“What we see today is the tip of a very right wing iceberg, and it is very powerful.”- Claire Conner

Prevailing wisdom among the political commentariat goes this way: The John Birch Society lost its influence and momentum the day Bill Buckley denounced them on the pages of the National Review. They will tell you that it is a marginalized group that is known for anti-fluoridation movements and communist fearmongering.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, and Claire Conner’s lifelong journey chronicled in her new book “Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right” is both inspiring and terrifying. Conner’s parents were Chicago’s first John Birch Society members, and Conner herself was made to sign the pledge on her 13th birthday.

Raised in an environment of paranoia and activism, Conner writes from the view inside the JBS, with stories of weekend visits from founder Robert Welch to her own struggles in school to break free of her parents’ paranoia and see the world through her own eyes. Readers get a glimpse into the conflict she must have experienced between loving her parents and hating their brand of political activism as she finds her own way through a political landscape.

Conner’s story isn’t just about her family relationships. It’s about her observation from the inside of the damage done to the country by a radical right-wing that operates from authoritarianism and executes through a well-funded activist wing.

Most importantly, Conner’s story proves this: The John Birch Society is alive, vibrant, and more powerful today than they were when they were considered to be in their heyday. From the introduction, where she discusses Charles and David Koch:

…I shuddered when I heard my father’s favorite rally cry: “We’ve come to take our country back.”

These newly minted right-wingers were rattling off old Birch slogans:

  • Immigrants are the enemy. Protect our borders and deport all illegal aliens.
  • Gays are ungodly. Pray the gay away from children and teens.
  • Unemployed people don’t want to work, and poor people keep themselves poor, on purpose. If we cut the minimum wage and eliminate unemployment compensaition, everyone will have a job.
  • Unions caused the economic collapse by shielding lazy, incompetent public employees.
  • Rich folks are “job creators,” and we need to protect their wealth.
  • Social Security is unsustainable, and Medicare and Medicaid have to be restricted so that corporations and “job creators” have lower tax rates.
  • Abortion is murder and must be outlawed even in cases of rape and incest. No exception means no exceptions; even in cases where the mother’s life is in danger.
  • The economic meltdown of 2008 came from high taxes on corporations, too many regulations, and poor people taking out mortgages they couldn’t afford.
  • The government can’t create jobs, so stimulus programs don’t work. Cutting taxes creates jobs.
  • The government can’t limit the right to own or carry guns. If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.
  • America is God’s chosen nation, but our president can’t understand our exceptionalism. After all, he’s not a “real” American; he’s a Marxist, Socialist, Muslim racist who hates America.

I know that this new radical Right is a rewrite of the old John Birch Society. This time, however, the movement has enormous political muscle, unlimited dollars, and right-wing media support. This reality hit me after studying my parents’ files and personal writing, combing historical archives, and reading contemporary accounts and documents produced by the Birch Society itself.

Part of what readers will come to understand is how deeply entrenched JBS thought patterns are in contemporary conservative thought. But whether it’s called Americans for Prosperity or the John Birch Society, all readers will come away with how incredibly subversive right-wing thought is to American democracy. These are the same people who do not believe voting should be a right, who ally with the KKK and militia societies to perpetuate racial discrimination and hate toward anyone who isn’t white and Christian, and who wax eloquent about how charities should be solely responsible for the poor and sick while doing nothing to assist those charities’ work.

Finally, any review of this book has to address Conner’s personal struggles with the issue of gay rights and abortion rights. At one point, Conner was an activist for the Right to Life Committee, which is a primary proponent of the laws we’re seeing in Texas, North Carolina and elsewhere. The same players are also behind the anti-gay movements and stand in opposition to gay marriage. Conner’s tale of her initial involvement with these groups to an emergence over to the other side is intensely personal and heart-rending.

This book is a must-read for the information about the right-wing, but it’s just as compelling a read to understand the grip they get on people and how difficult it is to break free of it. In many ways, Conner’s sixty-year journey parallels Frank Schaefer‘s escape from the Religious Right he promoted so heavily in the Reagan era. It is a testimony to the power of parents to influence their children, and the power of empathy and truth to break the bonds of self-serving corporate lies.

I have invited Ms. Conner to join us on a future MOMochat, and am hoping she’ll accept. In the meantime, you can buy her book on Amazon either as a hard copy or a Kindle book. I bought both.