Wolfe recently retired as the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and is the author of over 20 books.
Born in St. Louis in 1924, Phyllis Schlafly, who died on September 5, rose from modest means to a position of great influence in the American conservative movement. A Roman Catholic, she helped conservatives focus more directly on the issues of abortion and what in her view were the depredations of feminism, ultimately leading to her single greatest accomplishment, the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. With her husband Fred, she founded the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation, named after the Hungarian Roman Catholic priest who was arrested, tortured and then confined to the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, and thereby contributed a religious dimension to the Cold War at odds with the more helter-skelter attacks of Senator Joe McCarthy. Distrustful of the Republican establishment of her day, she claimed to speak in the name of the people, and, in so doing, mobilized large numbers of them into political engagement. One cannot contemplate her life without recognizing that it was a quintessentially American one.
An influential life is not always a good one, however, and Schlafly’s was especially pernicious. Schlafly lived to see Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency, and there is some poetic justice in the fact that her book, The Conservative Case for Trump, was published the day after she died: The anger that has sustained Trump’s run for the presidency is directly attributable to Schlafly and the forces her pro-Goldwater book, A Choice Not an Echo, launched in 1964. A surprising number of today’s conservatives find themselves aghast at Trump’s tactics and policies. Schlafly was never among them. Had she lived just a few months longer, she would have seen her ideas either triumphant or, far more likely at this point, decisively rejected.
Donald Trump is the first candidate of either party since Herbert Hoover to run as an isolationist. Consider this the first sign of Schlafly’s influence on him. Together with Rear Admiral Chester Ward, Schlafly wrote Kissinger on the Couch in 1975, an attack on everything Kissingeresque, especially the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty. (Otherwise forgotten, the book has been praised by today’s weak-tea version of Phyllis Schlafly, Ann Coulter.) True, Trump has an affinity for Russia that Schlafly would never had accepted (and which Coulter ignores) but Trump’s frequent invocation of “America First” as a description of his foreign policy echoes back to the years when right-wingers wanted America to run the world without ever engaging with it.
Many have pointed out that, while strongly anti-feminist, Schlafly, the mother of six, led exactly the kind of active and public life that feminists sought. Feminism, however, has gone through numerous changes since the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, while Schlafly has never changed at all. Consider her consistency a commitment to principle if you wish, but it can also be viewed as a triumph of ideology over experience. Schlafly’s political style—dig in, never compromise, always move to the extreme—led directly to gridlock, today’s major political dysfunction. Her most famous book turns out to have been mistitled: We have only echoes in our politics, rendering choice impossible.
Any political movement can choose to grow large and lose some of its doctrinal purity, or to remain small and lose some of its electability. Schlafly always preferred the latter. She envisioned a conservative movement filled with people very much like herself: white, middle-class and rooted in the heartland of the Midwest. Some of the political issues we debate today—immigration, diversity, campaign finance—were not the major issues of her day. But it is not difficult to imagine the positions she would have taken. Hers was the kind of conservatism that really did want to take the country back to more seemingly innocent times, no matter how impossible that may be.
In my view, Schlafly single greatest flaw was her determination to prevent the country she undoubtedly loved from growing up. She was born into an America that, in reaction to the horrors of World War I, had turned against both the world and the domestic reforms of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Her childhood was spent during a Great Depression that required a fundamental rethinking about economics. Before she reached the age of twenty, the United States had entered the world war against Hitler. Her introduction to politics took place during a period of Soviet expansion and unusually rapid economic growth. By the time she died, the Soviet Union had expired and American growth was a thing of the past. Meeting all these challenges requires far-sighted political leadership.
The politicians supported by Schlafly—Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump—had one thing in common: They all praised an America that no longer existed. A society given to a romantic narcissism about its presumed exceptionalism, the United States has not been well served by those who spin myths about its accomplishment and repeatedly deny its faults. The one thing Phyllis Schlafly never was turned out to be the one thing her country needed most: a realist.