Out in the deserts of eastern Idaho, I saw by the side of highways lonely and busy, the billboards promoting — in washed out colors with blunt language — the John Birch Society.
These were not old billboards. They were new.
Just as new as the reports from Kootenai and Benewah counties in northern Idaho, where local Republican Party organizations passed resolutions — and proposed the state party do likewise — supporting and urging endorsement of the John Birch Society. Brent Regen, the chieftain of the Kootenai GOP, backed the measure in his county and was quoted, “The John Birch Society is the intellectual component of conservatism. I fully support them. They are the brain trust.”
This a true throwback to the past, a time more than half a century old, when the JBS was new, growing and exerting influence in places like Idaho. After a show of organizational strength in the 1960s, it faded in the 1970s, and hasn’t been much visible since. Until lately. And that’s something Idahoans ought to take account of.
The JBS likes to describe itself as a supporter of the federal constitution and of limited government, but if that were all it was about, the group would be no different from half the other political organizations in the country. It has focused on much more, many dark and conspiratorial ideas. William F. Buckley, a name almost synonymous with American conservatism, warned of the organization as a paranoid menace and, a biographer said, “was beginning to worry that with the John Birch Society growing so rapidly, the right-wing upsurge in the country would take an ugly, even Fascist turn.”
Buckley spoke with then-presidential candidate Barry Goldwater about taking a stand specifically against it, and Goldwater was sympathetic but largely dodged and weaved on the issue out of fear of alienating key parts of his base. Richard Nixon did denounce the group outright, and even Ronald Reagan warned of a “lunatic fringe” coming to dominate it.
Does this rhyme with today’s environment?
The JBS was the first large-scale purveyor of political conspiracy theories, arguing that Dwight Eisenhower was a knowing communist agent and that Black efforts to secure the right to vote amounted to nothing but a communist front, among much else. Buckley again: “One continues to wonder how it is that the membership of the John Birch Society tolerates such paranoid and unpatriotic drivel.”
But in this era of QAnon and election conspiracies, the JBS is seeing a rebirth. It has taken off in parts of Texas and in scattered other parts of the county.
In July, the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee unanimously backed a resolution supporting the John Birch Society and urging “Idahoans who do not support our party platform to follow the example of Bill Brooks and voluntarily disaffiliate from the Idaho Republican Party.”
Brooks is a Kootenai County commissioner, elected as a Republican to the Kootenai County commission in 2020 and 2018 (unopposed in the general elections, though winning close primaries each time). He has fired off blasts at Regan and the John Birch Society and local Republicans’ associated with it. Recently he declared himself an independent, saying his “political beliefs have not changed. The local Republican Party has changed. They have shamelessly chosen to bind themselves to the John Birch Society. The Kootenai County Central Committee recently passed a unanimous resolution calling on all Republicans who don’t agree with the John Birch Society to leave the Republican Party.”
Local Republicans have responded with a recall attempt, results of which are expected this month.
It’ll be a referendum in part on the John Birch Society. Watch the numbers closely.
Watch also Republican Party developments in southern Idaho; those billboards didn’t get there by accident.
And keep watch, too, for how state Republican Party leaders respond to the local organization’s request. They’re probably feeling a little uncomfortable about it right now.