Upping the Vigilante | Crooked Media
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May 19, 2023
Positively Dreadful
Upping the Vigilante

In This Episode

In the past few years, the Republican politics of crime and racial scapegoating have given way to the outright glorification of vigilante killers like Kyle Rittenhouse, Eddie Gallagher, and most recently, Daniel Penny. Last week, Penny choked a Black street artist to death for the crime of being mentally ill on a New York subway. In response, Ron DeSantis called him a “Good Samaritan” and said America has his back. Why has this trend taken hold? Is it new? And, most importantly, to what end? Host Brian Beutler welcomes Matthew Dallek, a professor at George Washington University and author of the new book Birchers, which details the founding of the far-right John Birch Society and its attempt to take over the GOP. Brian and Matt discuss the ever-shrinking line between violent right-wing extremists and mainstream Republican politicians, why the GOP is turning racist vigilantes into folk heroes, and how the groundwork for MAGA to take over the Republican Party was laid 50 years ago by a group of wealthy, extremist bigots.

Positively Dreadful will be dark for the next two weeks. See you June 9th!







Brian Beutler: Hello and welcome to Positively Dreadful. With me your host, Brian Beutler. If you’re a regular listener here, then I’m going to assume you’re broadly familiar with what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. The Nazis marching with torches, the Unite the Right rally. Donald Trump’s sanctification of white supremacists and ultimately the murder of Heather Heyer. 


[news clip]: We begin tonight with that breaking news. A horrific scene in Charlottesville, Virginia, a white nationalist rally that descended into deadly violence and chaos. The images just coming in. 


[clip of crowd chanting]: Jews will not erase us. Jews will not erase us. Jews will not—


[clip of President Donald Trump]: Yes, I think there’s blame on both sides. You also had people that were very fine, people on both sides. 


Brian Beutler: Looking back on the low moments of the Trump presidency, I think many people remember that 24 hour period as the lowest, if not one of the lowest. And you can kind of intuit that even Trump loyalists know it was a low moment because they don’t celebrate it. They don’t talk about it unless they’re trying to nitpick criticisms and retellings of the event and of Trump’s role in it. But I want you to imagine for a moment what might have happened if Charlottesville had been a somewhat lower wattage event, less well covered in the media, less well attended, if the counterprotest had been a bit smaller, if Trump had never been confronted with questions about it and cameras weren’t rolling when James Alex Fields Jr. accelerated his car into a crowd of counter protesters. What if the news out of Charlottesville had been hazy and hard to reconstruct, but all we knew for sure is that a right wing protester had driven through a group of resistance protesters and one person had died. If that’s how most of America had learned about Charlottesville, I’m not sure it’d be a particularly well-remembered event today. I also think Republicans and conservative movement leaders might to this day herald James Alex Fields as a hero and a martyr, persecuted by the justice system. And I don’t mean that as hyperbole at all, and I don’t mean to define Republicans by their most extreme members when I say it. They didn’t, by and large, lionize fields he was associated with out and out Nazis. And he was caught on tape committing an act of wanton murder. But they Republicans did kind of gesture in that direction immediately after Charlottesville, given a stark choice between two dueling protest movements. Republicans in red states began advancing legislation to indemnify people. And really, I think they had in mind right wing people who hit protesters with their vehicles. You see some anti-Trump people protesting. Can you plausibly deny that you were just out for blood? Well, now you can claim that you felt threatened and poof, your legal exposure is gone. So that was one clue. One indication that that many Republicans actually kind of did support James Alex Fields and did want the far right grassroots thinking in terms of terrorizing their liberal counterparts, Black Lives Matter protesters, the Women’s March and so on. And as time went on, that signal has gotten louder. In 2019, then President Trump pardoned Eddie Gallagher. He was a convicted Navy SEAL war criminal known to have killed and shot Iraqis more or less for sport. He even staged a photograph with the dead body of a teenage Islamic State captive whom he’d stabbed to death near the end of his presidency Trump would pardon four similarly violent Blackwater security contractors who’d been convicted of murder and other crimes. In 2020 Kyle Rittenhouse traveled to Wisconsin, heavily armed, looking for a confrontation with Black Lives Matter protesters. He found it and then killed two of them and seriously wounded another. Rittenhouse escaped criminal culpability for his actions, thanks to some Republican pro-gun laws and is now a folk hero of the American right. In Texas right now, Governor Greg Abbott is preparing to pardon Daniel Perry, an Army sergeant who similarly premeditated a confrontation with left wing protesters so that he could shoot one. He did. The victim died. A jury convicted Perry of murder, but he will presumably go free. And now there’s the case of Daniel Penny, different Daniel. He’s the young white Marine who choked Jordan Neely, a 30 year old Black street artist, to death for the crime of being mentally ill on a New York subway. Now, as far as I know, as of this recording, Penny didn’t go looking for confrontation the way the others I mentioned did, let alone as part of a sort of GOP aligned violent movement. But Republicans have found a shining prince in him anyhow. They want him acquitted of manslaughter. And they’re going to try to achieve that with money and propaganda. On Saturday, so that’s May 13th, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida tweeted. We must defeat the Soros-Funded DAs, stop the Left’s pro-criminal agenda and take back the streets for law abiding citizens. We stand with Good Samaritans like Daniel Penny. Let’s show this Marine… America’s got his back. A good Samaritan for lethally assaulting someone who he deemed a nuisance. And this is all happening as other out and out Nazi, Charlottesville style Nazis, are making notable inroads into Republican politics, finding an increasingly welcome reception with Trump and his children and the leaders of his administration. So here’s what I’m after this week. Why has this trend taken hold? Is it new or if not new necessarily, than a recrudescence of a trend that had ebbed for a time? And more importantly, to what end is it all happening? I can think of a couple of reasons. People like Ron DeSantis would want to associate themselves with Kyle Rittenhouse and Daniel Penny and various extremist groups terrorizing drag queens story hours. One explanation, which would stem from a mix of cynicism and maybe some delusion, is that many Republicans think that’s where the silent majority resides. Like Democrats, they recognize that most voters are, quote unquote, “normies,” but they conceive of normality as sort of synonymous with hostility to anything that isn’t normal. If normies hate abnormies, then it might follow that antagonizing trans people and targeting BLM protesters with violence basically outright war with anything left wing coded might divide the country and leave Republicans with the larger half. I don’t think that’s true, but it would explain a lot. I think you see it in how cavalierly DeSantis has embraced authority in politics generally, not just because he thinks it might help him in a GOP primary, but because it might help him appeal to the median voter, his spirit animal and the right wing advocacy world is this guy named Chris Rufo. And if you read his musings, you can tell he’s become a legend in his own mind, convinced that menacing large swaths of society is a big political winner for Republicans. So that’s one theory, and it’s a relatively soothing theory because it suggests a simple antidote. Just beat them. Prove to them that they’re wrong and their antics will change. Another more troubling theory is that they don’t particularly care how widely the politics of fascism, of menace, appeal. They’re all in because they want to be, because their goal isn’t just to win elections. It’s to recruit violent men to their cause by dangling before them the promise of impunity. Join us. Take to the streets for us. Stand back and stand by as Donald Trump asked of the Proud Boys and we’ll protect you. Those January 6th riders. Trump will pardon them. You, if you kill someone, we’ll get you a pardon, too. Or if you do it in a blue state, will fund your defense and try to nullify your jury. So what’s the solution if that’s the problem? Because people can’t beat bloodlust. The pursuit of power through violence at the ballot box. Matthew Dallek is a political historian and professor at George Washington University here in Washington, D.C. He’s written extensively about the ever blurring, ever shrinking line between violent right wing extremists and mainstream Republican politicians, including in his new book, Birchers, which is about the founding of the John Birch Society and its long, successful effort to take over the GOP. John Birch comprised a coalition of extremist bigots, conspiracy theorists who tried to mount a takeover of the Republican Party 50 years ago. They were beaten back in their time, but arguably laid the groundwork for MAGA to actually take over the GOP five decades later. Matt is my guest this week and I’m eager to hear his thoughts on what’s new and what’s not and what the heck to do about it if this violent fringe is no longer fringe and has slipped the bonds of politics. Matthew, welcome to Positively Dreadful. Really appreciate you joining us. 


Matthew Dallek: It’s my pleasure to be here. Thanks so much for having me. 


Brian Beutler: So there was actually another incident that I wanted to drop in here instead of in the intro, because I know you’ve written about it was when this disturbed right wing extremist named David DePape broke into Nancy Pelosi’s house in San Francisco and assaulted her husband, Paul, with a hammer. And I think the DePape case looks more like the Charlottesville one, where the absence of plausible deniability has meant that the right wing elites can’t exactly celebrate him. But but they did turn it into a big joke, kind of. And they spread conspiracy theories about how Paul Pelosi might have been complicit in his own brutalizing. And so if we’re trying to sort of circumscribe, like, where are the limits for leaders of the MAGA right wing, it seems like if you’re on the right and you steer clear of outright like public Hitler worship or of assaulting elected officials or their families, like in their houses or in their offices, then you’re you can join the club and you might even get a speaking slot at the GOP convention. Is is that sort of where you see the limits as well? 


Matthew Dallek: Well, look, I think, first of all, you know, you in your intro mentioned a lot of different cases. And as you pointed out, I think it’s important for us to keep in mind that these cases are somewhat distinct. Right. They there are some overlap. But in the case of DePape the guy who hit Paul Pelosi with the hammer, that’s I think, a case where he absorbed he appeared to absorb like a number of actually mass murderers that we’ve seen, whether it’s in Buffalo or Allen, Texas, absorbed a language and ideas and conspiracy theories that are primarily circulating on on the far right, although that far right as you said, you know, they’re no longer really the fringe. Right. It’s much more the center. And I think that that speaks to the danger of the kind of rhetoric. Right. That whether or we hear heard it from Trump and Rudy Giuliani and many others who took the stage at the January 6th rally or whether we hear it, you know, on on the, you know, Trump’s tweets or on Truth Social or just in kind of right wing, far right social media sites. And I think we’ve seen in multiple instances how, you know, white nationalism or ideas about the great replacement theory, Right. That that immigrants are supposedly coming to replace white Americans and that liberal elites are causing this. It’s part of their plan. Those theories, that message, that language, I think, has had really dangerous effects that we’ve seen play out in real time. Now, you know, on the somewhat other side, the case of Penny, Daniel Penny, the New York subway, the guy who’s now accused of manslaughter and killing the homeless man on the New York City subway system. I have no idea what his politics are. But clearly people like DeSantis and a number of others, Marjorie Taylor Greene, have appropriated him. Right. They’ve kind of taken over this case and have helped. They’re not the only ones, right? They’re not the only ones, but they have helped kind of shove it into the partisan, you know, political fray. And they’ve held him up as a vigilante potentially. Like and the idea of vigilante justice, they’ve held that up as a as a as a societal good. And so as I read today, Sam Tanenhaus, who’s who’s got a biography of William Buckley coming out, you know, as he basically said, we’re in a new place. And I think that’s right. I mean, there are you know, we can go back and talk about like the history a little bit. But this is, I think the instance you describe, the instance we’re talking about these feel new. They feel more radical and the language and ideas coming from a top. Some of the GOP, not all, but some of it, I think is having a very, you know, really a negative and kind of almost radicalizing effect on a lot of people. 


Brian Beutler: Right. And I think that there’s an interplay between the two, because I appreciate the distinction between how Republicans respond when somebody has been radicalized and then they go commit a massacre at a grocery store, at a synagogue or wherever else. You don’t see Republicans claiming those people as their own. They they try to paper over the extent to which they’re responsible for the radicalization. But part of what radicalizes those people is the extent to which I think Republicans do embrace. People who are sort of right wing coded. They’re members of law enforcement or the military or militia members. And if they go out and commit acts of violence against anyone who broadly fits into a category of people that conservative Americans dislike. Right. So so it could be Muslims, it could be migrants, it could be LGBT people. It could be just a just a down and out homeless person suffering from mental illness. If the person who commits violence against them fits the right profile, then that’s a hero suddenly. And if you’re like, teetering on the brink of insanity and you think, well, like that’s this is the club them that I’m a part of. You might see it as permission to go do something even more drastic than what Daniel Penny did. 


Matthew Dallek: Well, look, a lot of the victims in these attacks, whether we’re talking about, I think two of the people that Kyle Rittenhouse shot or the person that Daniel Penny killed or whose death he caused, a lot of them, of course, are have been African-American. And so I think, you know, there is a racial a strong racial component to the lionization of, you know, in this case, these vigilantes and some of the targets of the attack, some of the victims. The I think the most glaring case, though, of embracing violent extremists is and and in some ways maybe surprising in other ways not, but just that Trump’s out and out embrace of the January 6th of convicted rioters and those convicted of seditious conspiracy. I mean, there’s this then. And part of it is the rewriting of the narrative about what happened on January 6th. But part of it is the sense that these are true patriots who have been unfairly maligned and maliciously persecuted by rogue elements in in the state, right, in this case in the Department of Justice. And that is that I think is also [laughs] dangerous because, you know, look, in all of these cases, in theory and ideally, if we step back, we should let the court of law, you know, and the justice system work. Right? We should, you know, step back And, you know, it’s not to say obviously people can commentate, but we should, you know, let people in the case of the January 6th folks, you know, like a thousand people who are now sitting in jail and have been convicted of crimes. And yet there has been a kind of a total rewriting of what happened that day, at least among some. And it’s become as opposed to something that the vast majority of people, Americans, can come together and say, you know, this is deeply wrong. It’s an assault on democracy and it’s really a violent extremist attack on on police and on and on members of Congress. Instead of that narrative and having a really broad consensus, it’s become, at least again, for not all, but but a number of Republicans, including the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. It’s been held up as an example of the deep state, you know, hounding and unfairly persecuting innocent people, essentially. I mean, that’s the narrative. And that, you know, the day was really an act of love when we know it wasn’t. You know, six people died, I think. So that, I think is a is new and or fairly recent. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t roots, you know, in the past, but, you know, it feels like we are in a more violent political space within our partisan political system. [music plays]




Brian Beutler: Let’s talk about the newness or newish ness of this in a historical context, because I think a theme of your recent work is that the rise of the MAGA movement resembles, in many ways, the rise of the John Birch Society. And I want to talk about all the similarities as we go. But first, was this an aspect of Bircherism where, where right wing leaders would would try to sort of turn racist vigilante types into folk heroes? 


Matthew Dallek: That’s a really interesting question. So the Birch Society, there were a number of leaders and and members who at times espoused either primarily anti-Semitic or anti-Black racist statements. And one of the things I argue in the book is that the far right was defined then and now, essentially by a set of ideas and tactics. And we can talk about some of those ideas. But but one of them, I say, and it’s also a tactic as well, is a more a more violent, anti-establishment, apocalyptic mode of politics. And that that mode does hark back to the to a lot of the rhetoric around the Birch Society. So, for example, 1974, the Birch Society’s most prominent African-American spokesmen addressed a rally of about 400 Birchers in, I think in Colorado, in Denver, Colorado. And he said he accused. Republican, essentially mostly Republican political leaders of imposing planned shortages of consumer goods on the country. And he said that once real patriots like Birchers get power, they were going to try people like Nixon and Kissinger and Fulbright, politicians of that sort. They were going to try them for treason. And then he said, and they’ll be hanged. And he I don’t know if he turned to the media, but he said, a newsmen take that message and publicize it. The Americanists are coming or the Americans are coming. And so the language of and and one other very brief example, Robert Welch, the founder of the society, he often invoked martial rhetoric. Right. That, you know, the Birchers were like tips of the spear. They were being pointed at the communists enemy line and that, you know, their enemies were you know, I mean, I’m paraphrasing here, but really one of the greatest threats, right, these internal enemies. And so The Nation magazine, a liberal magazine at the time in the sixties, warned that the Birch Society was giving Americans an open invitation to engage in a civil war guerrilla style. Because of that rhetoric, because of the idea that the enemies, the greatest threat to the country were inside the gates and they had to be stopped, whether it was by law enforcement, you know, like this, like police or, you know, in some cases, if people had to take matters into their own hands. There were also examples of what I would describe as almost a vigilante violence on the far right that were associated with the Birchers. So one very brief example, a group called Breakthrough, which was based in Detroit in the 1960s and seventies, a guy named Donald Lobsinger, ran this group and there were some birch members who were either supporting it or were were in it. Anyways, Breakthrough was to breakthrough the communist line, which they saw as mostly anti-war protesters in Detroit. And this guy Lobsinger and his people would go around and they would break up physically antiwar demonstrators. At one point they beat up an anti-war priest. They beat them up. This guy Lobsinger was arrested multiple times for on all sorts of charges. And in fact, three weeks before Martin Luther King was assassinated by a white supremacist, he appeared in Grosse Pointe, Michigan and Lobsinger was there protesting him and actually stormed the stage and prevented King from doing a Q&A. You know, kind of refused to leave, really disrupted. So, you know, we do see echoes. The difference, though, one of the biggest differences, of course, is that, you know, then it was primarily confined to the fringe, and now it’s become much more mainstreamed, which with Trump in particular, and to some extent now DeSantis sanctioning, condoning some of this some of this lawlessness. 


Brian Beutler: I was going to ask you if any of the leaders of the right flank of the Republican Party were okay with it when Birchers were saying that Nixon would be hung for treason or whatever. 


Matthew Dallek: He was the President. 


Brian Beutler: Nixon certainly didn’t support the idea that he should be hanged. But like Barry Goldwater in exile or whatever. 


Matthew Dallek: Yeah. 


Brian Beutler: Was there a welcome committee for for those people? [laughter] Because today there would be. I mean, today Donald Trump is the one saying Mitch McConnell has a death wish or whatever. 


Matthew Dallek: Yeah. 


Brian Beutler: So it’s like it’s coming from inside the house a lot now. But. 


Matthew Dallek: Yes. 


Brian Beutler: Was there an element of that back then? 


Matthew Dallek: Much less so. I mean, you know, we could probably go back and scour [laughs] you know. 


Brian Beutler: Hmm. 


Matthew Dallek: And maybe find here or there some folks, but but much less so I think within the for all sorts of reasons that we can get into, but within at least the confines of the two party political system. And, you know, even Ronald Reagan, who was governor of California, cracked down very hard on anti-war protesters and the People’s Park, the protest in the People’s Park in 1969 using the National Guard. You know, even Reagan did not engage in this kind of the same kind of let’s basically, you know, go go beat in their heads or celebrating vigilantes. Right. It was not it was not the the rhetoric that we see with Trump. I mean, yes, Nixon, Reagan, Goldwater in 64, There were very much pro law and order and and quite hard line in many respects, but not not endorsing at least that I found in the main this kind of level of vigilante violence and not this sort of like lionization of of of vigilantes. Which is I think you know what we have. Right? Sort of the Charles Bronson movie that you know, from the 1980s, you know, who plays this this vigilante character. Right. Is out to get revenge and there’s this sort of bloodlust and that I don’t think we saw. And I think one reason we didn’t see it, at least in the mainstream of the GOP and the mainstream of conservatism is that the assumption was that that was an electoral loser. [laughs] Right. That this was if you want to build a coalition, this was this was the way to break it apart. Right? It was not the way to do it. So I think that, you know, there is a strong case to be made that this is of a different magnitude right, a different order. And, you know, the the the right wing, the far right is sort of, as I argue, you know, in many ways taken over, engulfed mainstream conservatism in the Republican Party. 


Brian Beutler: I know that it’s not like there was the Birchers and then an era of of calm and reason took over, and then suddenly it was back again. Like I’ve spent a lot of time before Trump ran for president, sort of closely covering the GOP relationship with the Tea Party and watching leaders like John Boehner try to figure out how to straddle a line right where where they could co-opt the Tea Party’s energy without embracing the whole catechism. Right. But I think this is the first time in my career where I’ve had a sense that like. If I became a radicalized right wing person with a with a with violent ideation and then killed someone who Republicans deem undesirable or think is a useful foil. Right. Like that, that this is the this is the left and and look at how weird they are or whatever that they try to help me get away with it [laughs] that I could and that I could even become like rich and influential doing that like it’s not just will help you out if you get in trouble. It’s like your life could improve. You could become wealthy. 


Matthew Dallek: A pathway to success maybe, you know. 


Brian Beutler: Yeah. I mean, it’s it’s crazy, but it strikes me as, like, a horrifically dangerous line, even relative to what the Birchers wanted. And I don’t know what we do if we’ve crossed it. 


Matthew Dallek: Look, I think you make an important point. And actually, it’s one of the arguments I do try to make in the book, which is that there were significant divisions and that oftentimes the divisions were greater than the the ideas that held together mainstream conservatives in the far right and that the far right was often part of the conservative electoral coalition. But, you know, conservatives, when they got into office of various stripes, whether George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan, did not govern in ways that satisfied the the far right and the far right really was frustrated with that. And they wanted, as you said, right. The the energy, the money, the votes, but not the taint. And that was the the the delicate dance. So. But, you know, now I think part of the part of the challenge is and we can talk about, you know, maybe more hopeful notes in a little bit. But part of the challenge is that Trump and a lot of clearly a lot of his supporters and and those politically. Right. Who’s they see the celebrations right. A vigilantism or you know far right violence they see it whether it’s kind of calling them fine people or out now, you know, he’s a patriot, right? Like, let’s, you know, fundraise for him and show him we got his back. Whatever level of celebration we’re talking about, they see it as as electorally useful. And in fact, if you want to win, let’s say, a nomination like the presidential nomination, it can be helpful. I mean, that I think, is the that the political incentives have lined up. And on the other side, the people like Mitch McConnell, who don’t typically engages in this kind of stuff and who, my guess is do not like it. Whatever else, you know, he he says he does doesn’t like Trump and doesn’t like this. I think they feel somewhat cowed because they you know, they don’t want to split the party apart. And and also, you know, they they the Republican base is also now Trump’s base. And they don’t want to, you know, antagonize it. 


Brian Beutler: So, yeah, I guess the you know, the reductionist version, I think, of what you’re saying is that Goldwater gets wiped out. That is a big high sign to Republican elites that extremist, conspiratorial, overtly racist politics are not winners. They’re going to they’re going to leave us with the minority. They’re going to fracture our coalition. We’re going to bleed voters, so let’s not do it. But then Trump wins in 2016 being, you know, just like a like a dick [laughs] and and and cruel and and also conspiratorial, dishonest, corrupt. And but he wins, you know, not like he doesn’t romp to victory, he wins a technical victory in the Electoral College. And I think you definitely do see a lot of Republicans convinced try to convince themselves that that kind of behavior might actually be more appealing than they assumed. However, the 2018 election, 2020 election Republicans lost both of those. They arguably lost the midterms relative to what we normally expect a out out party to do in a midterm. And yet they’re still at it. I mean, they’re still doing the Trump thing. And I’m wondering [sigh] it makes me wonder how much of it is cynicism where they think aligning ourselves with people who take assault rifles to protest in the hope of shooting. People. [laughs] It is like they think that that’s a big political winner. And but how much of it is like we’ve given up on persuasion and winning the old fashioned way of getting a majority of votes. And we’ve warmed to the idea of ruling by force? 


Matthew Dallek: Well, you know, look, it’s it’s hard to know, of course. And there’s, I think, some combination of political expediency and belief in. I mean, that’s sort of my general take on a lot of political leaders. And I would say, you know, for example, with Trump in 2016 and beyond, you know, I do think it’s worth taking his ideas seriously. The the nativism, the anti-immigrant anti trade agenda, the more explicit racism, I think that we saw, as you said, the conspiracy theories, the the the anti-establishment. Right. This idea that both parties are corrupt, the elites in both parties have destroyed the the country have stolen your wealth. I mean, that was sort of the language that Trump used in his appeal in 2016. I think that is also really important to to this identity and the, you know, the celebration of the vigilantes that we’re talking about or or even the fine people, you know [laughs] or the Jan 6th people. Right, that they’re patriotic. I think it plays into that larger worldview, right, that there are these elites. They are. Or rhinos, right. Like Mitch McConnell, I mean, because they hate Mitch McConnell and that these folks are not like true patriots. They have been, you know, suppressing a kind of more populist, nationalistic, you know, primarily white working class agenda. And and they are you know, they’re they’re traitors right they’re, traitors to the cause, which is why that that attack on Nixon and Kissinger as traitors in 1974 in some ways resonated with me because it feels similar to some of the attacks that we hear on on some Republicans, right. On or on the Bush’s right in the Bush family, which has become really the you know, I mean, Trump ran against Bush. So I think that, again, you know, the vigilantes and the celebration of them, if, it is part and parcel and it’s also part and parcel of a message that the streets, especially the cities, are totally lawless. Right. There’s an anarchy that’s reigning. And so and that, you know, let’s say Black Lives Matter is a source of great unrest and and violence and and property destruction. And and also, by the way, I think their theory is that the deep state, including the Department of Justice and the FBI, are also corrupt. And part of this, you know, cabal, essentially. And so at times, you know, citizens have to take matters into their own hands. And so that is I think it does fit, I think, with a kind of worldview. It’s clearly effective for raising money, for getting attention for, you know, there are there are other political incentives for kind of firing up people maybe at rallies. But but there’s a larger view, I guess, of American life. And you can see it in Trump’s rhetoric and in other MAGA officials rhetoric as well. 


Brian Beutler: Yeah, I go back and forth and I also assume that there is some element of both belief and cynicism at play here. You know, like I believe in the coming days or maybe this week, Trump is hosting a bunch of like neo-Nazis at his property in Doral. And I don’t think anyone in the Republican Party is both dumb and cynical enough to think that that could be like plied into some political advantage. I still think Nazis are pretty unpopular [laughs] but at the same time, I think a lot about like it’s sort of like a Rosetta Stone for my understanding of how like Republican politics works is is the famous Lee Atwater quote about how the GOP learned to appeal to racist voters in code. And when I first learned about that, quote he gave many, many years ago, it made me think that most of the cynical things I see happening in politics are are are actions taken with eyes wide open and then, you know, sort of like year in, year out, you’ll find hardline conservatives and Republicans admitting to a bunch of cynical stuff just on camera about voter suppression or like what they like John Eastman talking about, like their efforts to steal the 2020 election, kind of knowing that it was all bullshit. And it’s not that I don’t think that the people who do those things are genuinely extreme or don’t have some objective in mind that that’s sort of outside of whatever action they’re taking. But it makes me question the idea that the principles so like people like Trump or or Robert Welch, who helped found the Birchers are are fully delusional people who think that they’re waging a patriotic fight to defend America, that they know at some level that they’re manipulating people. Right.


Matthew Dallek: Yeah. Well, I look, it’s a very good question. I think Trump, in the case of Trump and with Robert Welch and with others, they’re very, very good entrepreneurs. You know, they’re very entrepreneurial and they know how to sell a product. They know how to kind of differentiate their product. And what was so revealing about the Fox News Dominion text by God, Tucker Carlson and many others, Laura Ingraham is just how cynical they were about the stuff that they were selling. Right. That they they admitted out and out that Trump you know, he’s a madman. He’s what? A Trump what did Carl— Tucker Carlson call him? Like a destroyer and a demonic force. And that and that you know, the the the conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and the software manipulation related to Dominion, that stuff was fantastical, that it was absurd and they knew it. So that is, you know, the kind of cynicism on steroids. And I think it is a window into some of it. But again, I don’t I mean, in the case of the Birchers, I do. First of all, I think most of them were rational. They were educated. They many of them were wealthy. Right. Wealthy and very successful. You know, these were not like this is why I shy away from the term paranoid. [laughs] Right. There were not like paranoids who are on the margins of society, like talking to themselves. Not at all. So one founder actually was the leader of the YMCA. [laughs] So you can’t get more, you know, mainstream really than that. And yet I think that they had ways of rationalizing it. So, you know, I think Welch believes in a lot of the conspiracy theories. Some of his allies, though, kind of question his conspiracy theory that Dwight Eisenhower was a dedicated agent of the communist conspiracy. They weren’t sure that they really believe that, but they still thought that Welch and the movement was patriotic, was anti-communist, and was a very effective force. And I think you see some of that as well going on here. Right. It’s kind of like, what is the adage about the enemy of the of my enemy is my friend. There is an element of that. And I do think that we see it with a lot of Republican officials who may not, you know, be conspiratorial like Trump, but are going to support him nevertheless. So, you know, I don’t I don’t I think some of it is cynicism. But, you know, there are. And then one last point I would make, which is that, you know, Republican leaders or at least, you know, Republican presidents of the past say, you know, 50, 60 years, a lot of them in office had to make accommodations to what they saw as political and social reality, accommodations to civil rights laws, to voting rights laws. That’s not to say there were champions of them, but, you know, Reagan and the Bushes, you know, they had to sign renewals of the Voting Rights Act and they did. And or even, you know, accept that Martin Luther King’s birthday was going to be a holiday. So they would go to Bob Jones University, which was, you know, a bar, and barred interracial dating. And that would give a speech there. But in office, they were pretty pragmatic on a lot of these issues, or at least, you know, more pragmatic that I think what we see today. And so, you know, it’s I think it’s an interesting dynamic and, you know, worth worth noting. 


Brian Beutler: Yeah, it’s funny, like just 15 years ago, Republicans going to Bob Jones, but also making pragmatic governing choices when Democrats controlled Congress. Like that was considered the the the limits of cynicism like Bob Jones University is pretty crazy place and this is like how they’re courting the right flank while also like not losing touch with reality and governing the country in a at least somewhat responsible way like. Now Trump goes to Waco to announce his presidential campaign. And. And like doesn’t end like promotes defaulting on the debt. Outwardly like there’s no—


Matthew Dallek: Yeah. Yes. It’s sort of it’s a sense that things have gone off the rails and, you know, you made a really, I think, important point earlier when you talked about Goldwater in 64, because it was, in a sense, at the height of the Birch Society’s power as an organization. You know, they had helped nominate Goldwater from the convention stage at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Goldwater famously said extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue. And then, of course, he got crushed. He got crushed in the general election. And he even there’s some signs, too, that he actually tried to distance himself from the Birchers in the general election because he understood that this was not not going well for him. So and, you know, I think a lot of Republican conservatives watched and learned. I and and, you know, we think about someone like George W. Bush, right? Yeah. You know, well, I think a lot of this, if we go back to 2008, I think a lot of it is a reaction to George W. Bush’s, the sense that mainstream conservative governance had failed and that and that there was a betrayal on the part of, you know, people like Bush, whether it was the bank bailouts, Bush was pro-immigration reform, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you know, No Child Left Behind, HIV AIDS, support for HIV AIDS, combating HIV AIDS abroad. So on a lot of these issues, I think with the emergence of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, I do think we start to see a shift in. And, you know, why did McCain pick Sarah Palin? You know, that’s he was not ideologically, I think, or stylistically simpatico with her. But I think, you know, he understood that a lot of the energy in the party was on that on that flank. And, yeah, we’ve seen the results. 


Brian Beutler: I, I think some of these analogies might feel like they fit a little better or that they or that they, like, merge a little more contiguously if instead of being wiped out, Goldwater had lost by a narrow margin or had won like an Electoral College victory without winning a popular majority because then. The validation that Birchers, for instance, would have felt in the afterglow of his victory or, you know, getting within a hair’s breadth of becoming president would have made them feel empowered in the same way that MAGA forces today feel empowered. Both because Trump won the first election and because they believe that the second election was stolen from him. But also it was, you know, not stolen from him, but it was still a pretty close election in some ways, like they haven’t been dealt the kind of discrediting blow. 


Matthew Dallek: Yes. Yes. 


Brian Beutler: So let’s let’s talk—


Matthew Dallek: That’s a good point. 


Brian Beutler: Okay. Well, let’s let’s get into then, because I think if there’s if there’s like a source of of light at the end of this [laughs] dark tunnel, it’s here. What vanquished the Birchers? Was it this? 


Matthew Dallek: Well, so I argue that it was a couple of things. One is that in the 1960s and 19, even 1970s, there was there were a lot of institutions, democratic institutions and a political system that was just more robust and able better able to contain the fringes did not do it perfectly. But so I have a whole chapter in my book, for example, about the Anti-Defamation League arguing that the ADL was at the tip, really the apex of a liberal anti-extremist coalition, and they were infiltrating the Birch Society and other far right and white supremacist groups, but also discrediting them. And that whether it was certain Republican politicians like Gerald Ford and Everett Dirksen or even, you know, someone like Ronald Reagan, who was trying to tread carefully around the fringe or some of these non-governmental organizations like the ADL, they were able to make the fringe, make the Birch Society and other elements synonymous with French, synonymous with, you know, basically being untouchable electorally. And that, I think, was powerful. The other force that I think in the case of the Birch Society is that they burned themselves out. They became more and more radical. The conspiracy theories started to attract more bigoted, more extremist, more violent individuals to the ranks. Internal dissension happened. They had money woes and it became kind of unsustainable. Right, as a movement. And and one dynamic I think we’ve seen is with Trump and Trump as the leader of MAGA. I do think that Trump has become more radical in the past couple of years. You know, you you hit on some of the you mentioned the Waco announcement kickoff speech, embracing the January 6th, convicted criminals, the dinner with a Ye and the anti-Semitic rapper, and Nick Fuentes, the white supremacist that Trump had at Mar a Lago. I think he has there is a way in which it has become more radicalized. And I and and I do think that at least in the in the sixties and seventies, that helped to constrain the far right fringe. 


Brian Beutler: So is it that the civil society today is just a little bit less robust than it was 50 years ago?


Matthew Dallek: I think one big difference is it’s a lot less robust. You know, people talk about Democratic guardrails. Well, the guardrails have frayed. I mean, so, you know, the mass media, for example, I mean, we all know the story, right? The rise of social media, it’s much easier for radical voices and conspiracy theories, misinformation to get out there. The right has become much more effective, I think, at pushing their own version of reality with Fox News and Newsmax and Twitter and Truth Social and and the country. You know, there’s been an ideological sorting out in the parties which did not have, you know, back then. Right. There were still conservative Democrats, like really conservative Democrats, and there were still moderate Republicans. And and the ideological sorting out, I think, has has been a factor. But there are some guardrails that still exist. I mean, I do I would argue that the January 6th prosecutions and the ongoing investigations have been very significant and and have dealt at least a bit of a blow to cause a lot of these folks are now sitting in jail. 


Brian Beutler: So I’m glad you mentioned the law, because I was going to ask if if civil and criminal law played any role in beating back the Birchers. Because I do agree that, you know, the fact that a bunch of January 6th participants are now seditious conspirators under the law is a sign of something. And and we are seeing civil law begin to sort of ramp up against Trump in various ways. And his his lieutenants are are subject to it and are are sort of paying for their bad deeds in that way. Is that something that was part of the Bircher story as well? 


Matthew Dallek: Yeah, there’s an echo of that. The there was a judgment, I think, for $50,000 against the Birch Society. Or maybe it’s just against Robert Welch for defamation, for defaming a lawyer in Chicago. And the Supreme Court, I believe, upheld that decision. There were people I mentioned this guy, Donald Lobsinger, who I do not believe was a card carrying member of the Birchers, but he was Birch adjacent and drew a lot of energy and support from Birchers. You know, he he had multiple convictions and and that played a role. And, you know, there were other members of the Birch Society who kind of passed through it. They left because they went on to even more extremist pastures like Holocaust denialism and out and out white supremacy and a guy named Meir Kahane. I think that’s how you pronounce his name, who was known as Michael King when he was a member of the Birch Society. He was, I believe, convicted on maybe terrorism, bomb making and terrorism related charges ahead of something called the Jewish Defense League, a basically a terrorist organization. And and so you do see examples of, you know, radicals, you know, violent extremists being, I would argue, somewhat constrained by civil and criminal law. And, you know, it’s hard to sort of quantify how effective that was. But but I think it’s fair to say that that that is some evidence right for for thinking that. And, you know, the the the the case the defamation case against Trump, I think is we’ll, see is potentially important. You know, I know people wait, you know, when is Trump going to when is he going to be taken down? You know, what’s going to finally do him in? But the fact that that a jury, even if it was in New York City, a jury found him liable of sexual abuse, of attacking a woman and then making him pay $5 million, you know that. We’ll see. But but the court system does have a way of constraining and and it may be more effective than we are giving it credit for right now. 


Brian Beutler: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s interesting that the idea of trying to quantify how how effective the deterrent of the law is against this kind of extremism. But I do think that we saw at least an indication of it when Trump was trying to whip up a mob against Alvin Bragg ahead of his indictment. You heard a lot of people who were like January 6th adjacent or maybe even participants, people who were being called on to sort of flood Manhattan and make life hell for New York in order to, you know, sort of either deter the indictment or make there be a cost for it or whatever. A lot of them just said, I’m not going to bat for him. Like, look at where all the January 6th people are. And and so to them, it worked. 


Matthew Dallek: Even Greene was saying, you know, it’s got to be peaceful, which is not, of course, what you heard. 


Brian Beutler: So it did it did do something. And it’s not her normal M.O.


Matthew Dallek: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s not it’s not what you heard on January 6th at all. 


Brian Beutler: Right. 


Matthew Dallek: On January 6th, you heard trial by combat from Rudy Giuliani. 




Brian Beutler: The last big factor like what are the tools that can be brought to bear against this kind of extremist movement? Right. Like we talked about the law, we talked about civil society. What about opposition politics? And what role did it play in beating back the Birchers? How does it compare to the opposition politics aimed at the extremist faction of the GOP today? And I and I ask, you know, acknowledging that Democrats have sort of embraced the terminology of MAGA extremism or ultra MAGA extremism, but also that I don’t I don’t really see Democrats making likes pointing to specific things like embracing vigilantes or having anti-Semites over to Trump properties and trying to turn those into galvanizing moments to try to wedge the Republican Party and and unite their own coalition.


Matthew Dallek: Yeah. Biden did give a speech just before the midterm elections, I think, at Union Station in which he talked about David DePape, the the the guy who attacked Paul Pelosi with a hammer and talked about the violence coming from the far right from MAGA extremism. And I thought I thought it was actually quite effective at framing the debate. But but it will be interesting to see, you know, if that is sustained and how much that message penetrates. I do think that that coalition politics, oppositional politics, but also coalition politics can be really powerful. The moment where if we just take a recent example of Biden after winning South Carolina and a lot of people, a lot of his competitors and a lot of others just dropped out, and pretty soon thereafter, Bernie Sanders did, too. And I think that there was a a, you know, a pretty substantial coalition in 2020 that was an anti extremist coalition. Now, people were voting, of course, on all different issues. And I think we’ve seen elements of that in the abortion referendum in Kansas, for example, or in the rejection in I mean, I think 2022, the midterms were a big defeat for Republicans, actually, because there were a lot of very winnable races, especially Senate races and governor’s races in places like Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, even New Hampshire. And they lost. They lost because their candidates, in large part, were just too extreme. And and so I do think that there is we’ve seen potential in that. But you’ve made another really important point, which is that, you know, Trump has not experienced the kind of repudiation that Goldwater did for all sorts of reasons. Right. You know, it’s hard to imagine a a landslide, an electoral landslide today where a candidate wins from either party, you know, only loses one state. Right. That’s almost impossible to imagine because everyone is so locked in. And I think that that also explains why it is in part why it’s harder. The other thing I’ll mention is that back then it was, I think, easier for liberals in particular to brand the Birchers and to brand their allies as really anathemas to democracy, as threats to democracy and as people to be shunned. It’s easier to to for people to just shy away from them because and and also there was an economic cost to being, let’s say, a card carrying Bircher in some respects. So I think those things are harder to do in the culture. Right? It’s harder to. But but we do see some elements of that still today. And and the question is, will that continue and will it expand and and what impact ultimately it will have? 


Brian Beutler: Yeah, it’s such a tough one because, you know, I also believe that it would be shocking to see like a 60/40 presidential election, even even in the midst of a deep recession or something like that. It’s just the people are too locked in. And also, you know, you could see a 55/45 election that wasn’t a huge Electoral College landslide, like a big victory, but not a landslide. And so, like repeating the sort of Reagan in 84, Johnson in 64. 


Matthew Dallek: Or Obama in 2008 even. 


Brian Beutler: Like that seems like maybe the high watermark. Like that’s about that’s about the most we can hope for if Trump is the nominee again. And and Biden continues to govern without some sort of recession or big catastrophe. But so if it’s structurally impossible to deal Donald Trump a Goldwater sized defeat it. Are we out of our is is the main [laughter] method we have to to defeating this this brand of pro vigilante pro violence politics foreclosed to us?


Matthew Dallek: No, no, not necessarily. I mean, it does not have to be a Goldwater redux. Right. And of course, there’s no like, you know, history repeating itself. Exactly. But enough defeats can still have an impact. I think there is a counter argument among some Republicans, including DeSantis, by the way [laughs] and Chris Christie and others who are saying, you know, Trump is is a three time loser. You know, he’s lost three elections in a row. I’m not saying that that is going to seep in and be effective, but it might at some point. So a defeat is still a defeat, even if it’s not a landslide defeat. And then I think the you know, the use of institutions, even though they’re they’re vastly changed the use of democratic institutions, including government, including the peaceful transfer of power, including, you know, free and fair elections, including mainstream media, which I think is is can play an important role still, even in the era of social media. And and economically as well, the ability for institutions to try to push out to back to the extremes are more so at least they’re never going to go away entirely. But I do think that there has been some work done and and also just exposing. Right. Exposing some of it, because a lot of Americans have rejected the extremism. And there’s, you know, I think is as some people have argued in The Atlantic magazine and elsewhere, there is not yet at least a a majority extremist coalition. Right. It’s a it’s an anti extremist majority still, even if it’s a precarious one. 


Brian Beutler: Yeah. I you know, I look at Biden’s poll numbers today and they reflect they mirror Trump’s in some ways. But I I’ve always taken solace in the fact that when Trump was hovering in the mid thirties the the you know, the 55, 58, whatever it was percent of voters who disapproved of Trump. If you if you looked at the crosstabs, it wasn’t like half of them were like, well, we’re not really sold on this. He’s not doing a great job. And the other half were really strongly disapprove because they all strongly disapproved. It was a it was a unified coalition of detesting Donald Trump. And I don’t think that’s the story with Biden. I don’t I think that of the 55% of the country that says they disapprove of some substantial fraction of that is people who are just generally kind of dissatisfied, but they don’t think that he’s a maligned force. 


Matthew Dallek: No. Yeah. And one of Biden’s, I think, political strengths is that he can appeal to, you know, but he’s also hard to hate. You know, some people sure hate him, but he is, I think, harder to demonize. And and that, I think, works to his advantage, especially if you have someone like Trump on the ballot. And remember, abortion, I think is still you know, the thing about the Dobbs decision that I am struck by at least is that it is it is an argument, right? An idea that is now put into policy. Right. An an idea that conservatives, both mainstream and more far right ones, have supported for decades since at least 1980. And now, though, it’s really kind of law of the land. Right. And, you know, a pretty sizable majority, I think, of the country has rejected bans on abortion as steps backward and infringement on on a lot of people’s liberties and their ability to kind of control their their lives and their bodies. And and so I think that remains a that remains a a that remains a white hot issue in many ways. And and I think that, you know, it can energize potentially, as it has in the past, at least Democrats can win and others can win, even some Republicans. Right. In places maybe where they they shouldn’t have any business winning. 


Brian Beutler: So if you want to learn a bunch more about the rise and fall of the John Birch Society and how it mirrors the rise and hopefully eventual fall of the MAGA movement, The book is called Birchers. Its author is Matthew Dallek. Matthew, thank you for spending so much of your time with us this week. 


Matthew Dallek: Brian, thanks a lot. It’s my pleasure. [music plays]


Brian Beutler: I want to stress two of Matt’s concluding points. First that MAGA is beatable, just as John Birch was. Second, that the institutions we need at the forefront of the fight are weakened or pulling punches in the current era that has the potential to spill into a big problem. Voters, by and large have been doing what we’d like to see showing up in large numbers, voting in larger numbers for the good guys than the bad guys. But it can’t be left to them alone. Or rather, they won’t necessarily remain attuned in the necessary numbers to the fundamental dangers of a takeover by conspiratorial, authoritarian, bigoted right wing forces. The naming and shaming and ostracizing forces of civil society, mainstream media and the Democratic Party have a huge role to play, and in many cases they’re not really playing it. And yeah, I’m looking at you, CNN. The birch comparison is tidy because it’s well-documented and it seemed to end okay with the Republicans touching the stove, getting burned and learning a lesson from it. But if there’s no way to teach them a lesson now, then what are the historical predicates for a revanchist minority faction puffing up young armed men in the hope of exerting power through extra political violence? You can probably guess, and you’d be right to gather. Those stories don’t tend to end happily. [music plays] Positively Dreadful is a Crooked Media production. Our executive producer is Michael Martinez, our senior producer, is Leo Duran, and our associate producer is Emma Illick-Frank. Evan Sutton mixes and is the show each week. Our theme music is by Vasilis Fotopoulos. Thanks to Rebecca Rottenberg for her assistance on this week’s episode. Oh, and Positively Dreadful will be off the next two weeks, but we’ll be back on June 9th. [music plays]