The John Birch Society's North Texas Renaissance

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tags: far right, Texas, John Birch Society, Reactionaries

On a sweltering day in July, Mark Fulmer looked cool and collected in the bonus room at the Spring Creek Barbeque in Bedford, a suburb outside of Fort Worth. He stood at a podium in front of about a dozen right-wing activists who had come for the inaugural luncheon of the John Birch Society—a far-right group of conspiracy theorists founded during the Red Scare. 

“I was talking to some people about John Birch at the Texas True Project meeting last night,” said Fulmer, the chapter’s founder and the event’s keynote speaker. “And a couple of them said, ‘John Birch? Isn’t that from the 1950s, and they’re still around?’ And I say, ‘Yes.’”

(True Texas Project, a group that emerged out of what used to be the Texas Tea Party, was recently labeled an anti-government hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.)

In the audience were a number of conservative activists and candidates. Taylor Mondick, a Republican nominee running for Texas House District 95, gave brief remarks, as did Rosalie Escobedo, who is running for assistant secretary of the Tarrant County Republican Party. A representative from Turning Points USA, a right-wing group formed by the controversial Charlie Kirk, also spoke.

Founded in 1958, the ultraconservative, conspiratorially minded, and rabidly anti-communist organization boasted 100,000 members at its peak. Alongside other ultraconservative groups, it pushed more moderate conservatives to tack right on issues like the civil rights movement. The group defended police accused of brutality, decried the use of fluoride in the water supply, and labeled gun control as a precursor to a communist takeover of the country. It was at its most powerful in the 1960s and 1970s, but fell into relative decline in subsequent decades after facing public criticism from conservative establishment luminary William F. Buckley in 1962 and after the death of its founder, Robert Welch, in 1985.

But the ideas and values central to Bircherism have since become increasingly mainstream. Alex Jones, founder of the conspiracy-peddling far-right site InfoWars that trafficks in many of the same narratives as the John Birch Society, called former President Donald Trump the “John Birch Society president.” Academic historians and journalists alike have pointed to the lasting influence of their ultraconservative ideas in contemporary politics and point to anti-vaccination rhetoric as a resurgence of such thinking. Not unlike the modern “MAGA” movement, Bircherism undermines the legitimacy of political opponents by suggesting they are a part of a widespread and sinister conspiracy.

Now that central Bircher tenets have effectively become embedded into the fabric of the conservative movement, explicit interest in the John Birch Society appears to be growing. In 2017, an article by Austin freelance journalist John Savagenote noted growing membership in the group across Texas. Local chapters in Dallas, Houston, and Central Texas have been active in recent years. Now, Fort Worth, where Birch himself attended seminary, boasts its own chapter. 

“It’s a sign of the times,” says Edward H. Miller, historian and author of two books that focus heavily on the group. “It has always been my argument that the ideas of the John Birch Society were what has really driven a lot of the activity of the right in recent years. I’ve never argued that the John Birch Society continued to be as powerful as it was in the 1960s, even if it continued as an organization. But you’re seeing a renaissance I guess.”

Read entire article at Texas Observer