The Birchers and the Tea Party

I have been arguing on this blog for three years now that the Tea Party is little more than the rebirth of the John Birch Society, with all the attendant paranoia and bizarre conspiracy theories. Adam Gopnik at the New Yorker agrees and adds some detail to the argument.

As it happens, I’ve been doing some reading about John Kennedy, and what I find startling, and even surprising, is how absolutely consistent and unchanged the ideology of the extreme American right has been over the past fifty years, from father to son and now, presumably, on to son from father again. The real analogue to today’s unhinged right wing in America is yesterday’s unhinged right wing in America. This really is your grandfather’s right, if not, to be sure, your grandfather’s Republican Party…

Reading through the literature on the hysterias of 1963, the continuity of beliefs is plain: Now, as then, there is said to be a conspiracy in the highest places to end American Constitutional rule and replace it with a Marxist dictatorship, evidenced by a plan in which your family doctor will be replaced by a federal bureaucrat—mostly for unnamable purposes, but somehow involving the gleeful killing off of the aged. There is also the conviction, in both eras, that only a handful of Congressmen and polemicists (then mostly in newspapers; now on TV) stand between honest Americans and the apocalypse, and that the man presiding over that plan is not just a dupe but personally depraved, an active collaborator with our enemies, a secret something or other, and any necessary means to bring about the end of his reign are justified and appropriate. And fifty years ago, as today, groups with these beliefs, far from being banished to the fringe of political life, were closely entangled and intertwined with Senators and Congressmen and right-wing multi-millionaires…

Medicare then, as Obamacare now, was the key evil. An editorial in the Morning News announced that “JFK’s support of Medicare sounds suspiciously similar to a pro-Medicare editorial that appeared in the Worker—the official publication of the U.S. Communist Party.” At the same time, Minutaglio and Davis write, “on the radio, H.L. Hunt (the Dallas millionaire) filled the airwaves with dozens of attacks on Medicare, claiming that it would create government death panels: The plan provides a near little package of sweeping dictatorial power over medicine and the healing arts—a package which would literally make the President of the United States a medical czar with potential life or death power over every man woman and child in the country.” Stanley Marcus, the owner of the department store Neiman Marcus, heard from angry customers who were cancelling their Neiman Marcus charge cards because of his public support for the United Nations…

The really weird thing—the American exception in it all—then as much as now, is how tiny all the offenses are. French right-wingers really did have a powerful, Soviet-affiliated Communist Party to deal with, as their British counterparts really had honest-to-god Socialists around, socializing stuff. But the Bircher-centered loonies and the Tea Partiers created a world of fantasy, willing mild-mannered, conflict-adverse centrists like J.F.K. and Obama into socialist Supermen.

This, I think, is the key to understanding both the Birchers and the Tea Party, the paranoid delusion that we are perpetually on the verge of being taken over by Them. The identity of Them changes (though the UN seems to be a constant boogeyman), but They are always trying to destroy everything good in the country.


  1. zero6ix says

    How long will this version of “The Song that Never Ends” actually go? I mean, I know the song technically doesn’t end, but at the same time, don’t people get tired of singing it? It’s not like there will be a new verse, or some fun little drum solo in the middle.

    Beats actually working, I suppose.

  2. justsomeguy says

    It makes sense that American conservative thought hasn’t changed much in 50 years. After all, the main gist of conservatism is to *conserve* the status quo as it is, to resist change in whatever form it takes.

  3. caseloweraz says

    That’s it! That’s the key! President Obama is a secret something-or-other!

    I for one think he’s a secret Dijonist. “You maniac! You spread it on hamburger! Ah, darn you! Gol-darn you all to heck!”

    (Paraphrasing Charleton Heston’s last words in Planet of the Apes.)

    But seeriously (as in predictively) doesn’t this reinforce the idea that belief in such apocalyptic conspiracies is and will always be foolish?

    I know: Despotic governments exist, and coup d’etats happen. But there is always real evidence, beforehand, that they impend.

  4. lclane2 says

    We are some of “them.” I recently checked out John Birch at wikipedia and discovered wackiness, such as anti-fluoridation, that I’d been unaware of at the time.

  5. says

    lclane2 “We are some of ‘them.’ I recently checked out John Birch at wikipedia and discovered wackiness, such as anti-fluoridation, that I’d been unaware of at the time.”
    It should be noted that Left anti-fluoridationists and Right anti-fluoridationists, much like the same but for vaccines, do so for wildly different reasons (one thinks it is harmful/isn’t needed and the other thinks it is harmful/”Mass medicine is a Communist plot-slash-mind control”). They’re both stupid, but only one is fucking idiotic.

  6. coragyps says

    Ah, dear ol’ H.L. Hunt! In the early 60’s his little boxes of Epsom salts had the slogan “Stay healthy – fight Communism!” printed on the side……

  7. tubi says

    I think I’ll throw that Hunt quotation up on my Facebook page and ask who said it, without explicitly saying it’s not about Obamacare. It would be interesting to see what people guess until I let them in on the secret.

    It is virtually indistinguishable from things people like Cruz, et al, have been saying for 4 years.

  8. Friendly says

    Thanks for the suggestion, tubi; just did that myself. Alas, my friends are too sharp; “H. L. Hunt” and “Medicare” came up in all of the first three guesses.

  9. exdrone says

    “The Bircher Wing of the Republican Party? F*ck off! We’re the Tea Party Wing. The Birch Wing, indeed. Wankers!”

    “I thought we were the Bircher Wing.”

    “No, Tea Party Wing.”

    “Where is the Bircher Wing?”

    “He’s over there.”


  10. wscott says

    At least Communism was a real thing. I can see how someone squinting through the right (wrong) lens could perceive it as a threat. But the UN? One of the most hapless and ineffective institutions conceived by man, over which the US holds absolute veto rights? Whose biggest success (Peacekeepers) only works when both sides want them there? “World of fantasy” indeed.

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