The conspiratorial roots of Trumpism

Former President Trump has often been compared to George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama and 1968 third-party presidential candidate. Wallace first appeared on the national stage when, in his 1963 inaugural address, he shouted: “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”

That year, a federal court ordered the admission of two African American students, James Hood and Vivian Malone, to the University of Alabama. President Kennedy dispatched the U.S. military to enforce the order. In a scene staged for the television cameras, Gov. Wallace stood in the schoolhouse doorway and proclaimed his dedication to “state’s rights.” In 1968, Wallace expanded his racist appeal to include the cultural resentments of working-class whites, denouncing long-haired college students, saying they knew a lot of four-letter words, except two: “W-O-R-K and S-O-A-P.” Wallace won 13.5 percent of the popular vote and five Southern states.

It’s easy to see the comparisons between Wallace and Trump. Both endorsed political violence: Wallace threatened to run over demonstrators with his limousine; Trump said he would like to personally punch protestors in the face. Both were viewed by many as racists.

But conspiracy-minded thinking energize Trump and his followers most. Trump repeatedly accused President Obama of falsifying his birth certificate, and later claimed that Obama had wiretapped his offices, calling him “a bad (or sick) guy.” In 2020, Trump claimed his reelection was “stolen” because dead people and non-citizens voted, absentee ballots were falsified and suitcases filled with Biden ballots were fed into the voting machines. Trump accused two Georgia election workers – Shaye Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman, both African Americans – of engaging in criminal activity, tweeting that Moss was “a professional vote scammer and hustler.”

Trump’s promotion of conspiracy theories is reminiscent of the late Robert Welch. Welch, heir to a vast candy fortune, founded the John Birch Society in 1958. Welch claimed without evidence that Dwight Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy”; that the United Nations was “the instrument of communist global conquest”; that the civil rights movement sought to tear the country asunder and establish an “independent Negro-Socialist Republic”; and that the fluoridation of public drinking water was “a method of Red Warfare.”

The John Birch Society quickly grew to 30,000 dues-paying members that included two congressional Republicans and a staff of 240 employees. Its followers were described as “wealthy businessmen, retired military leaders and little old ladies in tennis shoes.”

And they were a powerful force in Republican politics. Barry Goldwater praised its supporters as people who “believe in God, they believe in the Constitution, they believe in freedom,” calling them “the finest people in my community [and] the kind [of people] we need in politics.”

Robert Welch was determined to seize control of the Republican Party. “The John Birch Society is to be a monolithic body. . . . No collection of debating societies is ever going to stop the Communist conspiracy from taking over, and I have no intention of adding another frustrated group to their number. We mean business every step of the way.”

Welch denounced democracy as “a deceptive phrase, a weapon and demagoguery, and a perennial fraud.”

Donald Trump’s embrace of authoritarianism is reminiscent of Robert Welch’s. After the 2020 election, Trump considered using the military to seize ballots; his campaign endorsed fake electors who would ensure his reelection; Trump officials pursued claims that Italian military satellites were changing votes; and Trump “gleefully” watched the Capitol riot on Jan. 6.

As president, Trump was in a far more dangerous position than Welch to inflict harm on the body politic. During her videotaped testimony before the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Ruby Freeman said: “Do you know how it feels to have the president of the United States to target you? The president of the United States is supposed to represent every American, not to target one. But he targeted me, Lady Ruby, a small business owner, a mother, a proud American citizen who [stood] up to help Fulton County run an election in the middle of the pandemic.”

Those who believe in conspiracy theories don’t seek converts, but heretics. Robert Welch wanted to purge the Republican Party of anyone who didn’t believe his conspiracy theories. Like members of the John Birch Society, today’s Trump Republicans are on the hunt for RINOs (Republicans In Name Only).

In 2021, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) was expelled from her position as House Republican Conference chair. She, together with Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) (who recently posted a letter from someone threatening to kill him, his wife and five-month-old child) are pariahs within the Republican Party. Missouri Senate candidate Eric Greitens is running an advertisement featuring him outfitted with an assault rifle and entering a home, saying, “Today, we’re goin’ RINO hunting.”  

Robert Welch eventually faded away. But Donald Trump and Trumpism are alive and well in today’s Republican Party. And they are on the hunt.

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. His latest book (co-authored with Matthew Kerbel) is “American Political Parties: Why They Formed, How They Function, and Where They’re Headed.”

Tags Adam Kinzinger Conspiracy theories Donald Trump Dwight Eisenhower George Wallace george wallace John Birch Society Liz Cheney Obama Trumpism

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