Phyllis Schlafly’s conservative manifesto, A Choice, Not an Echo, has a quote on the cover that is as fresh today as when it was first published in May 1964. Under a picture of the author (in perfectly styled hair and two strings of pearls) a caption promises to tell “the inside story of how American Presidents are chosen.” Comparing GOP leaders to Paris couturiers who “brainwash” unthinking female consumers, she revealed in the introduction that the presidential nominating process had been stolen from the people. Between 1936 and 1960, she wrote, “a few secret kingmakers based in New York selected Republican presidential nominees…and successfully forced their choice on a free country where there are more than 34 million voters.”
As Donald Trump’s unexpected electoral strength potentially leads the Republican Party into its first contested convention since 1976, this self-published book, which Schlafly and her husband distributed from their garage during the 1964 campaign season, asks questions that seem new again. How will the GOP candidate be chosen in 2016, and by whom? What relationship will primary voting, very different from the process in 1964, bear to an actual candidacy? Trump rival Ted Cruz is already harvesting unearned delegates through his skillful use of existing party rules. Meanwhile, the national GOP leadership has two more opportunities prior to formally convening the nominating convention to shift Trump delegates to another candidate. Will the voters who rallied behind Trump be asked to “echo” the choice of the Republican kingmakers?
For those of us who have watched the 91-year-old Schlafly deftly place herself in the center of great political battles — the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, gay rights, pornography, women in the military — it is not a surprise that she has jumped into the fray to endorse Donald Trump. Although she had always kept faith with the GOP, Schlafly wrote in 1964 that too often she had seen “Republicans on the local level work their hearts out for a cause they believed to be just, only to realize, after it was all over, that the kingmakers would not give them a candidate who would campaign on the issues.” She, and they, had “had enough.”
Last week, however, seemed that the GOP, and even members of Schlafly’s own family, may have “had enough” of the woman who some view as the mother of modern grassroots conservatism. Because of her endorsement of Trump, Schlafly’s leadership at The Eagle Forum, the organization she founded in 1972 as a base for her conservative activism and a counterweight to liberal feminism, is under threat. On April 12, Schlafly told Talking Points Memo that at a recent board meeting (one that may not have conformed to the group’s bylaws, and during which, she charges, her remote connection was mysteriously dropped ), Eagle Forum President Ed Martin (a key ally) was fired. According to one of my sources, Schlafly also may have lost control of the political and volunteer arm of the organization at that meeting, although she is still in charge of the Eagle Forum Educational Foundation and its large endowment. Martin has warned of a “hostile takeover” by a group of internal power brokers that includes Schlafly’s daughter, Anne Cori. Schlafly’s endorsement of Trump in early March was, he said, “a likely catalyst.” (Cori and board member Cathie Adams, who called the board meeting, insist that the meeting had no other purpose but to fire Ed Martin, and “there was no attempt to overthrow” the 91 year-old matriarch.)
But what reader of the vigorously nationalist, militaristic, protectionist, and right-wing populist A Choice, Not an Echo could be surprised that Trump — who has called the electoral process a “crooked, crooked system” — has won Schlafly’s heart? Trump embraces the values that Schlafly has promoted her whole life. In the September 1980 issue of The Phyllis Schlafly Report, she derided party-line voters as “those who would vote for a candidate wearing their party’s label even if he is a yellow dog.” She urged conservatives to follow their principles. “As for me,” she wrote, “I think the single issue voter has the most intellectual consistency, political savvy and clout at the polls.” Furthermore, despite the fact that the GOP moved closer to her own brand of conservatism after 1980, Schlafly has never supported the bargains, compromises and deal-making that have, until recently, papered over the contradictions within American conservatism. Although she ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1952, and grassroots conservatives promoted her for the first female Supreme Court justice in 1981, Schlafly has built a career out of being a professional outsider.
The blow-up at The Eagle Forum has been accompanied by charges that Trump took advantage of a woman whose intellect is failing with age, an assertion my sources emphatically refute. The episode is better understood as one of many clues that GOP chair Reince Priebus and the party’s well-funded Astroturf conservative organizations may be losing their grip on the runaway train otherwise known as the 2016 election. If Priebus and others have seemed to dither in the face of an unwelcome Trump candidacy, it may be because the GOP machine hiding behind Tea Party America can no longer control its many parts.
As Cruz works to implement party rules that only a career politician could master, and Trump accuses his opponent of “Gestapo tactics,” I can only think of Schlafly’s “kingmakers.” But her anger at the current Republican leadership runs deeper. The $1.1 trillion budget deal that Republicans struck with President Obama last December was “a betrayal of the grassroots and of the Republican party,” she told a reporter from WorldNetDaily (WND), a conservative news site that has, among other things, fueled speculation about Barack Obama’s citizenship. Describing Republican acquiescence to the budget as the “worst kind of betrayal,” Schlafly speculated that Trump might be “the last hope” for America. The grassroots of both parties was “fed up with people who are running things,” she said, and like them she was “willing to give a new try to somebody else.”
On January 10, in an exclusive interview with Breitbart.com, Schlafly reiterated her support for Trump, “the only hope to defeat the Kingmakers.” On March 11, 2016, four days before the Missouri primary, although Ted Cruz had worked hard to get her attention, Schlafly officially endorsed Trump, suggesting that Cruz was better suited for the Supreme Court.
The Eagle Forum may be having flashbacks of other ruinous candidacies that Schlafly fueled. “Schlafly launched to national prominence by supporting Barry Goldwater in 1964 with her best-seller A Choice Not an Echo,” biographer Donald Critchlow, Director of the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, points out. Although historians point to this moment as the birth of modern conservatism, the election was a disaster for the GOP. Goldwater lost to Lyndon Baines Johnson “in a landslide, costing 36 House GOP seats,” Critchlow says. Johnson implemented a second civil rights act and strengthened the welfare state. He moved the Supreme Court decisively to the left through two appointments, one of whom — civil rights litigator Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American on the court — served for almost a quarter century. Although Schlafly “supported Nixon in 1968 over Reagan,” Critchlow says, and then “supported Reagan in 1980,” her pragmatism did not last. Schlafly broke with sitting president George H. W. Bush, a liberal eastern kingmaker, and “supported Pat Buchanan for the GOP nomination in 1992.”
Why does Schlafly — who forged the coalition that defeated the ERA — veer from pragmatism to promoting doomsday scenarios? When I posed this question to scholars of American conservatism, they proposed several plausible answers, all off the record. One is that endorsing Trump makes Schlafly, who has been overshadowed by Tea Party activists following in her footsteps, relevant to the grassroots. Another is that Schlafly’s opposition to ERA and gender equality — where Trump is weakest — may have been a sincere, but strategic, vehicle to promote her most consistent “single issue:” maintaining an aggressive and militaristic foreign policy. A third scholar speculated that despite her disavowal of official Washington, she has never forgiven the Republican party for its repeated slights, including backroom deals that probably deprived her of the Presidency of the National Federation of Republican Women (NFRW) in 1967.
It is also the case that Schlafly’s core issues are Trump’s issues. “Although aligned with the Christian Right, she is primarily an Old Right nationalist,” Critchlow points out, “suspicious of military intervention and disposed to protectionism, and strongly anti-immigration.” Critchlow, who worked at the Eagle Forum while writing his biography and became familiar with Schlafly, vigorously disagrees that Trump took advantage of a woman who is now more icon than activist. “Her support of Trump should not be attributed to her age,” Critchlow says. “She has been pretty consistent in her Old Right views.”
Robin Morris, an assistant professor at Agnes Scott College who is writing a book about the fight to stop the ERA in Georgia, agrees that it does a disservice to Schlafly to presume she wasn’t fully in charge of her faculties when she decided to back Trump. “I think Phyllis Schlafly is being strategic and going with the horse she thinks will win,” said Morris. “This gets her greater access and influence down the line. She is also a lifetime challenger to the establishment. Trump’s campaign is embracing much of the same establishment-challenging rhetoric that she began with A Choice, Not An Echo.” In one form or another, Morris concludes, the mother of modern conservatism has been “poking the Republican establishment for over fifty years.”