Professor Ted Miller Discusses His Recent Biography of Robert Welch on NPR

Conversation explores the historical seeds of right-wing conspiracy theories

A widely praised book by Teaching Professor Ted Miller garnered further reach recently when the author was interviewed by journalist Anthony Brooks and news analyst Jack Beatty for NPR’s “On Point” (usually hosted by Meghna Chakrabarti). Distributed to over 290 public radio stations across the U.S., the show averages more than two million podcast downloads a month.

In a substantive, engaging conversation of about 45 minutes, Brooks, Beatty, and Miller discuss Miller’s A Conspiratorial Life: Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism. The book, the first full-scale biography of Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, explores Welch’s penchant for conspiracy and finds links between his activities in the mid-20th century and the recent rhetoric of the Tea Party, the Trump administration, the “Q” movement, and others.

Miller, who grew up in Weymouth, Mass. and has taught at Northeastern for more than a decade, earned praise for his latest book from outlets that include the Times Literary Supplement and The New Republic. In addition to A Conspiratorial Life, Miller is the author of Nut Country: Right Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy. While his first book was well-received, his most recent has drawn increasing national attention, and he has published related op-eds in national media that have included the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

In a recent profile on the CPS website, Miller pointed out one possible reason for increased interest in the roots of conspiracy on the right: “As we got closer to the date of publication,” Miller said, “it just kept getting more relevant. In many ways I wish it wasn’t so relevant. It was kind of a hard book to write, because while I was writing it we were seeing a lot of these same themes—the reluctance to embrace democracy, the conspiracy theories—start to play out.”

Among the subjects Miller discussed in the NPR interview was the historical context that led to the rise of the John Birch Society. Welch, Miller notes, even went so far as to claim Eisenhower had stolen the 1952 Republican nomination.

The conversation ranges widely, encompassing historical analysis and contemporary politics. Bob Dylan, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and William F. Buckley Jr. are among a wide cast of characters who make appearances as Brooks, Beatty, and Miller discuss the ways that scholarly explorations can shed light on modern challenges. In some ways, Miller says, “Robert Welch never went away.”

For the NPR journalists seeking to find political lessons in history, that is exactly the point. As Beatty puts it, “This book represents the search for a usable past.”