Ray Bliss, who became chairman of the Republican National Committee after Goldwater’s defeat, called upon Republicans to reject membership in any organization that “attempts to use the Republican Party for its own ends.” He singled out “irresponsible radicals such as Robert Welch.” Mr. Bliss repressed primary challenges from the right, worked to exclude Birchers from positions of power within the party and cooperated with moderate and conservative activists to prevent Phyllis Schlafly from winning the presidency of the National Federation of Republican Women.
William F. Buckley Jr., the pre-eminent conservative leader of the 1960s, tried to read the Birch Society out of his movement. He felt that the Birchers’ conspiracies discredited conservatism by making it seem “ridiculous and pathological.” The absurd claims also turned off a young generation who laughed along with Bob Dylan’s derisive “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues.”
Mr. Buckley insisted to a conservative critic that to govern and expand, the movement had to hold on to “moderate, wishy-washy conservatives” who made up a majority of Republicans. “If they think they are being asked to join a movement whose leadership believes the drivel of Robert Welch,” he warned, “they will pass by Crackpot Alley, and will not pause until they feel the embrace of those way over on the other side, the Liberals.”
Some historians consider Mr. Buckley’s efforts to purge the Birch Society to have been too little, too late, and the Republican Party undeniably played on social division and white backlash as it moved to the political right from the 1970s onward. But extremist groups like the Birchers were mostly relegated to the fringes for many years. That was the foundation for Republican presidential victories under Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the two Bushes.
Today there are no gatekeepers of similar stature on the political right, partly because of structural factors that have undercut the power of parties. These include the decline of establishment-dominated conventions and the rise of primaries, the growth of outside spending groups and the proliferation of conservative media programming from the likes of Fox News and Sinclair. It’s also because of the unwillingness of Republican and conservative leaders, over at least the past two decades, to call out and challenge the growing extremism in their base.
There have been isolated exceptions. The party publicly condemned the former Klan wizard David Duke when he ran as a Republican in Louisiana. John McCain, as the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, rejected the birther conspiracy theorists (including Mr. Trump). Last year, after Steve King of Iowa defended white supremacy, the House Republican Caucus stripped him of his committee memberships.
But so long as Mr. Trump remains president, there will be no such actions against QAnon conspirators, no matter how extreme. Mr. Trump has done nothing to broaden the Republican Party’s appeal. His re-election strategy rests entirely on stoking his followers’ resentments — and Q believers who consider Democrats to be evil incarnate are integral to his hopes for success.