William F. Buckley and the Birchers: A myth, a history lesson and a moral - 2021-04-03
The story goes like this: in 1962, the leading conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr. used his magazine National Review to condemn the far-right John Birch Society. The denunciation isolated the Birchers and their wild conspiracy theories within America's conservative movement and led to their downfall.
The story is a myth, reliant on half-truths and omissions to make it convincing. Yet in articles and books , Buckley repeated it again and again. As the Republican Party grapples with QAnon believers and Trump loyalists, the myth that Buckley saved conservatism from extremists has been repeatedly cited as fact to explain how the party of Lincoln can save itself.
The truth is far more interesting. It shows that extremism in America's conservative movement has ebbed and flowed since the 1950s, yet never disappeared. Buckley claimed to have vanquished the Birchers, acting as the gatekeeper of American conservatism. Yet when Barry Goldwater became the first conservative presidential nominee of a major political party in 1964, it was the Birchers, not Buckley, who played the key role. The Birchers had a profound impact on American conservatism, a fact Buckley wished to expunge. He wanted to make conservatism respectable. To acknowledge the influence of the Birchers would be an admission of failure.