Michael Flynn was back in the headlines earlier this month, as special counsel Robert Mueller asked the White House for any documents on the former national security adviser. Flynn, who had to step down from his position in the wake of revelations that he had discussed lifting U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador, has been a continued source of scandal for the Trump administration. And yet, reports claim that President Donald Trump has been pining for his former adviser. The two, after all, are kindred spirits, who bonded over “lock her up” chants and the supposed threat posed by Islam and attacks on “establishment” leaders in both parties for failing to understand what they consider the true dangers to the homeland.
Though the flamboyant businessman and the fomer general may seem like an unlikely pairing, their alliance draws on the style, ideas and worldviews of another partnership between a businessman-turned-politico with a flair for sales and conspiracy theories and a hardline general who spied threats under every rock—one that took place decades ago.
John Birch Society founder Robert H.W. Welch Jr. and Army General Edwin A. Walker were two of the most notorious anticommunists of the Cold War era. Both Welch and Walker, like Trump and Flynn, embraced conspiracy theories that anti-American forces had infiltrated the highest levels of government and media. Their informal alliance rested on a shared view that corrupt elites had rendered the country defenseless. And their association raised liberal fears that a dictator would seize control of the White House. In fact, the New Republic published a series of fictional news reports in 1961 imagining Walker leading a military coup and installing a military junta in the White House. In the narrative, Walker, the temporary president, appoints Welch as head of a Subversive Activities Control Board and taps a rogue’s gallery of right-wing businessmen, media moguls and arch-segregationists to other key posts.
Look, and you’ll see in Welch and Walker some of the strains that reappear in Trumpism today.
Welch, a blue-eyed, balding candy manufacturer, became America’s most visible political extremist in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Born on a farm in North Carolina in 1899, Welch graduated from the University of North Carolina at 16 and attended Harvard Law School before dropping out to launch a fudge-making company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When Welch was mired in debt during the Great Depression, his company folded, and he joined his brother’s already established candy-making business, the James O. Welch Company, as a sales manager. Welch spent decades selling Pom-poms and helping to turn the company into a multi-million dollar operation. His first book, The Road to Salesmanship, published in 1941, offered business primers on the art of the sale.
While the marketing skills Welch honed early in life would help bring him to national political prominence, his ideological awakening didn’t come until the post-war years. During the early Cold War, the businessman began to see an American system that had lost touch with its founding principles. In his view, the rising power of the welfare state was destroying the individualist ethic that had once made the United States a beacon of freedom. Caught up in the anti-communist tide washing over post-war politics, Welch used his status as a successful candy manufacturer to give talks about the Red threat in public. “We are throwing away [the country we had] for a phony ‘security’ and a creeping collectivism,” warned Welch in one speech. On visits to England in the late 1940s, Welch recoiled at the “state socialism” he saw there, and cautioned American audiences upon his return against “let[ting] ourselves be infected by such diseases … as socialism and communism and other ideological cancers” as Western Europeans had.
Welch’s wealth and public profile rose as his anticommunist fervor intensified. Politicians began to solicit his endorsement to boost their campaigns in Massachusetts. He delivered rousing talks to political audiences and recruited volunteers to aid his chosen candidates. In 1950, Welch even ran for liftenant lieutenant governor of Massachusetts as a Republican, his lone try for elective office. He was badly defeated, and began to nurse the sort of grievances and aching sense of betrayal by “the establishment” that has infused Trump’s short-lived political career.
In Welch’s eyes, the progressive era was the culprit. President Woodrow Wilson’s agenda had put “this nation on its present road to totalitarianism,” he said. He fingered federal agencies, global financiers and elite-run international institutions such as the Council on Foreign Relations as “the insiders” that were conspiring to destroy the nation’s founding virtues of free enterprise and individual liberty. He saw the assault on the American way of life intensify in 1952 when the Republican establishment deprived Sen. Robert Taft of the 1952 presidential nomination and handed it to Dwight Eisenhower—“the dirtiest deal in American political history,” Welch called it. In 1954, when the Eisenhower administration and American liberals destroyed anti-communist firebrand Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Welch despaired. These moments ignited what D.J. Mulloy, in The World of the John Birch Society, called Welch’s “career in conspiracism.”
Serving on the board of the National Association of Manufacturers in the 1950s, Welch grew close to like-minded conservative business leaders, turned away from the candy business, and became an author and advocate. In the early-to mid-1950s Welch helped forge a burgeoning world of conservative organizing. He marshaled his skills as a marketer and pamphleteer to burnish his image as an anti-communist visionary speaking impolite truths to America’s sleepwalking political establishment. His goal was to open people’s minds to the grave communist dangers that sought “the destruction of our own liberty,” as the New York Times characterized one of his early arguments. “That there are more communists and communist sympathizers in our government today than ever before seems to me almost a certainty,” Welch declared. As Jonathan Schoenwald reveals in A Time for Choosing: The Rise of Modern American Conservatism, Welch persuaded conservative publisher Henry Regnery to publish a 30,000-word letter he had penned as a short book, May God Forgive Us, in 1952, and then established a Welch Letter Mailing Committee that urged potential buyers to pick up his book and learn from its revelations. Welch’s marketing strategy, Schoenwald wrote, was “a stroke of political genius.”
In 1954, Welch published The Life of John Birch, in which he depicted the Baptist missionary who was killed by Chinese communist troops just days after the end of World War II as the first victim of the communist war on free people. William F. Buckley would ultimately distance the conservative cause from Welch’s most outlandish conspiracies, but in the mid-1950s the founder of National Review praised Welch as “the author of two of the finest pamphlets this country has read in a decade.” Welch fixed his ire on establishment politicians who, he charged, had intentionally assisted the communists in their quest to destroy American life from within.
In 1958, Welch was sending his friends another book-length manuscript, The Politician, promulgating his most incendiary charge yet: that Eisenhower was “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” Welch justified his allegation by claiming his goal was simply to inform a “limited number of patriotic friends of mine what I personally believed about the present situation, why I believed it, and what I personally was trying to do about it as just one patriotic American who was greatly concerned.” In later self-defenses, Welch glowingly cited the 95 percent of well-informed, influential readers who “completely agree with … my … conclusions.”
That same year, just as The Politician was generating enthusiasm among some of Welch’s allies, Welch invited 11 sympathetic businessmen to a home in Indianapolis where over two days they listened raptly as he talked for roughly 13 hours about the domestic communist peril. By the time Welch was finished, he had established the John Birch Society (JBS) to organize grassroots anti-communists to educate the public and halt the spread of communism in the United States. Welch adopted a top-down, autocratic approach to the organization (“Democracy is merely a deceptive phrase, a weapon of demagoguery and a perennial fraud,” he said in justifying his iron grip). He drew on his salesman skills, concentrated decision-making power in his own hands and helped recruit an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 members. Many of them became devoted to direct political action and raising awareness in their communities about the communist dangers lurking within.
Welch’s Ike-is-Red bombsell exploded in the public conscience in the early 1960s. Numerous moderate and liberal politicians of both parties, as well as journalists, excoriated Welch’s charge as the ravings of a right-wing crackpot. Still, some anti-communists praised Welch’s revelatory book as the kind of truth-talk desperately needed in order to win the Cold War. By 1961, Welch’s thesis, and the John Birch Society’s growing visibility, made him and his members the leading national symbol of right-wing extremism in the eyes of countless critics.
Just as Welch’s star burned hotter, a second scandal ensnared the JBS. The Overseas Weekly, a privately-owned tabloid read by U.S. soldiers, reported that General Edwin Walker, who commanded the Army’s 24th Infrantry Division based in West Germany, had established an education program designed to instruct his men in the teachings of the John Birch Society and the true nature of the communist enemy. Welch’s The Life of John Birch appeared on Walker’s recommended reading list. Further, the Weekly charged, Walker, a Silver-Star winning World War II and Korean War veteran, had identified Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt as “definitely pink.” (Why he singled them out wasn’t clear.)
President John Kennedy asked the Army to investigate, and in June 1961, the Defense Department reassigned Walker and admonished him for having made “derogatory remarks of a serious nature about certain prominent Americans, the American Press, and TV industry and certain commentators, which linked the persons and institutions with Communism and Communist influence.” Rather than accept his reprimand, Walker resigned from the service. He wanted, he explained, “to be free from the power of little men who … punish loyal service,” and devoted himself to educating citizens about the scope of the communist threat.
Walker, at least initially, became a hero to countless conservatives. They way they saw it, he had short-circuited his distinguished military career to speak the truth about communist infiltration in key sectors of American government. One California congressman and JBS member defended Walker on the House floor: “Since when is it wrong to advance the cause of Americanism?”
Newsweek put Walker on its cover in 1961 with the headline, “Thunder on the RIGHT,” above a description that labeled Walker a “new crusader.” The former general quickly rose to Welch-like fame, as the two became seen as anti-communist heroes in the eyes of many conservatives—and right-wing fanatics, in the eyes of liberals. The businessman and the general did not actually have a personal relationship, but they did feed off of each other, and together inspired roiling debates about the direction of the conservative movement and how best to fight the communist threat.
Welch and Walker’s shared abhorrence of civil rights—their mutual conviction that communists were behind the drive to topple Jim Crow—provided another source of their alliance-building. After being arrested for leading pro-segregationist riots at the University of Mississippi in 1962, Walker was surrounded by rabid supporters upon his return home to Dallas. Their signs said “Welcome Walker” and “Walker for President, ’64;” one well wisher hoisted a confederate flag. A year later, Welch’s JBS published The Invasion of Mississippi, a pro-Walker, segregationist defense of the Walker-led riots at Ole Miss. When Walker embarked on a speaking tour in 1963 to rail against the communist conspiracy in the United States, Welch and his fellow JBS leaders urged their members to support Walker’s crusade. Members recruited citizens to attend Walker’s speeches and helped with logistics.
The general’s extremism deepened rapidly. In April 1962, after delivering rambling congressional testimony denouncing Secretary of State Dean Rusk as part of an “apparatus” devoted to selling out the United States, he punched a reporter in the face. In 1963, he denounced Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, as “little stupid brother Bobby.” Walker also conspiratorially implied that the government had tried to assassinate him, stating “they had to [arrest and] get rid of me because I knew too much about Mississippi.” (Seven months before Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, according to the Warren Commission, Lee Harvey Oswald tried to assassinate Walker, firing a single shot into his Dallas home that came within about an inch of Walker’s head.)
Up until then, much of the conservative press and political class either supported Walker’s crusade or remained relatively silent about his controversial views. “In 1961-1962 GOP leaders decided that remaining silent [on the Walker case] was preferable to drumming out the extremists in an ugly public purge,” Schoenwald writes. But eventually, some of the most conservative leaders had to repudiate Walker’s descent into fanaticism: Even JBS quelled its support as the general became more unhinged.
As Walker’s anticommunist career fizzled, Welch’s remained an inflexion point for conservative activists, Republican leaders and liberals. Some conservatives who were striving to become politically more viable, including Buckley and Ronald Reagan, denounced Welch’s theories as too extreme. But many of the same conservatives benefitted from JBS members’ fundraising and organizing support. Some of the muscle that powered conservative politicians in the 1960s was supplied by Welch’s followers.
History, of course, is a flow rather than a pattern or a cycle. But if we are searching as we should be for some of the seeds that flowered into Trumpism, the short-lived radical ascendance and the shared flow of ideas that defined Welch and Walker’s informal partnership isn’t a bad place to start.
In Trump and Flynn’s shared conspiracies about the power of Muslim extremists and illegal immigrants within the United States, their jaundiced views that Republican and Democratic insiders have rigged the system to favor global and coastal elites, their faith that only fearless, politically incorrect leaders can restore American greatness, and in the sheer temerity of their racial provocations (“Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” Flynn tweeted; a judge overseeing a Trump University case was biased due to his “Mexican heritage,” Trump charged), we see that Trumpism owes an unwitting debt to the Welch-Walker alliance. The partnership anticipated the paranoia, distrust of elites and hard-right vision of an America unfettered by such nefarious values as liberal pluralism, the welfare state and the liberal internationalist order. It may have taken decades for them to achieve a small measure of political vindication, but in Trump’s ascendance, Welch and Walker’s radicalism—decades after the Cold War ended—has found some unlikely champions in the Oval Office.