“Just pick any political meeting you wish, go to it, and write a short report,” ordered our high school “social studies” teacher, way back in the 1970s. This was in Orange County, California, named “America's nut country” by no less than Fortune magazine in the 1960s for the extreme right-wing flavors that flourished there. So I went to a John Birch Society meeting.
Birchers were relatively big in my coastal community. They were so fringed they had labeled President/General Eisenhower a communist. They saw commies everywhere, or thought they did. I'd never met either a commie or a Bircher, or at least so far as I knew, but I figured some of my friends' dads might be closet Birchers. So I looked them up in the phone book, dialed the number, got a recording saying where and when they met, and on the appointed evening rode my Schwinn 10-speed bike a few miles up the road to find them at their evening meeting. Lo and behold, the address was right next door to my favorite record store, Licorice Pizza (get it?), a funky spot with all the coolest new albums, 8-track tapes, cassettes, posters, concert tickets, and if you were cool enough, maybe a puff of a reefer in the dingy back room after you bought something. I'd spent a fair amount of time there after school, and money too, as albums were at least $2.99 at the time, plus tax.
The office next door looked to be a semi-abandoned room with a bunch of metal folding chairs set out, and about 20 guys - all guys - standing and looking to be saying the pledge of allegiance to a big flag tacked onto the bare wall. I locked my bike to a newspaper rack and stepped just inside the door until they were done. I was nervous. As they started to sit down, one saw me there and stopped short, just saying “Hey!” and pointing at me. They all turned to look at me too. It was silent for a moment and I was suddenly even more nervous.
“Umm, hi,” I said, tentatively. “Is this the John Birch Society?”
“Who are YOU?” one of them barked.
“I'm, uh, Steve, from Corona del Mar High School. I have an assignment to -”
“How did you find us?” interrupted another.
“I, uh, looked you up in the phone book, and - “
“Who sent you?”
“My social studies teacher did, he wants us to –”
“Where do you live?”
It went on like this for quite a while. In their defense, I did have long hair. But I was 16 years old. My dad was a GOP stalwart, arms industry kingpin, pal of Ronald Reagan and John Wayne and head of the local Navy veterans' league. I thought of telling them all this but couldn't really get much out as they kept interrupting me. On and on it went. What were my political beliefs? I didn't really have any yet. Why did I choose to visit them? I couldn't really say, it just seemed interesting. What did I think of Nixon? I didn't think of him, other than that he had bought a place down the coast over a prime surf spot and his goons were trying to keep us out. What about the war in Vietnam? I'd seen it on TV, blood and all, and thought it was scary, probably pointless, but again just said I didn't know. What party were my parents? Republican, of course, although my mom, a sweet humanistic nurse, might have been a closet Democrat for all I knew. And on and on....
Eventually I'd had enough. A couple of them had walked over nearer me, standing and staring. Intentionally or not, it was kind of intimidating. I'd never sat down, still standing by the door, and decided to chicken out and split. So I did, just saying, “Ok, thanks, good night,” backing out the door. It was just getting dark out and the lights were on in Licorice Pizza so I walked in. The beautiful dark-haired clerk was there, and she always made me nervous too but in a different way from the guys next door. “Hi,” she welcomed. Traffic, my favorite band, was playing loudly on the stereo, and it smelled like incense, and maybe pot. I relaxed.
“Hey,” I replied. “So, wow, I was just next door, do you ever see those guys who have meetings there?”
“Ha hah, yep, but why in the heck were you THERE?”
“It was a class assignment, but they were kinda spooked by me, or something....”
She laughed. “Oh yeah, you're really a scary guy. But listen, one time they came in here, with some sort of radar-type thing, demanding to scan the whole place to see if there were secret microphones or cameras or something like that in here, spying on them! I let them do it, but I also put on Black Sabbath really loud while they were here.”
I thought I might be in love.
So, all these decades later, now we have Trump yelling, in person and on line, about “COMMUNISTS”', “SOCIALISTS!”, “LAW AND ORDER” and even “MONSTERS!”, that last one meaning of course a nonwhite woman who scares him. “Law and Order” was of course a Nixon/Agnew campaign slogan, and I even had a button reading that, with their photos. As somebody noted, the Democrats now may be the Republicans of the 1960s, but the Republicans have become the John Birch Society, dragged by Trump and their own cowardice and dwindling numbers into standard despotic fearmongering, anti-science know-nothingism, barely-if-even-that-concealed racism, and at the top, rank corruption for profit. Same old same old, as always, often cloaked in a veneer of some bastardization of Christianity. As of the last midterm elections, there are no more elected GOP politicos in office there. Cornered rats are the most dangerous kind. It's gonna get really nasty in our fair nation. But like Camus' narrator at the end of his classic and now all-too-relevant novel “The Plague,” I hold on to the conviction that “there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
And that women might eventually take over anyway.
In any event, I did write up the paper for school, telling only the story of my reception among the Birchers, with a bit of the organization's history. The teacher gave me an “A” and made me read it in front of the rest of the class. Some laughed but some said I was being “unfair,” or something like that. I titled the paper “Paranoia Strikes Deep.” I thought of taking it up to the record store to read it to the raven-haired clerk, but chickened out on that
And when I told my dad that I had tried to attend a John Birch Society meeting for a class, he laughed out loud and asked “What was the class? Abnormal psychology?”