Just as I was geared up to write about Donald Trump’s dud of a visit to an African American church in Detroit, much more significant news for the history of American religion and politics hit Twitter: the death of conservative maven, impresario, and remarkably successful political activist Phyllis Schlafly.
The connection between the two, however, suggests something about the course—decline and fall, perhaps more accurately—of a certain brand of conservative populism, because Schlafly, in conjunction with two co-authors, is set to publish The Conservative Case for Trump—available now from Regnery Publishing!
While you’re at it, you can stock up on the library of Schlafly’s works from Regnery, including her 1964 classic A Choice Not an Echo, which helped to vault Barry Goldwater to national prominence, and her more recent No Higher Power: Obama’s War on Religious Freedom. The book jacket for the Trump book reads:
From Phyllis Schlafly, the woman whose celebrated classic A Choice Not An Echo (over 3 million copies sold) upended the 1964 Republican Convention, comes a persuasive new argument for a surprising conservative choice: Donald Trump.
For the first time since 1980, a significant number of Republicans are considering abandoning their party’s nominee. This is a grave mistake, Schlafly says—because a Donald Trump “radical redirection” could actually set America back on the path of Reagan’s conservative revolution.
In The Conservative Case for Trump, Schlafly and her coauthors Ed Martin and Brett M. Decker set aside the circus of the campaign and zero in on ten defining points of the Trump agenda to convince Republican voters that Donald Trump—improbable as it may seem—is the true conservative we’ve been waiting for.
Discussions of Schlafly’s death on Twitter by historians didn’t take long to degenerate into accusations that pointing out evidence that the deceased was politically effective was not the same, to say the least, as endorsing her politics. Best known for establishing the Eagle Forum and leading the anti-ERA crusade of the 1970s, Schlafly outmaneuvered her opponents in those years and, as much as any person, brought a certain definition of family values to the forefront of conservative thought and activism. As James Dobson put it in 2005, “Phyllis Schlafly courageously and single-handedly took on the issue of the Equal Rights Amendment when no one else in the country was opposing it. In so doing, she essentially launched the pro-family, pro-life movement.”
And before then, as the informative (if uncritical) biography of Schlafly by historian Donald Critchlow shows, the first lady of anti-feminism had made her name as a Cold War defense hawk activist intellectual. Well before Eagle Forum fame, she mixed it up in the world of nuclear war strategy, a world where few women could have made their names. Later, she became a chief proponent of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”). Betty Friedan famously said she wanted to see Schlafly burned at the stake, but Schlafly’s political skill at working the system at every level, from the school board to the presidency, gave her a power and authority that made her particularly infuriating. That’s also why reducing her to a laundry list of appallingly stupid quotations—easy as it is—doesn’t capture the very serious political power she learned to deploy expertly.
Within the ranks of conservative politics, Schlafly’s longest-range influence may be her employment of her formidable intellect and tireless organizing ability increasingly on behalf of populist, alt-right, and far-right causes. The evolution of this right, in fact, may be seen in the dominance of Ayn Rand and Phyllis Schlafly in a previous generation, versus the Coulteresque clown crop of the present day. Schlafly paved the way for the moralism of a Catholic populist conservatism, as Rand did for libertarianism, but both brought considerable talents and could take apart intellectual opponents with ferocious rhetoric. Their successors in this regard—Coulter, the Breitbart crew, and others—attract attention in the media, but lack Schlafly’s intellectual skills, not to mention the patience to attend all those boring meetings where the substance of politics happens.
Very late in her life, board members of the Eagle Forum were trying to wrest control of the organization away from Schlafly, precisely because she got on board the Trump train rather than rally for the rather more obvious primary candidate of the religious right, Ted Cruz. She fought back—even against some of her own family members—and stayed the course. Schlafly claimed victory over the Nelson Rockefeller Republican establishment in the 1960s, and over the current Republican establishment in 2016. Schlafly’s life work helped pave the way for the Trump (and alt-right) phenomenon. Regardless of their political affiliation, both are her antithesis in terms of her unflappable personal style.
Today the top plank on the Eagle Forum’s page reads:
We support establishing English as our official language.
We support immediate border security to stop the entry of illegal aliens, illegal drugs, women seeking to give birth to “anchor babies,” Third World diseases, criminal gangs, and potential terrorists.
Reflecting on her legacy, historian Kevin Kruse tweeted, “even if you hate what she did, remember how she did it. Because she gave you a blueprint to do anything. Even to undo her work.” She did not live to see the (pretty likely) election of the first female President, but if you hear someone rolling over in her grave in early November, you’ll know who, and why. And by leading a generation of Republicans towards what became the Trump train, she helped make it possible. In the end, the empire she created struck back.