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Matthew Dallek — How the American Right Became Radicalized

Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right (book cover)

At the height of the John Birch Society’s activity in the 1960s, critics dismissed its members as a paranoid fringe. After all, “Birchers” believed that a vast communist conspiracy existed in America and posed an existential threat to Christianity, capitalism, and freedom. But as historian Matthew Dallek reveals, the Birch Society’s extremism remade American conservatism. Most Birchers were white professionals who were radicalized as growing calls for racial and gender equality appeared to upend American life. Conservative leaders recognized that these affluent voters were needed to win elections, and for decades the GOP courted Birchers and their extremist successors. The far right steadily gained power, finally toppling the Republican establishment and electing Donald Trump.

Shermer and Dallek discuss:

  • the influence of his father Robert Dallek
  • JFK and Vietnam
  • What are the “right,” “conservatism,” and “liberalism”?
  • “mainstream” vs. “fringe”
  • Libertarians, Christians, and conservatives
  • Cold War context for the rise of the radical right
  • the link between the John Birch Society and radical right figures today like Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Glenn Beck, Alex Jones, Ron Paul, Rand Paul, and Donald Trump, plus COVID denialism, vaccine disinformation, America First nationalism, school board wars, QAnon plots, allegations of electoral cheating, etc.
  • the origin of the John Birch Society
  • Who were John Birch and Robert Welch?
  • attacks on Eisenhower as a communist
  • attacks on MLK Jr. as a communist
  • objections to the U.N.
  • race, immigration, religion, abortion, foreign policy, war, economics…
  • William F. Buckley and the intellectual foundations of modern conservatism
  • Birchers in the eras of Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush, Bush, and Trump
  • militias, Tea Party, MAGA
  • the future of the Republic (if we can keep it)

Matthew Dallek is a political historian whose intellectual interests include the intersection of social crises and political transformation, the evolution of the modern conservative movement, and liberalism and its critics. Dallek has authored or co-authored four books including, most recently, Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Right; Defenseless Under the Night: The Roosevelt Years and the Origins of Homeland Security, which won the Henry Adams prize from the Society for History in the Federal Government; The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan’s First Victory and the Decisive Turning Point in American Politics, which appeared on the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune’s annual best-of lists; and Inside Campaigns: Elections through the Eyes of Political Professionals. Dallek is a frequent commentator in the national news media on politics, history, and public affairs. His articles and reviews have appeared in the Washington Post, Politico, the Atlantic, Perspectives, the Journal of Policy History, and his commentary has been heard on NPR, CNN International, and MSNBC. He also worked as a speechwriter for House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt.

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This episode was released on September 27, 2023.

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