From the Publisher
“Both of Claire Conner’s parents were deeply involved in the cult of far right politics: they knew that Eisenhower was a secret Communist and they idolized Francisco Franco. Wrapped in the Flag is at once the heartbreaking and intermittently hilarious story of her coming of age and a first-hand history of the far right since the 1950s. Conner’s book is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the sources of the conspiratorial, hate-filled tropes of the right today—whether they emanate from the Tea Party, the gun movement, race realists, Sovereign Citizens, or, increasingly, from elected officials in the GOP." —Arthur Goldwag, author of The New Hate: Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right
“An invaluable contribution to understanding the mentality of extremist conservatism and its supporters.” —Kirkus, starred review
“The John Birch Society had a huge impact on American politics. They were responsible for the lurch into insanity. The religious right, the Tea Party and the takeover of the Republican Party by extremists can't be understood unless you understand the paranoid xenophobia Birchers injected into America. This book is about a journey through and out of that Bircher netherworld. It's a vital piece of the puzzle to understanding the madness that overcame America and a moving story about one person's journey back to sanity.” —Frank Schaeffer, author of Crazy For God
"Experiencing this splendid volume is like reading a history book inside out: events you only knew about from afar are revealed anew, with the striking ground-level intimacy of a fine family memoir. I've been waiting for a book like this: one that demonstrates the shockingly effectual continuity of the John Birch Society as a force in American political life: from its early days discrediting the Cold War credentials of JFK, to its outsized role building up grassroots momentum in the Clinton impeachment, to its sudden eruption into mainstream Republican thinking with the rise of the Tea Party movement." —Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland
“This passionate, personal history of the John Birch Society is timely and important. At a moment when Tea Party activists have embraced many of the Birchers' most outrageous notions, Claire Conner has performed a great service by reminding us of the origins of some of most virulent ideas that continue to pollute our body politic. As the skeptical daughter of two passionate Birchers, Conner may be the only person who could have written such a clear-eyed, insider’s account of the persistent dangers of right-wing extremism.” —Charles Kaiser, author of 1968 In America and The Gay Metropolis
“An affecting portrait of late-20th-century America on the fringe." —Publishers Weekly
“This insider’s view of the most radical right-wing organization of the Cold War era describes the seeming paranoia and questionable logic of the most devoted JBS members. Conner provides colorful descriptions of many of the eccentric JBS leaders, including founder Robert Welch. . . . Readers interested in learning more about this example of the Cold War era’s ultraconservative political trends will be fascinated by Conner’s description of the perpetual fear of JBS members regarding communist takeovers and communist infiltration of the highest levels of our government. Recommended.” —Library Jounal
Conner’s memoir of being raised in a family whose political beliefs were shaped by the radical right-wing John Birch Society is an affecting portrait of late-20th-century America on the fringe. The eldest daughter of Stillwell “Jay” Conner, a national spokesman for the John Birch Society, Claire grew up in Chicago in a house of harsh discipline and even harsher political extremism in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The opinions of Revilo Oliver, who became a well-known Holocaust denier, and the writings of Fred Koch (father of David and Charles Koch, who are major funders of right-wing political groups) were frequently heard at the breakfast table. Conner’s political awakening is typical of college students in the 1960s, but her starting point was far more extreme than most young adults at the time. As late as 1961, Birch Society founder Robert Welch espoused the belief that former President Dwight Eisenhower was a communist and that the civil rights movement was part of a larger plan for a unified world government. Conner’s secret teenage dissent prompted her and her siblings to find paths to mentally escape the family’s politics without disturbing the peace. “My parents and I were in different universes,” Conner writes. While she effectively sketches out the political divergence within her family, more could have been done to explore the psychological gap caused by her parents’ zealotry and her emergent liberal beliefs. Agent: Jo Ann Deck, Gather Insight. (July)
"I know what extremism looks like," declares Conner in the preface to her memoir. Her parents were leaders of the ultraconservative John Birch Society (JBS). From early adolescence, she was expected to be part of her parents' JBS activities, doing everything from serving refreshments at recruitment meetings to writing letters to political figures. As Conner grew up, however, the indoctrination failed to keep her in the fold; she became aware of the complexity of issues seen only in black and white by the extreme conservatism of her parents. This insider's view of the most radical right-wing organization of the Cold War era describes the seeming paranoia and questionable logic of the most devoted JBS members. Conner provides colorful descriptions of many of the eccentric JBS leaders, including founder Robert Welch. In a particularly engaging chapter, she describes her evolution from a fervently pro-life organizer to a somewhat disillusioned woman who is more understanding of the need for a woman's right to choose. VERDICT Readers interested in learning more about this example of the Cold War era's ultraconservative political trends will be fascinated by Conner's depiction of the perpetual fear of JBS members regarding communist takeovers and communist infiltration of the highest levels of our government. Recommended.—Jill Ortner, Univ. at Buffalo Lib., SUNY
Prompted by the rise of the modern-day tea party, Conner writes of her experiences as the child of leaders in the radical right-wing John Birch Society. "My parents are back." That was the author's response to the rise of the tea party after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. In this memoir/history, she opens new insights into the conservative political movement, with the echoes of the profoundest aspects of family life providing the links between then and now. Her parents, Stillwell and Laurene Conner, were among the 1958 founders of the Birch Society, an organization that opposed racial integration, welfare programs, the United Nations and other seemingly progressive programs and organizations. Conner's parents were involved with the organization's national leadership for more than 30 years. Like her parents, the Birchers went too far with their anti-Semitism and extreme economic and social theories. She details how they were pushed out of the Republican Party and shows how they adopted what the author calls "Plan B," in which monied Birchers redirected their funds into think tanks and foundations. Among them was Fred Koch, founder and national leader of the Birth Society and father of current tea party backers David and Charles Koch. In 1993, some Birchers, including the author's mother, even offered mild support for the Oklahoma City bombers for "defending the rest of us from the government." Conner's parents employed threats and violence to condition her to represent her parents' politics to the broader world and accept the consequences of physical retaliation, ostracism and ridicule in return. The author's personal struggle to free herself from those whose minds "the facts never changed" shapes her memoir and enriches the accumulating literature on the tea party. An invaluable contribution to understanding the mentality of extremist conservatism and its supporters.
Read an Excerpt
I Know What Exremism Looks Like
Five years ago, I was sure I’d heard the last of conspiracies, secret Communists, and America’s imminent collapse. After all, the Cold War had been over for twenty years, my parents and most of their fanatic friends were dead, and the Bush administration was killing America’s appetite for right-wing Republicans.
“There’s no one left to hoist the extremist flag,” I told myself. I was wrong. By 2008, political discourse sounded eerily similar to that of 1958, when a brand-new right-wing, populist movement—the John Birch Society—burst onto the American scene. All across the country, newly awakened Birchers rallied to “take our county back.” Two dedicated Birch leaders mobilized the Midwest: Stillwell and Laurene Conner—my parents.
Dad and Mother had been primed for their lurch to the right for many years. They loved Joseph McCarthy and hated the Communists. They’d decided that government assistance made people weak and lazy, and that the New Deal was really a bad deal. They loathed Franklin Roosevelt and blamed Democrats for destroying our free-enterprise system. So in 1955, when Mother and Dad were introduced to Robert Welch, a candy-company executive turned conspiracy hunter, they immediately recognized a kindred soul. My father said Welch was “a brilliant mind and the finest patriot I’ve ever had the privilege to know.” Three years later, when Welch founded his John Birch Society, Mother and Dad didn’t hesitate— they signed up and immediately handed over $2,000 for lifetime memberships, the equivalent of about $15,000 today.
The John Birch Society became my parents’ lifelong obsession; nothing was allowed to interfere with the next meeting, the next project, the next mailing. At fourteen and thirteen, respectively, my older brother and I were deemed old enough to take up the cause as full-fledged adult members. During Birch activities, the other Conner children were banished upstairs, where my ten-year-old sister was put in charge of the baby (eighteen months) and my six-year-old brother fended for himself. In only a few months, the entire Conner family lived and breathed Birch.
Night after night, Birch activists and new recruits filled our living room.
They received hours of instruction about the secret conspiracy, the New World Order, hidden codes on the dollar bill, and Communist spies inside our government. Birchers were schooled in the evils of creeping socialism, Communism, and Marxism. Good Birchers understood the sins of welfare and Social Security. It was time to rise up against the unholy alliance of the Left—Communists, socialists, liberals, union bosses, and the liberal press. Robert Welch identified Communists as one enemy in this epic struggle to save the country. Of course, in the 1950s the march of the Communists across Eastern Europe and Asia was scary to Americans, but Welch was more worried about the Communists lurking inside our country, often holding positions of influence. These home-grown American Communists were ready to spring into action to take down our Constitution and replace it with a socialist manifesto.
Birchers believed that those American Communists were all over the place. They served on school boards, advocated putting fluoride in drinking water, and taught subversive university classes. Others organized labor unions, led the civil rights movement and served in the Congress. The Birch message resonated. Membership exploded and revenue spiked. My father was rewarded for his dedication with a promotion to the Birch National Council, where he served for thirty-two years.
From the outset, the GOP applauded the Birchers for their patriotic zeal and embraced them as good Republicans. But after a scandal rocked the society in 1961, the GOP worried that its closeness to the Birchers would taint the Republican brand. It could not afford to be painted by the Democrats as the political arm of the radical right. Republican leaders decided to label the Birchers as crackpots and push them out of the party. Problem solved. The effort worked. Before long, the Birchers had joined the Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, and other kooks as the most extreme reactionaries in American politics. The Republican Party took credit for saving the United States from fringe-of-the-fringe crusaders who imagined that even the president was a Commie. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, while the politicians and pundits declared the Birchers dead and buried, the moneyed Birch leadership went to plan B, redirecting their cash and their influence into think tanks and foundations. My parents joined in that diversifying effort. They founded a right-wing Catholic organization, the Wanderer Foundation, in St. Paul, Minnesota and donated to every right-wing organization and political-action committee they could. My parents never had big money, but other Birch families spent huge sums to bankroll Birch ideas. Fred Koch, one of the original Birch founding members and a National Council member with my father, invested a small fortune on his pet projects, including the so-called right-to-work laws, designed to hamper union organizing. His sons, David and Charles Koch, inherited their father’s multimillions, turned them into multibillions, and invested liberally in their favorite political causes: the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity, and others. Those organizations incorporated many John Birch Society ideas and effectively increased both their reach and their impact on American politics. Since Citizens United, the 2011 Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates to unlimited and unregulated corporate political donations, the Kochs have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to individual candidates and political-action committees. The Kochs and their allies envision the same framework for American government that I heard from my father and his John Birch Society allies: the New Deal dismantled, the federal government reduced to a quarter of its current size, and most federal programs gutted. In this right-wing, libertarian utopia, businesses and individuals would be free to do anything, unrestrained by rules or taxes. In 2008, when the economy tanked and Barack Obama emerged as the Democratic nominee for president, the radical right went on the offense. The Democrat was labeled a Marxist, a Socialist, and a friend of terrorists. Folks unfurled the yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and shouted about trees of liberty being watered with the blood of tyrants. When I heard frenzied voters at a Republican rally shouting, “Treason,” and “Kill him,” in response to one of Sarah Palin’s anti-Obama rants, I worried. “My parents are back,” I told anyone who’d listen. People looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I realized that the Birch Society had faded out of America’s memory. It had been confined to a footnote on a footnote for political wonks. Six months after President Obama was inaugurated, a new right-wing, populist movement arose. The Tea Party—bankrolled by the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity—staged rallies and protests across the country. Self-appointed zealots suggested “Second Amendment remedies” if they didn’t achieve their goals at the ballot box. 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 compensation, 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.
My notes credit published works and archival documents, but much of this narrative comes from my experience. This book chronicles the history of the John Birch Society and its impact on America, past and present. But above all, Wrapped in the Flag is my story.