Phyllis Schlafly, the subject of a new Hulu miniseries starring Cate Blanchett, used to seem weird. In a political culture that fetishized consensus, she was a one-woman polarization machine. During the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment that turned her into a national celebrity, she took to opening rallies by thanking her husband for letting her speak. “I always like to say that,” she explained, “because it makes the libs so mad.”
She was, in short, a troll. But Schlafly wanted to do more than trigger the libs. A shrewd political organizer, she saw the Trump campaign as the latest chapter in her lifelong crusade against the Republican establishment. GOP moderates fought her at each step of the way. When they stopped her from taking over the leading Republican women’s organization, she started her own group, the Eagle Forum. If party leaders wouldn’t hand the keys to the castle to her, she would storm it from the outside.
There are lessons here for the left today. Decades before MSNBC talking heads were fixating on Bernie Bros saying mean things to them online, their mid-century predecessors were tut-tutting over irresponsible conservatives. The right ignored them and kept on taking over the GOP. That doesn’t mean we have a license to make stuff up, but it does mean we shouldn’t be surprised when pundits act as if you need a permission slip from Lawrence O’Donnell to care about democracy. Movements need passion, discipline, and vision. Schlafly had all of it. And I like to think that somewhere out there in a DSA meeting today, a new Schlafly is already making trouble, this time using her powers for good instead of evil. It would be great TV.
Timothy Shenk is co-editor of Dissent.