In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand wrote, “Who is John Galt?” Today, I ask, “Who was Robert Welch?”
To some, he was a genius, a child prodigy who was reading at age 2 and attended the University of North Carolina when he was 12. He created the Sugar Daddy and other children’s candies. He founded the John Birch Society, the most successful anti-Communist organization in the history of the United States.
To others, he was an abomination, the conspiracy theorist who called Dwight Eisenhower a Communist, and a prophet of doom who predicted that the country was on the verge of a Communist wave that would engulf all aspects of American life.
But, as I argue in my upcoming book A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism, Welch, born just before the turn of the 20th century, was more important to American conservatism, and to American life today, than any historian thought. Most interestingly, as I found in researching my book, he was an early proponent of the cultural, social, and economic issues that became central to the Reagan revolution in 1980. Welch helped transform the G.O.P. into a party of conservatism.
In 1972, the House and Senate passed the Equal Rights Amendment (E.R.A.), which prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex, giving the states seven years to ratify it—or not. Within a year, 30 states had. But, even though Congress extended the deadline, the E.R.A. was dead by 1982, and Welch was partly responsible. The eventual ratification failure of the E.R.A. was the greatest victory the Birch Society ever had.
Men (and the Occasional Woman) on Fire
The E.R.A. lit a fire for social conservatives, and the John Birch Society, which Welch founded in 1958 to attack Communism in American life, was an early assailant of the amendment. By the 70s, Birchers were making the case that the E.R.A. would have frightful consequences, such as unisex bathrooms and the inclusion of female troops in combat units. For Welch, the E.R.A. was “a combination of cruel joke and criminal idiocy.”
In 1972, Phyllis Schlafly, a Catholic conservative already popular on the far right for her best-selling tract A Choice Not an Echo, campaigned against the amendment by founding STOP E.R.A. Now, the traditional, albeit incomplete, narrative is that Schlafly stopped the ratification of the E.R.A.
To be sure, Schlafly, formerly a member of the Birch Society, was a force to be reckoned with. She was savvy and smart, and possessed formidable organizational skills to slow down the passage of the E.R.A. But Welch was cunning and brilliant as well.
Both Schlafly and Welch mobilized their respective organizations to defeat the E.R.A. Welch praised Schlafly for doing a “superb job of rallying opposition, mostly by women,” and slowing “almost to a standstill the very rapid progress the E.R.A. was making towards ratification.” But, he said, Schlafly “did not have … any organization with the cohesiveness and experience … which the Birch Society could supply.” In the end, Welch shared credit with Schlafly for stopping the ratification of the E.R.A., concluding that neither could have done it without the other.
Welch also added economic issues to the Birch Society’s agenda in the 70s and helped push the country rightward by providing much of the support behind the anti-tax movement at both the federal and state levels.
For Robert Welch, the Equal Rights Amendment was “a combination of cruel joke and criminal idiocy.”
The Birch Society’s campaign, which influenced tax relief for the rich, was reflected in Ronald Reagan’s most consequential legacy: the 1981 federal tax law, which reduced the marginal tax rate for the wealthiest Americans from 70 percent to 50 percent.
At the state level, Birch Society member Lewis Uhler founded the National Tax Limitation Committee, which was instrumental in passing Proposition 13 to reduce California’s property taxes in 1978. That proposition cut property taxes by 57 percent, slashed tax rates, and established that taxes would rise no more than two percent in any given year. Other states soon followed California’s example, with 28 of them lowering income taxes and 37 lowering property taxes.
As Welch put it when establishing the ad hoc group TRIM (Tax Relief Immediately) in 1973, “the main thrust of our campaign will be simply and directly against the enactment of higher taxes, and in support of the reduction of present taxes.” By 1977, the Birch Society had more than 200 active TRIM committees throughout the country.
TRIM and the tax revolts of the 70s gave rise to the New Right, a more secular coalition than the religious Right, concerned with tax cuts, decreasing the size of the state, and reducing the regulation of business. By the late 70s, presidential candidate Reagan became the national mouthpiece for the cuts that California tax revolters, TRIMmers, and Birchers had been calling for all decade. Proposition 13 “triggered hope in the breasts of the people that something could be done,” Reagan said. “It was a little bit like dumping those cases of tea off the boat in Boston Harbor.”
Once in the White House, Reagan moved quickly to secure the promised tax cut. Reagan’s first budget totaled more than $40 billion in domestic spending cuts and included a 30 percent tax cut over three years, primarily to the benefit of the richest Americans. On August 13, 1981, Reagan signed into law the Economic Recovery Tax Act.
Today we’re still influenced by the Reagan revolution, but with all the conspiracy theories that engulf our nation, from unfounded allegations of vaccines’ futility to QAnon’s delusion that J.F.K. Jr., who died in 1999, would ascend from his early, watery grave to where his father was gunned down in Dallas, we live in the Age of Robert Welch.
Edward H. Miller’s A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism will be published on January 20 by the University of Chicago Press