The fringe theories of maverick conservatives persist today

President Dwight Eisenhower was a communist agent. President Kennedy plotted to bring the United States military under United Nations control as a step toward incorporating the United States into the Soviet Union and establishing a world socialist dictatorship. The civil rights movement, women’s liberation, sex education and abortion are communist plots. Communism itself is the creation of the members of a two hundred year old secret society called the Illuminati.

If you believe it, you won’t like this book. On the other hand, if you don’t live in fantasy land, you’ll find Edward H. Miller’s book helpful in understanding how we’ve become a culture of “alternate facts.”

Miller, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, uses the life of Robert Welch to explain how the Republican Party moved to the far right and beyond.

Born in 1899 in North Carolina, Robert Welch grew up in a wealthy family that revered the religion and myth of the Old South. He was very smart. At age 12, he became the youngest student to enroll at the University of North Carolina. He excelled in English, German, French literature and, above all, in mathematics.

Determined to achieve the financial freedom that would allow him to lead a life of intellectual pursuit, he founded a candy-making company that went bankrupt but eventually prospered, thanks in large part to a lollipop called the Sugar Daddy. is not an “alternative fact”).

Roosevelt’s New Deal, with its government-subsidized projects, labor support, and social safety net, horrified American business leaders. They fought back with waves of propaganda touting the free market, low taxes, and savage frontier individualism as the foundations of American greatness.

Welch was one such business leader. Miller tries to explain, not quite satisfactorily, how, of all those righties, Welch came to believe his outlandish conspiracy theories. He suggests that his addiction to mathematics may have driven him to seek out pure logical sequences as explanations for world events.

Nevertheless, Welch developed his theories and, according to Miller, genuinely believed in them. All he had to do to save Western civilization was to reveal the truth to the American people.

For decades, Welch spread his message through radio, books, newspapers, and support for organizations such as the America First Committee and authoritarians such as Charles Lindbergh and Joe McCarthy. Eventually, in 1958, he decided that more focused grassroots organization was needed and founded the John Birch Society. Named after an American missionary killed by Chinese Communists, the Society opened branches across the country to spread Welch’s message and elect supporters to school boards and state and federal governments.

Although Miller goes to great lengths to excuse Welch for being anti-Semitic or anti-African American, the company has attracted many notorious racists. Welch’s own denials of bigotry cannot hide his views that a Zionist conspiracy contributed to the origins of communism, or that black Americans would have been content with their lot had it not been for communist agitators.

Initially popular, the society began to lose general Republican support when Welch attacked Eisenhower as a volunteer agent of the Soviet Union. However, Welch’s views took on new life in the 1970s with revelations about government lies about Vietnam, Watergate, the Equal Rights Amendment campaign (for women), acceptance of homosexuality and the legalization of abortion.

Market-economy industrialists and ultra-evangelical religious groups have made common cause in opposing the emergence of a more tolerant and socially responsible country. Welch died in 1985, just before digital media managed to trap the public in toxic echo chambers that continually reinforced their prejudices. Far from repudiating conspiracy theories, today’s Republican Party embraces them. It seems that Welch’s version of the truth continues to hold.

Every evening, the Winnipegger John K. Collins forgets a glass of whiskey to please the fairies from the bottom of his garden.

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