Phyllis Schlafly, whom Donald Trump eulogized yesterday after her death at the age of 92, will go down as one of the most polarizing activists of the late 20th-century. When I was growing up in the 1970s, she seemed constantly to be in the news, and I was sickened by the way Schlafly’s pro-family agenda led her to disparage so many groups: feminists, gays, lesbians, liberals, secularists, divorced women, pro-choice advocates, and working mothers like my own. The nation was struggling to understand what it meant by equal rights and who deserved respect and protection in our democracy. Rather than help illuminate the question, Schlafly wanted to shut the conversation down.
Schlafly’s self-righteousness was so pervasive that it would be easy to overlook her early denunciation of the media’s influence on American politics. After losing a congressional race in 1952, Schlafly launched herself into national consciousness with the publication of her book A Choice Not an Echo, an all-out assault on the alliance between New York financial and media elites and the Republican establishment.
Written to advance Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, A Choice Not an Echo argued that the moderate and internationalist wing of the Republican Party had consistently betrayed grassroots conservatives. Though she was reluctant to criticize him too harshly, Schlafly denounced Dwight Eisenhower’s victory over Ohio Senator Robert Taft for the 1952 Republican nomination. Taft, she recalled, had been a loyal public servant and veteran member of the party, but a small circle of Eisenhower supporters had collectively smeared him as being unelectable. “Suddenly, as if someone had pushed a button,” she wrote, “the whole propaganda apparatus of our country went into action to slander the character of the most honorable man in public life.”
Schlafly drew on Taft’s own argument that the media had corrupted the democratic process. Taft’s supporters had tried to ban television from Republican Party proceedings, and they panicked about the presence of cameras on the convention floor. From a tactical perspective, their resistance made some sense. Eisenhower’s smile looked great on TV, and as his friends at NBC, CBS, and the ad agency Young & Rubicam knew, he had a warm, magnanimous presence in the nation’s living rooms. Twelve years after the election, Schlafly continued to channel Taft’s belief that the media was responsible for his defeat.
Where Taft saw a grave injustice, though, Schlafly saw a decades-long conspiracy. She charged New York elites with assuming the role of kingmakers and exploiting their newspaper and magazine connections to undermine hard line conservatives. Borrowing a phrase from the journalist Vance Packard, she accused these kingmakers of using “hidden persuaders” to damage the isolationist senator and throw the nomination to Ike.
Schlafly would go on to become a media star herself, hosting a radio show and regularly appearing on CBS and CNN. Her steadfast activism took place under the bright lights of political celebrity, and despite her starched, ladylike demeanor, she should be remembered as the forerunner of such inflammatory, “rock star” conservatives as Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, and Dinesh D’Souza.
It is deeply ironic that Trump, the playboy, television star, and Republican presidential nominee, would speak at Schlafly’s funeral, praising her underdog’s rebellion against “the rigged system” and king-making elite. Schlafly distrusted the media as a moderating force that would push Republicans to select less rigidly conservative candidates. Her analysis was understandable in respect to 1952 when Eisenhower used television to attract Republicans, Independents, and cross-voting Democrats interested in his “middle way.”
But by the end of the Eisenhower era commentators could see that television would thrive more on conflict than consensus. Four years after the publication of A Choice Not an Echo, ABC staged the notorious debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. And soon thereafter, networks would turn to more aggressive political programming, the kind that turned policy discussion into confrontational disputes. It was in this environment that Schlafly invaded my television life with her caustic judgments about American families different from her own.
Schlafly endorsed Trump early in 2016, complaining in an interview with Breitbart News that immigration was the most pressing problem in the United States today. Trump “is the only hope to defeat the Kingmakers,” she declared, blithely ignoring the power of right wing media to glamorize (and monetize) the controversies she stirred up in the 1970s. With Breitbart’s Steve Bannon and FOX’s Roger Ailes now advising Trump, however, it is time to derive a different lesson from Schlafly’s long, resentful career: in the world of GOP politics, the system is no more rigged than the insurgency.