The notion that a nefarious “alt-right” movement has somehow imposed itself on an otherwise innocent and honorable Republican Party is a comic construction that would not have been possible before the dawn of memory-free political analysis. Despite what embarrassed Republican party stalwarts, Democratic talking-point authors and their media echo chambers may suppose, what is now referred to as the “alt-right” is just the old right wing of the Republican Party, plus social media.
The Republican Party has for the better part of 80 years been the arena in which conservative extremists have battled with more mainstream forces for control of the apparatus of a major political organization—and, via that control, for a place at the center of the national discourse. The old right understood that taking over the Republican Party was step one to taking over American politics. The old right also understood that the takeover would not be easy. It would require a long and bitter struggle.
Phyllis Schlafly, who has died at age 92, embraced that struggle from the days when Robert Taft and his conservative allies were accusing Dwight Eisenhower of ideological heresy to the days of Donald Trump.
Some people were surprised when Schlafly provided Trump with an early and enthusiastic endorsement in his race for the 2016 Republican nomination. But it came as no surprise to those of us who have covered and conversed with Schlafly over the years. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, who knew and worked with Schlafly for decades, said that she “aimed to do for Trump what she did for the Goldwater movement” in the 1960s And why not? For Schlafly, it was the same fight.
An able strategist and publicist, and a tireless organizer, Phyllis Schlafly set out in the 1950s to move the party of Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey and Dwight Eisenhower far to the right. As a congressional candidate, the head of party groups and conservative organizations, and a delegate or alternate to Republican conventions from 1952 until this year, Schlafly was fearless when it came to taking on mainstream Republicans—even mainstream conservatives. In the 1950s she traveled in the circles of former Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy (defending the “Red Scare” Republican as recently as 2011, when Schlafly told an interviewer, “Everybody he fingered was a communist”) and the John Birch Society (though Schlafly denied joining the group, she said, “I think they’re fine people.”) With her wealthy husband, Schlafly built up the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation in order to stoke the anti-communist fervor of the Cold War era—during which Schlafly described atomic weaponry as “a marvelous gift given to our country by a wise God.”