Can conservatism be saved from the Birthers?

Republican blogger launches attack -- possibly quixotic -- on his party's crazy wing

Published September 2, 2009 5:01PM (EDT)

Fifty years ago, while he was in the process of founding modern conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr. decided it was important not to let just anyone into the movement's tent. Calling them a “menace” to the conservative movement, Buckley launched an attack on the John Birch Society, the paranoid far-right group that accused President Eisenhower, along with virtually everyone else in the U.S. government, of being a communist agent.

As Buckley ally Russell Kirk remarked, “Eisenhower isn’t a communist. He’s a golfer.” Deploying the weight of his magazine, National Review, Buckley succeeded in driving the Birchers from mainstream conservatism. “There are bounds to the dictum, Anyone on the right is my ally,” he editorialized, accusing the Birchers of hurting the cause of anti-communism.

All this business with Buckley and the Birchers might have seemed like dead history for a long time. After all, how could you have Bircher-style paranoia without communists to be freaked out about? But speaking of communism, Karl Marx -- excuse me -- He Who Must Not Be Named once wrote that history repeats itself. Events happen twice, wrote Marx: The first time as tragedy, and the second time as farce.

Which brings us to the blog-world replay of the Buckley-Bircher showdown. Two days ago, explicitly citing the example of Buckley, Jon Henke of the blog decided that it was time to evict the Birthers from the conservative movement, along with their main publication, WorldNetDaily.

Responding to WND favorite --and major-league paranoid -- Jerome Corsi’s conspiracy theories about President Obama and concentration camps, Henke wrote:

No respectable organization should support the kind of fringe idiocy that WND peddles. Those who do are not respectable. I think it's time to find out what conservative/libertarian organizations support WND through advertising, list rental or other commercial collaboration (email me if you know of any), and boycott any of those organizations that will not renounce any further support for WorldNetDaily.

The folks at WND, unsurprisingly, didn’t take the news of their expulsion lying down. Joseph Farah, the editor in chief, more or less called Henke a bullying, dishonest nobody. WND readers also seem to have flooded Henke’s in box with vitriolic e-mails calling him a communist and other nasty names.

Henke deserves applause for facing his party's demons, but at the same time, this whole business is a little dispiriting -- farcical, one might say. His Web site,, is no National Review. Hitherto, Henke and his co-bloggers have been mainly concerned with effective use of Twitter in campaigns, and similar tactical minutiae. Worse, WorldNetDaily and the Birthers actually enjoy much more widespread credibility than their 1950s forerunners.

While William F. Buckley was able to secure a denunciation of the John Birch Society by leading conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater, it’s been awfully hard to wring the same sort of disavowal of the Birthers out of any number of Republican officials. As the Web site Right Wing Watch points out, WorldNetDaily and Farah are actually pretty well networked in with mainstream Republicans. And, as poll after poll shows, shocking numbers of people -- particularly conservative people -- seem to buy the basic Birther argument about the president.

So applause to Henke, but this fight is going to need some bigger guns. Maybe he can get  Jonah Goldberg to say, “Obama isn’t a fascist. He plays basketball.” But don't hold your breath.

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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