As a boy growing up in the 1950s in Massachusetts, my father and I used to go into Boston to Red Sox games and to attend political meetings and state Democratic conventions. We would often go through Belmont, down Concord Ave., past the high school, a bit of a short cut. We would pass a small non-descript brick building that my father told me was the home of the John Birch Society.
During the period of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the John Birch Society was also the home of those who wanted the United States out of the United Nations; they wanted to impeach Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; their leader, Robert Welsh, accused Dwight Eisenhower of “deliberate treason”; they even urged their members to infiltrate the local P.T.A. and take over school boards (where, by the way, my father served).
They were full of conspiracy theories, centered around anti-Communism, and were convinced that nefarious power brokers were on the verge of creating a “one-world government.” They were denounced by conservatives like William F. Buckley and even Ayn Rand. Buckley’s biographer, John Judis, wrote that Buckley was beginning to worry that the “country would take an ugly, even Fascist turn” should the Birchers take hold.
I remember my father describing them as “the two-percenters” — that is, only about 2 percent of Americans bought what they were selling. True conservatives rejected them, and Republicans like Barry Goldwater kept their distance. No one really took them that seriously.
As Republicans became more conservative, they argued more and more strongly for less government, greater defense spending and embraced cultural conservatism. They lost northern Republican moderates while gaining seats held by conservative Democratic southerners, but they didn’t embrace the complete crazies. They may have tolerated them, but Republicans were still a party that elected presidents and members of Congress who supported free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, a free press, bipartisan cooperation — and who rejected violence, overturning elections, undermining democracy. From Eisenhower to Bush, the Republican Party may have left a lot for us Democrats to disagree with, but we would have been hard pressed to describe them as the party with fascist, anti-democratic views and values.
That has changed.
Actions show it: Republican-controlled legislatures passing bills in state after state gaming the system to stop people from voting on the front end and letting them change the election results on the back end; Congressional Republicans allowing an armed insurrection on Jan. 6 to be swept under the rug by rejecting a bipartisan commission; Arizona Republicans continuing the lie about the election results and engaging a phony and fraudulent “audit”; and too many rank-and-file Republicans falling for — and Republican leaders supporting — the likes of QAnon, which spreads falsehoods deliberately.
Polls show the destruction of the Republican Party: 70 percent of Republicans don’t believe Biden is the legitimate winner of the Presidential election; 23 percent of Republicans believe that “government, media and the financial world in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan worshiping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation”; 28 percent of Republicans believe “things have gotten so far off track, true Patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save the country.”
Here is the even bigger problem: When you examine Republicans who get their news from far- right sources and who are strong Trump supporters, 40 percent buy into those QAnon conspiracy theories and support violence. Their numbers are growing.
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn, speaking recently at a QAnon rally in Dallas, said that we should have an armed coup by the military like what happened in Myanmar.
Where are the Republicans of yesteryear? Where are those who rejected the John Birch Society, who stood up to Joe McCarthy in the ‘50s, who worked across the aisle to pass landmark Civil Rights legislation? Where are the Republicans of old who knew how to speak truth to power and who convinced Richard Nixon he had to resign for the good of the country? Where are the courageous Republicans who believed in conservatism, like Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyAxios CEO says GOP before Trump will not return Club for Growth bashes CNN in social media ad Kevin McCarthy should meet the Ronald Reagan of 1978 MORE, who would say simply and truthfully, Joe BidenJoe BidenBipartisan lawmakers press Biden to ‘immediately’ evacuate Afghans who helped US forces Chris Wallace: Backlash over Fauci emails ‘highly political’ Democrats claim vindication, GOP cries witch hunt as McGahn finally testifies MORE is President, Trump is not a patriot and does not represent our Party?
And, finally, where are the Republicans who can see that the rise of wild and crazy conspiracy theories they know are false, coupled with blind loyalty to a former president who has more in common with fascist authoritarian dictators than past American presidents, are all leading us rapidly down the road to the destruction of our democracy?
By failing to speak out, failing to acknowledge that this is way beyond who wins and who loses the next elections, you put the nation at real risk.
There is a lot more at stake when you let demagogues run wild and when more and more people buy into the conspiracy theories, a lot more than “the two-percenters.”
This is scary on the national level when we watch those Republicans in the House and Senate who kowtow to Trump and QAnon; but watch out, as this plays out in those state legislatures, county commissions and school boards. Watch out when statewide offices and elections are run by those who don’t believe in democracy and the rule of law — as extremism takes hold. It started way before Trump, like the frog put in tepid water and the fire slowly turned up and the frog doesn’t jump out.
This has been with us since the John Birch Society, but our problem now is that the Republican Party leaders of conscience are too few and far between to sound the alarm. If there ever was a time to show courage and common sense, it is now.
Peter Fenn is a long-time Democratic political strategist who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was a top aide to Sen. Frank Church and was the first director of Democrats for the 80s, founded by Pamela Harriman. He also co-founded the Center for Responsive Politics/Open Secrets. Follow him on Twitter @peterhfenn.