The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The election lie that laid the groundwork for Trump and Jan. 6

Robert Welch’s charges of a rigged election in 1952 helped push the GOP into the world of conspiracy theory

Trump supporters protest outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2020, the day a mob stormed the building. (Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)

One year ago today, preparations were being made for Joe Biden to take the oath of office to become the 46th president of the United States. The stage where Biden would swear his oath was being assembled. But President Donald Trump still would not concede. Instead, he had tweeted repeatedly over two months that Democratic “fraud” had stolen the election from him and the American people.

This claim, of course, was pure myth, but it laid the groundwork for Trump to incite an insurrection to steal the election for real. Today, 71 percent of Republicans believe that Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election.

As we mark the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection, it is critical that we recognize that the canards of election fraud have antecedents worth studying. Understanding this history may help us guard against distortions of reality by people who have contempt for democracy.

Trump’s was not the first notorious “rigged” election theory put forward by a Republican. In 1952, Robert Welch, the eventual founder of the John Birch Society, argued that the 1952 Republican primary was stolen from Robert Taft by Dwight D. Eisenhower, setting the stage for Welch to make the false claim that Eisenhower, the widely respected military hero who planned D-Day and helped the United States win World War II, was a Communist.

Like other conservatives of the postwar right, Welch found an early hero in Taft, who was first elected to the U.S. Senate from Ohio in 1938 and whose offensive against “New Deal socialism” sustained their resolve.

Taft, son of President William Howard Taft, had followed his father into public service. Bald with rimless glasses and vested business suits, the younger Taft looked the Midwestern lawyer he was.

Robert Taft was a remnant of a once-hegemonic Republican Party. Despite a string of disastrous defeats between 1930 and 1936, Midwestern Republicans of Taft’s ilk remained steadfast to their fundamental principles. They became the core of the right-wing postwar Republicans. They were strong in the small towns of rural America; they were strong on Main Street USA. They regarded the New Deal and the Fair Deal — Franklin D. Roosevelt’s and Harry S. Truman’s economic and political policies, which were extremely popular — as wasteful and increasingly dictatorial.

Taft refused to adjust to “internationalist” foreign policies and wanted to move American foreign policy away from Europe after the United States became more fully embroiled in European affairs during and after World War II through the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Taft believed that postwar involvement in Europe diminished the independence and sovereignty of the United States and made the United States more likely to adopt even more economic and social policies modeled on Europe’s.

At the time of his support for Taft, Welch was a successful candy manufacturer who had created the Sugar Daddy and would go on to establish, in 1958, the John Birch Society, the most successful anti-communist organization of the postwar era. He observed that “Taft has undisputed qualifications for the presidency” and wanted him to be president in 1952 because Taft sought to “roll back” the New Deal and Fair Deal and “liberate” those nations that were steamrolled into Communism by Stalin.

Taft swept the 1952 primaries in the Midwest, winning in Illinois, Ohio, Nebraska, Wisconsin and South Dakota. But Eisenhower was about to enter the race.

Despite the general’s war record and moderate conservative politics, Welch believed that Eisenhower was a leftist because many of his associates were leftist subversives at best.

Welch suggested that Eisenhower was drawing extreme left-wing support. In an undelivered address, Welch wrote, “As Republicans, with the goal of restoring decency and economy to our government and some common sense to our economic thinking, we are supposed to be fighting the socialists and the sympathizers with Communism, not to be getting in bed with them.” He added: “To see them getting in bed with us, or with one of our leading candidates, calls for some sober thought.”

Eisenhower was a vigorous 62-year-old. His wide grin exuded warmth. His career reached its apogee as commanding general, European Theater of Operations, under Army Chief of Staff George Marshall. On D-Day, Eisenhower gained a reputation for decisive action. He also knew how Washington worked.

His reason for running was personal. He wanted to stop Taft because he feared that a Taft presidency would not support NATO, which Eisenhower believed was necessary to secure the postwar peace. The United States had just fought a war to establish collective security, but Taft did not believe in collective security.

Welch did not think Eisenhower could win the nomination. Midwestern and Western power brokers of the Old Guard who voted against NATO dominated the Republican Party. Eisenhower’s support came from the East, which, Welch believed, had sold the United States down the river at Yalta and lost China. Moreover, the Old Guard would never swallow a “Democratic general” who befriended New York and Boston banking and corporate leaders. Even though Ike himself was also from the Midwest, the eastern establishment elites of finance, communications and corporate business loved him for his efficiency, contempt for crass politicians, skill for compromise and aptitude with the media.

The party regulars backed Taft. The Los Angeles Times, the McCormick papers, the Wall Street Journal, the Omaha World Herald all backed Taft, too.

But Welch’s prediction crumpled as Eisenhower began mollifying the Old Guard. He opposed centralized government, criticized corruption in the federal bureaucracy and bemoaned the loss of China and the secrecy of Yalta. Eisenhower said, “If we had been less soft and weak, there would probably have been no war in Korea!”

Soon polls showed that Eisenhower was the favorite among the rank-and-file, but he also polled well among Democrats. Eisenhower won primaries in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon and Minnesota.

On the eve of the convention, Taft had 530 delegates and Eisenhower 427.

Then Eisenhower displayed his ruthlessness. Although Taft had the Southern delegations locked down, Ike’s campaign manager, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., demonstrated his mastery of procedure. Lodge intimidated undecided delegates and successfully challenged the credentials of Taft delegations from Texas, Georgia and Louisiana.

Eisenhower got the nomination on the first ballot. Taft favorites, including Welch, claimed the election was stolen.

Looking back, Welch suggested that the Communists were behind the Eisenhower steal and his candidacy from the start. In his assessment, they had stolen the Texas, Georgia and Louisiana delegations. And for good measure, Richard Nixon, Eisenhower’s choice for vice president, and Calif. Gov. Earl Warren “stole” California for Eisenhower.

Welch charged that a corrupt bargain was struck when Nixon and Eisenhower promised Warren the position of chief justice of the United States in return for the California delegation at the Republican convention.

It was pure myth. Lodge, like his father, was an exemplary wheeler-dealer, and Eisenhower secured more delegates at a time when national conventions mattered more and presidential primaries mattered less than they do today.

Welch’s charges of a rigged election pushed him further into the world of conspiracy theory, and he began the conspiracist John Birch Society. Over the ensuing decades, the Republican Party increasingly embraced Welch-like notions, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, we all live in Welchland.

Eisenhower, the true winner of the 1952 Republican presidential nomination, once declared, “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” But we the people must be guardians at the watchtower if our democracy is to endure.