The dangerous doctrines of the far right that have manifested in the past week, the past two months, and the past four years have deep historical roots in American politics, including ones that I remember from my childhood in the mid-nineteen-sixties. Though my parents weren’t big readers, they owned one particular book, published in 1964, whose severely cautionary title strikes me as a mark of the fears that they felt at the time: “Danger on the Right.” I’ve never read it; the danger, I recall hearing at the time, had something to do with the 1964 Republican Presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, whom they considered a menace. Remembering the book recently, for obvious reasons, I discovered that it had made an impression far beyond my family circle: it gave rise to an extraordinary hour-long broadcast on WABC-TV from October of that year, near the end of the Presidential campaign (and now streaming on YouTube), titled after the book, but in the form of a question—“Danger on the Right?” It was hosted by the journalist Bill Beutel, and its central subject was the John Birch Society, which at the time was the most active far-right group in the United States, unless you count the Republican Party, and Beutel makes a quick yet bold case for possibly doing so.
At the start of the broadcast, Beutel introduces a clip from Goldwater’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention that July (where Richard Nixon, who held no office at the time, is seen in the audience), in which Goldwater utters a phrase that became instantly infamous: “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” According to Beutel, the John Birch Society—an anti-Communist organization, founded in 1958, that was making significant inroads among conservatives with its extravagant and baseless conspiracy theories—linked this speech to a rapid increase in its membership. About a third of the broadcast that follows is devoted to an extended documentary sequence inside a local John Birch Society meeting—and it’s a miracle of practical journalism that this documentary exists, because the discussion preserved there yields a joltingly unvarnished view of the ideas that were then gaining currency on the American right. The meeting takes place in a doctor’s basement in Summit, New Jersey, and features two officials of the society, Ernie Brosang and Thomas Davis. The host of the meeting, a Wagner College professor, asserts that the group shares basic and uncontroversial goals—“less government, more individual responsibility under God, and a better world”—but that, to achieve them, they’ll “have to defeat the international Communist world-control conspiracy.” Their discussion is centered on two main issues—extricating the United States from the United Nations and suppressing the civil-rights movement, both of which they consider Communist-dominated. (There’s also a sidebar of hostility to the “graduated income tax,” which is treated as a plot devised by Karl Marx himself “for the destruction of our country.”)
The doctor’s house features a “Don’t Tread on Me” banner on his outdoor flagpole; his basement wall is adorned with two posters, one disparaging the Civil Rights Act and another labelled “Martin Luther King . . . at Communist Training School.” It’s the civil-rights movement that earns the brunt of the gathering’s wildest lies. The society at the time was promoting a national campaign to impeach Earl Warren, then the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, on the ground of breaking his oath to uphold the Constitution. The Wagner professor calls Warren “the leading advocate setting the stage for the racial riots rending this country apart” and asserts that Communists themselves consider these decisions to be their “greatest victory.” He declares that the society favors civil rights (for whom, he doesn’t say), but adds that “the civil-rights slogan and the so-called Negro revolutionary movement are being used in precisely the same way and for the same purposes that the cry of agrarian reform was used in China some twenty years ago by Mao Tse-tung” and that “Communist hands” are guiding it. Another line on the meeting’s agenda is “Support Local Police,” which, in their discussion, turns to condemnation of the riots that had taken place that summer in many cities, starting in Harlem, after a white police officer shot and killed a Black teen-ager there. The professor decries civilian review boards established to oversee police conduct, claiming that, in cities where they exist, the police are “paralyzed,” fulfilling a Communist plan to “paralyze and demoralize the police.”
One of the most terrifying aspects of the documentary is the extent to which the society members’ ostensibly beyond-the-pale conspiracy theories pass, now, nearly as commonplace degradations of political discourse. Fortunately, the authors of “Danger of the Right”—Arnold Forster and Benjamin R. Epstein—and Arthur Larson, the founder of an organization devoted to investigating the radical right, weren’t so inured to these debased ideas. After the documentary segment on the meeting, the three men appear in a panel and, interviewed by Beutel, they address the society’s remarks indignantly. Larson says, “I see things being stated as facts that bear no relationship to the facts at all,” and he notes that the speakers are indifferent to “what is true and what is false.” He calls out the “complete untruths” that the speakers at the meeting promulgate; Forster continues the charge, ridiculing the assertion by the society’s founder, Robert Welch, that Dr. King and the former President Dwight D. Eisenhower are Communists, calling out “the evil of comparing the Negro revolution” to Communist propaganda, and spotlighting the absurd assertion by another society member that the C.I.A. is “an arm of the Russian secret police.”
Asked point blank by Beutel, “Do you think there is a danger of it”—a “fascist takeover” like that of Nazism in Germany—“happening here,” Epstein responds emphatically, “Well, I do think it can happen here,” and makes clear what he means, stating that he himself was a student in Berlin in 1934, and that the big lies he heard in the documentary reminded him of what he heard then. Epstein also cites the John Birch Society’s antidemocratic rhetoric, such as its use of the term “mobocracy” and its emphasis on calling the United States a republic instead of a democracy (a trope that has been peculiarly common among Republicans in recent years as well). Larson, equally bluntly, calls out Welch for saying, verbatim, “Democracy is a fraud.”
For all its bracing candor, clarity, and pugnacity, this extraordinary broadcast is marked by Beutel’s and the producers’ careful balancing of airtime, in a conspicuous effort to fulfill the provisions of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, which mandated broadcasters’ even-handed treatment of political matters. The show includes another panel featuring two society members, Davis and Colonel Laurence E. Bunker, though they don’t debate the other three; rather, under Beutel’s skillfully mild questioning, they deliver their paranoid gobbledygook about anarchy, subversion, and an international Communist conspiracy with a bland confidence that only spotlights the solipsistic absurdity. (Then, when Forster, Epstein, and Larson briefly return, it’s with the proviso, in the interest of “equal time,” that they not speak of the John Birch Society specifically.) The scrupulous contortions that broadcast rules imposed on the content of the show have, at least, the virtue of accurate labelling: the documentary segment is a work of news reporting. The opinion portions, featuring the panelists, are marked out as such, and the host, who doesn’t hide his own perspectives, nonetheless anchors them on the common ground of factual consensus.
That consensus, of course, has its own limitations: for instance, though the principal target of the society’s invective is the civil-rights movement, there isn’t a Black speaker featured on the panel. Mainstream broadcasting, like mainstream Hollywood, in an age before the many channels of cable and the infinite channels online, depended on its tacit exclusions. With the expansion of media, expression expanded in a wide variety of ways, only some of which represented progress: two decades after the Nixon Administration’s assault on the supposedly liberal media, Fox News and other sources came to provide not just alternative views but alternative facts, and have transformed the sorts of conspiratorial fabrications exposed by Forster and Epstein’s book and Beutel’s broadcast into a new mainstream and a new consensus that makes its exclusions the very point.