being political outliers to near or at the center of a political party. He’s particularly interested in how such ideas move through the political right and influence the Republican party.
The most recent of his four books, “Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right,” traces the evolution of the John Birch Society from its birth through its zenith to its gradual withering, and it shows how the group’s ideas, which still might sound outré to outsiders, now are part of the party’s standard thinking.
Dr. Dallek will talk about those ideas and how they have morphed over the last 70 or so years at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades’s JCC U program; like the other classes in the winter semester, this one will be online only. (See box.)
“I’m going to talk about who the John Birch Society was, what they believed in, how their beliefs informed their actions, why they mattered in the 1960s, and why they matter today,” Dr. Dallek said.
“One of the reasons they matter today is that they helped establish this far-right alternative political tradition that challenged mainstream conservatism and the Republican party. Even as the Birch Society faded, its ideas had an afterlife. The ideas lived on.”
Those ideas included “explicit racism, anti-interventionism versus internationalism, conspiracy theories, and a more apocalyptic, violent, antiestablishment mode of politics,” he wrote in his book’s introduction.
And because the talk is at the JCC — and Dr. Dallek is Jewish — “I’ll talk about the Jewish angle,” he said.
“I’ll talk about the problem of antisemitism on the American far right. Is the far right antisemitic? And how do we understand the far right’s attraction to blaming Jews for a variety of issues?
“It’s complicated,” he conceded. “Not all Birchers were antisemitic. There were some Jewish members,” just as there were some Black members. “It was such a sprawling group.”
The John Birch Society had as many as 100,000 members at its peak, and although it did have a centralized leadership whose members represented a range of right-wing views, ranging from the polite to the rabid, “It wasn’t the Ku Klux Klan,” whose existence was based purely on racism.
For some people, the John Birch Society, named after a former missionary and Army captain killed by Chinese Communists soon after World War II ended and created by Robert Welch, a candy magnate who created Sugar Daddies and Junior Mints before he went into full-time right-wing proselytizing, was a place where members could come together to talk about and advocate for smaller government, freedom from the communists who lurked everywhere, and no fluoride in their water. For some of them, commies were Jews, and Jews were commies.
It was also a home for conspiracy theories and the people who believe in and embroider and embellish them.
For other people, Dr. Dallek said, it was a gateway. “A number of people passed through the Birch Society who said that it was not antisemitic enough. They wanted it to blame the Jews more specifically for everything.
“It was a gateway group for extremists of all kinds,” he continued. For some of them, the antisemitism was the point. “One of the things I argue in the book is that there was a lot of antisemitism at the top of the Birch Society, and it leaked down, and it attracted a lot more antisemites.
“Often its members became more radicalized. Some of them left the society and went on to even more radical pastures, with groups that took more direct action or engaged in violence. There were people like Willis Carto, a Bircher who left and became one of the most notorious Holocaust deniers of the 20th century. There were a number of folks like that.”
His argument, Dr. Dallek said, is that although the Birch Society at times tried to expel members for excessive antisemitism and racism, “they still drew a lot of energy from bigots of all kinds.”
As for the explicitly Jewish part, “I have a whole chapter about the ADL, which launched what basically were both overt and covert operations to discredit the Birch Society. It was an extensive operation.” It started in the late 1950s, when the Birch Society was new; “before most people had heard of it,” Dr. Dallek said.
But the ADL had, and its “postwar leaders … grasped the axiom that things always could get worse,” Dr. Dallek wrote.
The ADL ran “a really sophisticated counterintelligence operation, run by a former World War II decorated Army counterintelligence officer named Isador Zack,” Dr. Dallek said. “He had all these agents with code names who infiltrated the Birchers’ headquarters and chapter meetings.”
He elaborated on who Mr. Zack was and what he did for the ADL in his book. Mr. Zack’s title was “director of fact-finding and public relations for the ADL’s New England region,” Dr. Dallek wrote. As for what he did: “Wearing civilian clothes and carrying fake dishonorable discharge papers, Zack pretended to be a disgruntled former soldier as he roamed the bars, ports, and army bases of a key security zone off the Atlantic seaboard, hunting for intelligence,” Dr. Dallek continued in his book.
“It was crazy stuff,” he said. “They passed information to the FBI and to reporters. They worked the press effectively.”
As one of the ADL’s leaders put it, “we need ammunition in the war to make America safe.” The Birch Watchers, as the ADL’s counterintelligence group often was called, supplied that ammunition.
“The ADL’s aggressive espionage was one reason the Birch Society ultimately withered organizationally in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but the society’s ideology has endured even so,” Dr. Dallek wrote in his book.
Conspiracy theories — ranging from the idea that the fluoride towns often put in the water to strengthen children’s teeth was a communist plot to poison all water-drinkers in some way or other, to the theory that President Dwight David Eisenhower, the stolid, solid Republican who as General Eisenhower had won World War II and as president governed with moderation and sanity, actually was a commie — were part of many Birchers’ worldviews, and in some ways QAnon is a direct descendant of those theories.
Of course, Jews were part of those theories too.
“There always have been conspiracy theories in the United States” — to be fair, cavemen probably had conspiracy theories, and certainly history is full of them — “and Jews often have been seen as the masterminds,” Dr. Dallek continued. “The puppet masters. That’s why they’ve been so dangerous to the Jewish community.”
Then as now, the Kennedy family often featured as victims in the conspiracy theories.
“As an ADL operative wrote, those Birchers were going to argue that the communists killed Kennedy, and then add that it was a Jewish plot, because the commies were all Jews.” In truth, Dr. Dallek added, the Birchers “were relieved that the assassin was not one of their own. A number of Birchers came up with all kinds of crazy theories about who was to blame, and Jews often were part of it. Revilo Oliver, a raging antisemite, gave speeches about how the government was planning Kennedy’s funeral weeks before he died.
“Even some Birchers thought that he was nuts.”
Now, much has changed, but much has remained the same. “One of the biggest differences between then and now is that the Bircher ideas and sensibilities have become more mainstream,” Dr. Dallek said. “They’re not the only faction within the Republican party, but it’s a dominant one.
Abraham Foxman of Bergen County was the ADL’s national director from 1987 until he retired in 2015 and now he’s its national director emeritus. He began work at the ADL in 1965, during the time the counterintelligence operation was underway.
He explained why the ADL did what it did.
“Until 9/11, under our law enforcement system, the FBI was not allowed to gather some kinds of information on possible criminals,” Mr. Foxman said. “Today they can, but before, they couldn’t.” That’s because the Patriot Act changed the rules, allowing the FBI and the CIA to share information, and permitting far more domestic surveillance.
Because of that, “it was up to private institutions and individuals to gather information. The whole concept of investigative journalism was part of the attempt to gather information in ways the government wasn’t allowed to do; to get information the government couldn’t get.
“So organizations such as the ADL were gathering data on groups that we considered to be a threat to our community, or to democracy. We gathered that data both overtly and covertly.
“Remember, we didn’t have the internet. With Wikipedia now, you just press a button. We didn’t have that. So we gathered information, and from time to time we’d go to law enforcement, and say, ‘Hey. There may be a problem here. Would you check it out?’ And at the same time law enforcement would come to us, maybe before something like a political convention, and say, ‘Do you have any data about any extremist groups that we might be concerned about?’
“They also did that before the Olympics. They asked if we were aware of any threats that they should know about.
“That was one element of the responsibility that the ADL, and I believe other organizations, took on themselves. It was our responsibility to protect the community. And one way to protect the community is to protect democracy.”
Specifically, about the John Birch Society, “we would subscribe to publications, we would get other people to subscribe to publications, and if at a certain level, based on what we read, we thought it was serious enough to take the next step, we might move in that direction by having people there.”
How did that happen? “The same way journalists did it,” Mr. Foxman explained. “We had people join the organization. We had a network of people whose job it was to be alert and aware of what is going on.”
It’s both harder and easier today, he said. There’s Facebook and Instagram and TikTok (and there used to be Twitter). “But the ADL has always been a place where people would call and say, ‘Listen, I saw this. I heard this. I am concerned. Will you follow it up? Will you check it out?’ That goes way back.”
The ADL had people infiltrate a number of organizations that posed a threat to the Jewish community, or to democracy more generally, Mr. Foxman said. “According to the people who were following institutions on the extreme right, we experienced the John Birch Society as a threat to democracy. They were planning to use democracy to undo democracy. So we took a more dramatic action to put people in there, so that at a certain point they could expose it.”
So, Mr. Foxman, were you ever one of those people? “I’m not ready to disclose that information,” Abe Foxman said.
Who: Dr. Matthew Dallek
What: Will talk about his new book “Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right”
When: On Thursday, January 18, from 11 to noon
For whom: The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades’ JCC U
How much: $12 for JCC members, $15 for nonmembers
To register: Go to jccotp.org/jccu or call Marisa at (201) 408-1496