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Donald Trump is a Phyllis Schlafly conservative

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

With conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly's death this week, it's an obvious moment to reflect on the conservative moment and women in politics. (Schlafly's quote about a woman becoming president over her dead body has been shared around — despite a lack of evidence that she ever said that.)

The contradiction of her powerful, successful career defending women's traditional domestic roles, her impact on the Republican Party, and, of course, her role in defeating the Equal Rights Amendment, will all provide material for op-eds and blog posts this week. But what about her connection to Donald Trump? I've seen arguments about a clear line of conservatism through the post–New Deal years, and it's also possible that we might consider Trump the end of the line of Schlafly-style social conservatism.

Beneath direct policy questions about abortion or LGBTQ rights, though, the common thread between Schlafly and Trump is a conservatism that is about social preservation. Compared with rhetoric from the Tea Party or Goldwater-style conservatism before that, this brand doesn't emphasize strict readings of the Constitution or founding values so much as social order and social hierarchy.

Most political rhetoric has an element that links back to shared, longstanding national values or revered historical figures. But this is something different — a set of political appeals that are rooted in protecting a particular vision of society. For Schlafly, it had to do with gender and family. For Trump, it's law and order, sealed borders, and a side of traditional gender stuff too.

But for all the talk of defending what makes America great, the other factor that unites the late Schlafly and the GOP nominee is their status as deeply disruptive figures. I wrote a paper about the ERA in college, and I remember the professor noting that I'd failed to really address the fact that it is simply very difficult to change the US Constitution. (I got an A anyway.)

In this way, Schlafly's efforts did defend the status quo. But her activism had a profound effect on the values of the Republican Party — on whom it nominated and who it assumed, eventually, to be unelectable.

She didn't do this singlehandedly, of course. But the Republican Party would never be the party of Rockefeller or Henry Cabot Lodge (either of them) or Eisenhower — or even Nixon — again. At least not so far.

It should be said that I think we may have overstated Trump's transformative capacity, at least in this election and what comes after. (Because let's face it, after last fall, we needed something else to be wrong about.) But it's hard to deny that he's disrupted the flow of the Republican Party, challenged many assumptions about who can be nominated and how that process will unfold, and disturbed the uncomfortable truce over immigration within GOP ranks.

Why does this combination of preservation and disruption matter? We don't have a lot of observations to work with. (Pat Buchanan strikes me as someone who would have liked to do this and ended up fighting with a physics professor over the Reform Party nomination instead, which is maybe the furthest you can get from disrupting the political system.) And making causal claims is always tricky. But it seems to me that this combination has the potential to reframe policy debates in ways that are consequential and lasting.

It's never been entirely clear that abortion, LGBT rights, or other "values voters" things were really driving the electorate; immigration and law and order are similarly often subsumed by raw economic issues. Laws, especially at the state level, banning same-sex marriage and placing restrictions on abortion are real.

The socially conservative crowd has lost on marriage, but they were winning for a long time, in part because of well-organized groups of people who felt their basic values were under threat. Although constitutional questions remain, states haven't been shy in the past about anti-Sharia laws and restrictive policies aimed at immigrants. One possible effect of the Trump candidacy is that we'll see more of this at the state level.

Why is this stance — at least occasionally — so potent? For one thing, life without some kind of social order is disorienting and scary. Cultural norms help people understand what things mean, create codes of behavior, and allow us to understand ourselves as part of a community. (Obviously, different people will come to very different conclusions about what these codes and values should be.) Thanks to the field of political psychology, we're learning more and more about how fear shapes political decision-making.

Less scientifically, talking about preserving the social order lends itself to rhetoric that violates norms and challenges typical political circumlocutions. Others can — and do — pick up on this and rework it to fit back into the mainstream. But the underlying ideas, by that point, have gained a permanent place somewhere on the agenda.

With so much emphasis on process in party politics, especially among Republicans, the unapologetic substantive claims from social preservationists like Schlafly and Trump stand out. While we debate about all the other ways the late activist shaped conservative politics, we shouldn't neglect this crucial distinction.

This post is part of Mischiefs of Faction, an independent political science blog featuring reflections on the party system. See more Mischiefs of Faction posts here.

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