A TV Documentary Shows the Deep Roots of Right-Wing Conspiracy

Historians in the News
tags: conspiracy theories, Republican Party, conservatism, far right, John Birch Society



The dangerous doctrines of the far right that have manifested in the past week, the past two months, and the past four years have deep historical roots in American politics, including ones that I remember from my childhood in the mid-nineteen-sixties. Though my parents weren’t big readers, they owned one particular book, published in 1964, whose severely cautionary title strikes me as a mark of the fears that they felt at the time: “Danger on the Right.” I’ve never read it; the danger, I recall hearing at the time, had something to do with the 1964 Republican Presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, whom they considered a menace. Remembering the book recently, for obvious reasons, I discovered that it had made an impression far beyond my family circle: it gave rise to an extraordinary hour-long broadcast on WABC-TV from October of that year, near the end of the Presidential campaign (and now streaming on YouTube), titled after the book, but in the form of a question—“Danger on the Right?” It was hosted by the journalist Bill Beutel, and its central subject was the John Birch Society, which at the time was the most active far-right group in the United States, unless you count the Republican Party, and Beutel makes a quick yet bold case for possibly doing so.

At the start of the broadcast, Beutel introduces a clip from Goldwater’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention that July (where Richard Nixon, who held no office at the time, is seen in the audience), in which Goldwater utters a phrase that became instantly infamous: “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” According to Beutel, the John Birch Society—an anti-Communist organization, founded in 1958, that was making significant inroads among conservatives with its extravagant and baseless conspiracy theories—linked this speech to a rapid increase in its membership. About a third of the broadcast that follows is devoted to an extended documentary sequence inside a local John Birch Society meeting—and it’s a miracle of practical journalism that this documentary exists, because the discussion preserved there yields a joltingly unvarnished view of the ideas that were then gaining currency on the American right. The meeting takes place in a doctor’s basement in Summit, New Jersey, and features two officials of the society, Ernie Brosang and Thomas Davis. The host of the meeting, a Wagner College professor, asserts that the group shares basic and uncontroversial goals—“less government, more individual responsibility under God, and a better world”—but that, to achieve them, they’ll “have to defeat the international Communist world-control conspiracy.” Their discussion is centered on two main issues—extricating the United States from the United Nations and suppressing the civil-rights movement, both of which they consider Communist-dominated. (There’s also a sidebar of hostility to the “graduated income tax,” which is treated as a plot devised by Karl Marx himself “for the destruction of our country.”)

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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