Editors’ Note: David Walsh continues HistPhil‘s forum on the history of conservative philanthropy.
How should historians—and especially historians of philanthropy—understand the far right in American history? Is the far right simply a lunatic fringe that has, occasionally, managed to briefly coalesce to make an actual impact in American politics? Or have far right politics enjoyed moments of success because of funding and other forms of support from some of the wealthiest Americans?
These are not straightforward questions. For one, how do we define the boundaries of the far right? How do we make sure our answer is not presentist, grounded in our own political moment of far right ascendancy? How do we even identify the political impact of the far right? Aside from the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, there have been few genuinely far right national political movements in modern American history. The Silver Shirts and the German American Bund in the 1930s had between them perhaps 25,000 members. George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party contained, at the most, 500 people at its height in the mid-1960s. The only far right group that even approached the Klan’s numbers was the John Birch Society—and, like the more decentralized Klan, the Birchers quickly burned out within a few years.
But it would be a mistake to discount the political and cultural impact of the far right merely because of the relatively small numbers of dedicated far right activists. In fact, the most meaningful impact of the far right on American politics has been through ideas, from the conspiratorial antisemitism of the 1920s and 1930s to the Bircher “international Communist conspiracy” of the 1960s, to the institutionalization of Holocaust denial by Willis Carto’s Institute for Historical Review in the 1970s, to the crude race-baiting of Steve Bannon and Milo Yiannopoulis in the 2010s. Thankfully, these ideas have never dominated American culture, but they have nevertheless remained remarkably persistent.
How, despite a general lack of popular support, has the American far right been able to have such an outsized cultural impact? A quick glance at the historical record suggests that the far right is in fact reliant on elite support—typically from wealthy businessmen and/or inherited fortunes. This level of financial support has granted ideas that have a relatively small number of adherents—for example, that an international Jewish and/or Communist conspiracy threatens the lifeblood of the nation—an outsized audience and impact.
Take antisemitism, which tends to distinguish far right politics from more moderate conservatism. Quite simply, it is impossible to imagine far right antisemitism without the influence of Henry Ford and his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. In the first half of the twentieth century, Ford was not only one of the richest men in the world; he was a veritable celebrity. “Fordism” became practically a byword for modernity and American industrial know-how. Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World was set in the year AF 632—AF standing for “Anno Ford.” Ford’s opinions carried weight, and he had the cash to back those opinions up.
The Independent, which Ford staffed by hiring away the best talent from Detroit’s top newspapers, began publishing in 1920 a series of viciously antisemitic articles. They were later compiled into The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem and almost single-handedly popularized the antisemitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion forgery in the United States. Ford’s newspaper also cemented the idea of “Judeo-Bolshevism” and the linkage of Jews to communism. Conspiratorial antisemitism—the idea that a secret, unified Jewish conspiracy secretly controls various global power centers, from the media to finance to the Communist Party—owes its origins to Ford and the Independent. These are ideas that did not generally appear in American antisemitic literature before 1920. Father Charles Coughlin, one of the most influential broadcasters in the United States in the 1930s, commanding an audience of tens of millions of listeners, repeatedly endorsed the authenticity of the Protocols and even reprinted them in his own magazine. Ford, for his part, was forced to shutter the Independent in 1927 after a libel suit, but never recanted his views. He reportedly confided to Gerald L.K. Smith, another prominent antisemite in the 1930s, that “I hope to republish The International Jew again sometime,” and allegedly financed Smith’s radio broadcasts through an intermediary. Ford was, in sum, instrumental in the popularization of conspiratorial antisemitism, and was able to do so because of his immense financial resources.
The John Birch Society offers another example of how financial backing from elites is critical to the political influence of the far right. The John Birch Society was founded in 1958 by retired candy manufacturer Robert Welch, the co-creator of candies like Junior Mints and Sugar Babies and a one-time board member of the National Association of Manufacturers. The vast majority of the Society’s initial members were likewise wealthy industrialists, including Fred C. Koch, the founder of Koch Industries. The Birchers were not solely reliant upon the wealth of its founding members for financial support—at its height, the group consisted of, at least according to Welch, nearly 100,000 dues-paying members—but grew far and fast in no small part due to its leadership’s financial largesse. Indeed, Welch had provided financial support for a number of conservative publications before founding the Birch Society, including investing a few thousand dollars in future political rival William F. Buckley’s National Review.
The conspiratorial worldview of the John Birch Society—most infamously claiming that Dwight Eisenhower was a “dedicated agent of the Communist conspiracy”—attracted a kaleidoscope of far right figures into its ranks. Gerald L.K. Smith instructed his followers to join the Birchers, despite Welch’s disavowal of antisemitism. Willis Carto, the founder of the antisemitic Liberty Lobby and one of the most important figures in popularizing Holocaust denial in the 1970s through the affiliated Institute for Historical Review, cut his teeth as an organizer for the John Birch Society in the 1960s. The Anti-Defamation League repeatedly condemned the organization for harboring antisemites and Nazi sympathizers. Indeed, Richard Hofstadter’s influential essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” was partly written as a response to the apparent ascendancy of the Birchers in conservative politics.
The Society declined after the mid-1960s, in no small part because of Welch’s tendency to alienate potential political allies with his conspiracy theories, but the group’s influence lingered as a training ground for figures like Willis Carto who embraced more explicitly antisemitic and fascistic politics in their later years. Carto in particular learned valuable organizing and fundraising skills from the Birch Society—and indeed, Carto would become reliant on the financial support from wealthy donors to fund his own causes. Carto’s organizations actually imploded in the mid-1980s in a dispute between Carto and his top lieutenant over a fortune of some $10 million left to the organization by the granddaughter of Thomas Edison. Indeed, if the far right has been consistently reliant upon wealthy donors for backing, it has also fortunately tended toward bitter organizational infighting, which has hampered its political effectiveness.
The far right in the 2010s has enjoyed an even closer relationship to wealthy donors in the 2010s than it did in Welch’s day. Billionaire hedge fund manager and computer scientist Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah have been the prime patron (until quite recently) of Steve Bannon and far right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at Breitbart News. A BuzzFeed report from October 2017, based primarily on leaked emails between Bannon and Yiannopoulis, makes it clear that the latter were both totally dependent upon the Mercers for financial support, whom they referred to as “our investors,” and leveraged that support to boost racist and antisemitic messaging from avowed white nationalists. This effort was a great success, even helping to elect Donald Trump president of the United States, until the alliance came crashing down due to infighting and public exposure. The far right has experienced some dizzying highs under the Trump administration—mostly recently, the president and much of the Republican Party endorsing explicitly racial restrictions on immigration—but also some crushing blows. Again, donor power is the key to understanding what may be the far right’s most critical hit: the ousting of Bannon from Breitbart at the behest of the Mercers, apparently fearful of jeopardizing their relationship with the president after Bannon accused Donald Trump, Jr. of committing treason.
The current infighting on the far right can be flummoxing, but it fits the pattern that has remained remarkably consistent for the past one hundred years. The far right is prone to infighting—it destroyed the Liberty Lobby and limited the effectiveness of the John Birch Society—is incapable of organizational staying power—even Ford’s Dearborn Independent was forced to fold after only ten years, despite his wealth and political power—and utterly dependent upon financial support from elite backers.
-David Austin Walsh
David Austin Walsh is a PhD candidate in the history department at Princeton University. His dissertation is on the far right and the origins of modern American conservatism.