The Conservative Case for Trump is something like a sequel to A Choice Not an Echo (1964), the book that made the late Phyllis Schlafly close to a household name in American politics as one of the creators, she put it in the acknowledgements of the Trump book, of the conservative movement. She, with her Eagle Forum, became the Big Sis pundit of the American right-wing blending aspects of the philosophical housewifery of Phyllis McGinley and the fiery free market individualism and liberty-loving defiance of Isabel Paterson, although Schlafly did not possess the sheer intellectual brilliance of either woman. But she was smart enough in her own right; she was, after all, a constitutional lawyer. She was also something of a political theorist. Doubtless she knew Harry V. Jaffa’s ideas about the formation of American political parties in essays like “The Nature and Origin of the American Party System.” (Jaffa, a historian and former Ph.D. student of political philosopher Leo Strauss, was a speechwriter for Barry Goldwater in 1964, part of the same conservative insurgency that brought Schlafly to public attention. It was Jaffa who penned the famous—or infamous—line from Goldwater’s acceptance speech as the Republican presidential nominee, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”) Are political parties in a diverse democracy such as the United States meant to be instruments of consensus, or instruments of choice? In other words, should presidential candidates, for instance, be fairly similar with some intense methodological and problem-solving disputes, but not with deeply defining or deeply antagonistic philosophical or ideological differences; or should they be utterly antithetical to one, representing two very different views of not only how democratic government should operate but what the goals and aspirations of democratic government should be? Jaffa considered the latter “change” elections, and noted that the United States has had relatively few of those in its history: 1800 when Jefferson beat Adams in one of the bitterest elections in our history; 1828 when Andrew Jackson became president; 1860 when Lincoln won and the South succeeded from the union; and 1936 when Franklin Roosevelt beat Alf Landon and established permanently the popular legitimacy of the welfare state.
What conservative movement activists and intellectuals like Schlafly have wanted ever since 1936 was another “change” election to challenge the so-called legitimacy of the welfare state and the ascendancy of the idea of expansive government for the good of all. The 1964 conservative uprising in the Republican Party, which Schlafly helped to fuel with her powerful defense of the election of choice as the only future the Republican Party had if it wanted to justify its existence as something other than a permanent minority party, was the first attempt at a “change” challenge to welfare state liberalism. (Virtually every Republican candidate for president after Landon to 1964 was either a former Democrat—Wendell Willkie; a capitulator to the New Deal and a hater of partisan politics—Eisenhower; a liberal and capitulator to the New Deal—Dewey; or someone who tried to square the circle by being both a conservative and a moderate—Nixon.) The 1964 conservative rebellion was unsuccessful as Goldwater lost in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson, who was himself undone by the mammoth-like hubristic dimensions of his victory that led to New Deal 2.0 or the Great Society which not only reshaped American society but radicalized it in a way that ultimately consumed Johnson in the maw of his own colossal miscalculations. The conservative revolt succeeded in 1980 with Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of the conservative movement to this day, and heir to Goldwater, whom Reagan endorsed in a remarkable and remarkably delivered speech that made the future California governor famous among conservatives as a true defender of the faith. But the Republican Party seems to have been trying to walk back Reagan, while evoking him constantly in the way certain Christians pray to an icon, with each successive presidential candidate, particularly the Bushes (père et fils) who were despised by many movement or self-identified conservatives for the very obvious reason that they did not seem to be true conservatives or to like doctrinaire conservatism. For many conservatives, the Bushes, with their limpid Republicanism, did not continue the revolution but became, in many respects, counter-revolutionaries.
Republican presidents of the post-World War II period symbolize the GOP’s identity crisis, where half the party wants consensus candidates and the other half wants choice candidates and the candidates themselves try to split the difference, “faking the orgasm” for the hardcore and hoping no one else notices. This is why Schlafly compares Trump to Reagan several times in her book but never to any other Republican president of the past.
The fact that liberals these days lavish praise on Bush the father for not being a right-wing crazy or having much regard for them is problematic for conservatives and the Republican Party in general. Conservatives have no other president to hold up as an example of their legacy and genius but Reagan and, oddly, neither does the Republican Party. Eisenhower saw himself as above partisan politics; Nixon was a failure and a criminal; Ford a moderate non-entity; and the Bushes were patrician Northeastern Republicans, despite their Texas, sunbelt masquerade, where the son was better at pretending fire-breathing conservatism than the father, who, despite the fact he never challenged it, felt it was beneath contempt. Republican presidents of the post-World War II period symbolize the GOP’s identity crisis, where half the party wants consensus candidates and the other half wants choice candidates and the candidates themselves try to split the difference, “faking the orgasm” for the hardcore and hoping no one else notices.
This is why Schlafly compares Trump to Reagan several times in her book, but never to any other Republican president of the past. For conservatives, Trump’s run has to be some sort of unconventional reincarnation of Reagan, reinforcing the idea of Reagan the rebel, Reagan the anti-establishment hero, or it becomes even more absurd, more quixotic than the run of a more establishment-approved, media-approved candidate. For Schlafly the political theorist, elections are about choice, about putting the liberal establishment and its dogmas and pieties in the dock, not about echo-resounding consensus. For Schlafly, there is no point in a Republican candidate running unless he intends to end liberalism as we know it. “Donald Trump is obviously not Ronald Reagan—no one else is—but I do sincerely believe that Donald Trump can remake our politics as Reagan did, give the Republican Party what has eluded them in five of the last six presidential elections—an electoral college and popular vote majority—and provide dramatic conservative reform.” “In that spirit, that spirit of a can-do businessman, no politician since Reagan has been more committed to slashing red tape and government bureaucracy than Donald Trump. No presidential candidate since Reagan has come to the task with more a can-do attitude than Trump.” “No candidate is better placed to pursue a policy of peace through strength than Donald Trump. On defense issues, he is the closest thing we have to Ronald Reagan.” So, Trump is and is not Reagan, lacking Reagan’s urbane veneer and ease of phrase, but possessing something like Reagan’s celebrity magnetism to gather the elements of white populist movement. Trump enters the campaign considered by the conventional pundits to be less prepared and less circumspect than an establishment candidate but larger than life even in his sins and certainly in his brashness than any establishment candidate would have been. For Schlafly, Trump, as a personality, is clearly a break from the moderately conservative Republican nominees of the last few elections like Romney and McCain, which is part of Trump’s appeal. His crudity, his bluntness, and his bouts of incoherence are signs of authenticity, of an utter refusal to submit to the sensibilities of liberal/leftist zeitgeist. In this regard, Trump is similar to Frank Rizzo, the Democrat candidate for mayor of Philadelphia in 1971, running as a law-and-order candidate. (Trump was a law-and-order candidate from the start with his opposition to the crime of illegal immigration and the criminals it spawned.) Rizzo was crude and unprepared but he was also larger than life, the big cop (he was serving as the city’s police commissioner when he decided to run for mayor), the big dog.
This aspect of Trump is the reason that Schlafly’s chapter about Trump’s opposition to political correctness, which for so many white conservatives is of such importance, is so striking; for it is in this one particular facet of our national life that interest-group minorities and their white sympathizers and enablers have made themselves especially irritating to many conservatives by succeeding in institutionalizing their militant special pleading. For Schlafly, Trump will acknowledge and speak the truth about Mexican rapists, Islamic terrorists, and global warming alarmists. He will not shy away from calling the people and acts in this world by their right name. Trump will, in effect, as the liberal-bashing populist, help conservatives regain a measure of control over the marketplace of ideas by the sheer power of his personality to dare to say impolite or uncivil things.  In this regard, for his supporters, Trump does not have ideas (or the fact that he may have them does not matter) as much as he has attitude. In this way, he is nearly an exact copy of Rizzo. And Trump does not need ideas, but a sort of dog-whistle-signaling disdain for the world that liberalism has made. (Cleverly, Trump has made his appeal to blacks “flipping the script” of political correctness: Have any of the gestures of deference to your anger and policy prescriptions of the liberals really done you any good? Obviously, they have not; otherwise you would not be complaining about the same things you complained about fifty years ago, police brutality, bad schools, lack of jobs, and high incarceration rates.)
To someone like Schlafly, Trump, unlike other Republican politicians, does not really want to be loved or accepted by any conservative elite. He wants to vanquish them. His “bad” poor little rich boy demeanor makes him immune to the blandishments and seductions of the elites. So, he sees himself as a “choice” candidate, a “change” candidate, in the way that Obama did. If he wins, he redefines the conservative order. To be sure, Trump is the anti-Obama (blond, inarticulate, paunchy, a huckster not a community organizer) which is why some conservatives love him.
Schlafly makes this conservative case for Trump, in part, because so many notable conservatives oppose Trump, even hate him. Her own Eagle Forum became a battleground when Schlafly supported Trump during the primaries over Texas senator Ted Cruz. While this book is meant to be a blast of fresh air in a room of stale political debate dominated by the liberal hegemony, it will strike many readers as, in part, a sort of last gasp of the movement conservatives or the last gasp of the movement that gave us Goldwater as a challenge not simply to the welfare state but rather as a challenge to our country being weakened and undone by excessive pity for and indulgent compensation to minorities of all sorts (victims of the old order of liberalism and free markets, you might say) backed by the ever-expanding power of the federal government and the liberal intellectual elite that run it. (It must be remembered that Goldwater’s opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act on constitutional grounds was one of the major things that made him appealing to the right-wingers.) Conservative Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, a Trump adviser and now 84th Attorney General of the United States, is quoted in Schlafly’s book as saying, “This election will be the last chance for Americans to get control of their government.” It is little wonder that liberals, leftists, blacks, and other minorities hear the last cry of the Bourbons resounding in Trump’s run. Is Trump nothing more than a celebrity retread of our racist past or is he in fact the harbinger of a truly profound critique of the liberal order, something literary critic Lionel Trilling said was essential for liberalism, that may save liberalism from being a retread of itself?
To someone like Schlafly, Trump, unlike other Republican politicians, does not really want to be loved or accepted by any conservative elite. He wants to vanquish them. His “bad” poor little rich boy demeanor makes him immune to the blandishments and seductions of the elites. So, he sees himself as a “choice” candidate, a “change” candidate, in the way that Obama did. If he wins, he redefines the conservative order.
Ben Carson, the famed African American neurosurgeon who ran for the Republican presidential nomination against Trump and ultimately supported the real estate developer, wrote a tribute to Schlafly a year ago, praising her for standing up for traditional marriage, something that had gotten him placed on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate group list for a short time before SPLC realized how absurd that was. It was something about Schlafly’s fight for a traditional past and for traditional values, none of which ever really existed, that seemed to touch Carson, and perhaps reflected counterintuitively an impulse in him as a black person for something in the past, something that both he and Schlafly could share equally about the American past. It is pretty to think about something like that, although in the end anyone with any real knowledge of Schlafly is struck only by how superficial Carson’s piece is, perhaps how feebly opportunistic, as he wrote at the time when he was still a live candidate in the primaries. Conservatives would praise him for being courageous in writing such a piece. But, in truth, nothing quite underscored the oddity of his position as a candidate in dealing with the legacy of conservatism’s past. It is my position that a black person cannot be a conservative in the normally understood political sense of that term as it is currently used in the United States or that a black person ought not to be one; it is rather whether a black person can honestly be one if the main motivation is simply to show a contrarian contempt for white and black liberals and the white and black left. The contempt may be real, may even be justified, but becoming a conservative seems a rather feckless way of having that contempt taken seriously.
In The Conservative Case for Trump, Schlafly writes this paean to the American past:
“To be an American was to be a hard-working, law-abiding, church or synagogue-attending, person who probably thought of himself as middle class or aspiring to middle class respectability. The old movies and TV shows are nostalgic but they reveal a great truth of who we are as Americans. And even though Americans welcomed many to the melting pot, we also took long pauses to allow the assimilation to take place. Those long periods where relatively few immigrants came at all were part of the American plan.”
Phyllis Schlafly, like so many white conservatives, was, in reaching for Trump, expressing a kind of homesickness. To this sentiment, wistful, wrong-headed, and pathetic, the only sensible response is Nick Caraway’s to Jay Gatsby, in the latter’s wish to recapture his lost love, “You can’t relive the past.” To which, one can only add, gratefully, Thank God!