COMMENTARY: Heading back to the days the Birchers

“Some people say I’m extreme,” an Indiana tea party leader told The New York Times at the height of the movement’s rebellion in 2010, “but they said the John Birch Society was extreme, too.”

Uh-huh. The society, which still exists, enjoyed its heyday in the early 1960s and saw Communists everywhere. Robert Welch, its founder, even cast President Dwight Eisenhower as a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” The group was so far-out that the founder of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr., published a 5,000-word excoriation in the National Review that excommunicated the Birchers from the responsible right.

And on Ike, Buckley’s friend and ally Russell Kirk offered a priceless riposte: “Eisenhower is not a Communist. He’s a golfer!”

The tea party loyalist’s observation might bring a chuckle from those who still remember the old Birchers, but it was also telling. Why have our politics gone haywire, why have our political arguments turned so bitter, and why was Donald Trump able to win the Republican nomination and, eventually, the presidency?

A central reason has been the mainstreaming of a style of extremist conservative politics that for decades was regarded as unacceptable by most in the GOP.

READ THIS NEXT: Opinion: ‘Thoughts and prayers’ for Las Vegas victims not enough

The extremist approach is built on a belief in dreadful conspiracies and hidden motives. It indulges the wildest charges aimed at associating political foes with evil and subversive forces. What’s striking about our current moment is that such groundless and reckless accusations have become a routine part of politics — all the way to the top.

On Thursday night, President Trump sent out a typically outlandish tweet peddling deceit by way of promoting Republican Ed Gillespie against Democrat Ralph Northam in next month’s election for governor of Virginia.

Trump wrote: “Ralph Northam, who is running for Governor of Virginia, is fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs & sanctuary cities. Vote Ed Gillespie!”

If that tweet sounds like desperation, that’s because it is. Northam, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, has been leading Gillespie by 4 to 6 points in most polls. The Democrat was ahead by a whopping 13 points in a Washington Post-Schar School poll released the morning of Trump’s tweet.

On one theory, Trump is trying to rally his enthusiasts to Gillespie to help him cut his polling gap. But the Trump ploy could also backfire: Roughly six in 10 Virginia voters disapprove of Trump’s presidential performance, and nearly twice as many likely voters (30 percent) say opposition to Trump rather than support for him (17 percent) motivates their choice in the governor’s contest. Trump’s intervention could just as easily energize the larger group of Virginians who dislike him.

Tossing out the outrageous absurdity that the moderate, mild-mannered Northam is “fighting for” a gang whose motto is “Kill, Rape, Control” should be disqualifying for any politician who makes it. The claim originated in Trump-like Gillespie advertising rooted in Olympian leaps of illogic and distortion. The ads were taken apart by, among others,, Washington Post editorialists and Post blogger Greg Sargent.

Ah, you might say, campaigns are often dirty. But current forms of right-wing dirty politics reflect a reversion to the old extremism. It has become part and parcel of “normal” politics and justifies kooky pronouncements as expressions of patriotism. Ordinary political acts are painted as diabolical. Dark plots are invented out of whole cloth. They are first circulated on websites that traffic in angry wackiness, and are eventually echoed by elected officials.

Thus did Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., allege last week, as Vice News reported, that the white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville was organized by an “Obama sympathizer.” Gosar further suggested it was funded by the far right’s favorite Master-of-All-Demonic-Things, billionaire George Soros. Crazy, yes, but also ugly.

Gail Collins: Sex, sanctimony and Congress. The story of Tim Murphy

If the Birchers saw “The Illuminati,” a shadowy 18th-century clique, as lying behind progressive treason, the new far right uses “globalists” as an epithet that is less obscure and more user-friendly.

The old extreme right linked all manner of actions by its opponents to Communism. The new ultra-right regularly ties its foes (as the Trump-Gillespie calumny does) to crimes ascribed to immigrants, or to radical Islam.

An authentic conservative knows that extremism is the antithesis of a philosophy devoted to the preservation of free institutions. The extremists hated Eisenhower because he understood this.

Our current commander in chief is also a golfer, he otherwise but has little in common with our 34th president. Trump is urging the right down a path that leads to nothing but trouble — for conservatism, but also for our country.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Opinion

Opinion: The commencement speech you never hear

My youngest son’s college graduation ceremony was scheduled to be held outdoors. The invitation specified that it would be moved inside to the gym only in the event of “severe” weather. As it turned out, the day was unseasonably cold (low 50s) with occasional drizzle — probably about as nasty as the weather gets in May without...
Opinion: What’s the matter with Europe?

If you had to identify a place and time where the humanitarian dream — the vision of a society offering decent lives to all its members — came closest to realization, that place and time would surely be Western Europe in the six decades after World War II. It was one of history’s miracles: a continent ravaged by dictatorship, genocide...
Opinion: Trump’s trade wars would avenge only mythical casualties

America’s government declares “war” promiscuously — on poverty, on drugs, on cancer, etc. — except when actually going to war, which the nation has done often since it last declared war (on June 5, 1942, on Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary). But the incipient war du jour is being postponed. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin...
Opinion: ‘I was wrong’ — the three hardest words in the English language

They might be the three hardest words in the English language: “I was wrong.” Three simple syllables, but many of us find them unpronounceable. As in a Twitter critic who referred to me as “her” the other day. “Her?” tweeted I. Whereupon, she launched into this tortured explanation of how my beard and name were not...
COMMENTARY: Remember the Marshall Plan as we debate foreign aid

As members of Congress consider the future of American foreign aid, it’s vital they remember the great American foreign policy adventure that started 70 years ago this month. A ship from Texas, filled with wheat, arrived in France to a hero’s welcome. This was the opening act of the Marshall Plan which rebuilt Europe from the ashes of World...
More Stories