יום ראשון, 26 באפריל 2020

Her greatest strength was toughness without anger

What Phyllis Schlafly’s Heirs Could Learn From Her

“Mrs. America,” in its fourth episode, re-creates a vivid example: a 1973 debate between Schlafly and feminist leader Betty Friedan at Illinois State University, when Friedan called Schlafly a witch and spat, “I’d like to burn you at the stake.” (In real life, at that same debate, Friedan also called Schlafly an “Aunt Tom.”) In the arc of an hour of TV drama, it was presented as a turning-point moment: Schlafly had been losing, but her serenity, in the face of Friedan’s rage, suddenly gave her the upper hand.

This is where Schlafly’s successors often seem a far cry from the original. Yes, they share her fearless posturing and relish for picking fights. But they’re much more likely to succumb to the rage that Schlafly studiously avoided, even when they’re talking to a like-minded audience. And much of their posturing isn’t pitched to the opposing side at all. Rather than projecting calm against someone else’s fury, today’s conservative stars are largely railing against an absent enemy, in front of an audience of people nodding in agreement. It’s enough to make them look, well, a bit like snowflakes by comparison.


The parallels between Schlafly and today’s female conservative firebrands aren’t exact. According to Critchlow, Schlafly would never have been spotted in anything less than the primmest of necklines, let alone the slinky cocktail dresses that are today’s cable TV uniform. And unlike most of her successors, from Coulter to Laura Ingraham to Michelle Malkin to Jeanine Pirro, Schlafly was more than just a provocateur. She was a skilled and savvy organizer whose goal wasn’t just to build an audience, but to sway state legislators into voting against a constitutional amendment they had previously supported—which required a certain politeness that can be hard to find in today’s scorched-Earth media climate.

“She knew that to win people over, she needed to show some respect to her opponents,” says Critchlow, whose book, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism, was published in 2005. “And if she came across as dismissing them, or looking like their arguments were just completely foolish and that they were idiots, she wouldn’t win people over.”

Still, like many female conservative media personalities today, Schlafly was able to parlay attractiveness, wit and ideological orthodoxy into a successful personal brand. And she had a keen instinct for visual media, which she displayed from the earliest days of her political career; in 1952, as a candidate for Congress, she arranged a photo of herself in the kitchen, the ultimate housewife. On national TV shows during the ERA fight, she wore prim skirts and high-necked sweaters, with her hair pinned up in a trademark bouffant.

By the time Coulter emerged as a rising star of the 1990s, the costume for conservative women had changed considerably, as had the personal-life requirements. Being overtly feminine was still a prerequisite—and being blonde didn’t hurt—but many right-wing media stars weren’t housewives, or wives at all. (Elisabeth Hasselbeck was an exception as she played up her motherhood on “The View” in the early 2000s. But she also wasn’t a Coulter-style provocateur.) Still, a conservative audience expected, from its heroines, an overt brand of femininity: put-together-enough to be aspirational to women; coquettish enough to match a certain fantasy for men. Think: Ingraham’s v-necked, jewel-toned dress as she preached American exceptionalism at the Republican National Convention in 2016; Michelle Malkin’s coiffed curls as she rails against immigration; Lahren’s trendy athleisure designed to hold a Second Amendment-protected weapon of your choice.

The female-conservative archetype has become so deeply embedded in U.S. media culture that producers use it as a go-to slot in political punditry. Susie Meister, co-host of the “Brain Candy” podcast, learned this when she tried to parlay reality-TV fame into a broadcast media career. A fresh-faced blonde from a religious, working-class household in Pittsburgh, Meister sent her first audition tape to an MTV reality show in 1998, at age 18. Producers swiftly typecast her as the small-town conservative girl, a role that fit well enough that she could credibly play it over and over for nearly a decade, on such shows as “The Road Rules: Down Under,” “The Gauntlet 2,” and “The Inferno 3.”

But by 2014, after getting a PhD in religious studies from the University of Pittsburgh—her dissertation was on the marketing of prosperity gospel by preachers like Joel Osteen—Meister found that her political views had shifted. And when she decided to pursue a career in TV commentary, and met with talent agents who could pitch her to news and cable networks, they uniformly told her that her only path forward was to pitch herself as a firebrand conservative.

“The only advice they gave was that if this is something you’re interested in, you just would have to take the ideology on as if it were yours and become a persona, and play up the things about your look that fit with the brand of the network,” Meister says. No one gave her direct advice about clothes or styling, she says; “it was more about hair color and sort of a va-va-voom type of look in general.”

The stereotype cuts both ways, Meister says: mainstream and left-leaning networks also weren’t interested in bringing her on as a measured liberal voice. “‘Maybe they also don’t want people that look incongruent with the worldview,” she says. “With bleached hair and fake boobs, when I go into a normal, non-leaning-conservative network, it doesn’t match that worldview, either.”

The Schlafly model doesn’t rely on Barbie-doll looks alone. Like many of today’s successful female conservative stars, she also had a fondness for arguing and an ability to marshal quick retorts—even if it meant twisting the facts to suit her purposes, or ignoring fact-checking entirely. On April 15, 1973, on William F. Buckley’s public affairs show “Firing Line,” Schlafly debated a “libber” opponent, National Organization for Women vice president Ann Scott, who was armed with a torrent of logic and a list of legal decisions that summarized the state of women’s rights. Schlafly didn’t have a law degree at the time (though she would return to school and get one five years later). Still, she projected erudition, balancing a big stack of papers on her lap and holding up a legal encyclopedia called American Jurisprudence. “American Jurisprudence is a discredited source. It is one which lawyers do not cite in their briefs,” Scott scoffed. Schlafly ignored the comment and kept referring to the book anyway. She wound up holding her own.

“Firing Line” was mostly friendly territory for a conservative woman like Schlafly; at one point, Buckley literally licked his lips as he bore into one of Scott’s arguments. Schlafly’s solo appearance on “Donahue” on May 1, 1974 was another story. Phil Donahue, the pre-Oprah king of women’s daytime TV, hadn’t yet married the feminist actress and producer Marlo Thomas, but his skepticism of Schlafly was clear—and his audience, a mixed political crowd, sometimes rumbled with hostility. Donahue nearly broke a sweat trying to be fair-minded to Schlafly and her allies in the studio audience, while still challenging some of their most outrageous arguments. At one point he apologized profusely for backing a nervous ERA opponent into a logical corner.

Schlafly, on the other hand, was unflappable. Perched daintily on the edge of the stage, she projected an air of superiority—a sense that, however earnest her foes were, she believed herself better, smarter, more logical, more sensible, more attractive. When a pro-ERA woman called into the show, viscerally angry, Schlafly’s serenity felt like its own rebuke. “They don’t want to listen to the facts. They just want to talk,” she said, as if she were admonishing toddlers at home.

Shouting wasn’t all Schlafly and her allies faced in those days, especially as their anti-ERA crusade began to succeed. Once, when researching papers archived at her organization’s Missouri headquarters, Critchlow came across a big, sealed plastic bag of hate mail that had been sent to an anti-ERA legislator in Florida—who passed it along to Schlafly so she’d know what he was facing. Inside the bag were pornographic pictures, used tampons, and dirty sanitary napkins.

Schlafly herself faced death threats; her family urged her to hire a security guard, but she refused. She understood the power of never looking frazzled or showing a kink in your armor. A more effective weapon, it turned out, was condescension. At the start of her turn on “Donahue,” she calmly took down the feminists at Ms., saying the magazine was aptly named because “its motivating, unifying force is the old adage “Misery loves company.’”

“Ms. is for ‘misery’?” Donahue repeated, incredulous. But Schlafly was on a roll. “Ms. is for ‘Misery loves company,’ yes,” she said in a lilting voice, as the audience audibly groaned. “It’s a lot of unhappy complaints about unhappy women with problems.”

Put-downs are a standard tool for today’s conservative stars. But Critchlow delivered hers with a different tone, Critchlow says, disparaging but playful, wrapped in a smile and the guarded language of the ’70s. “She could be quite abrupt and quite acerbic with a cutting line,” he says. “But it was more rapier-like than trying to bludgeon the other side.”

One of the key pieces of advice she gave her followers, Critchlow said, was to avoid looking confrontational, especially when lobbying politicians directly. As “Mrs. America” shows, she played on gender stereotypes but used them as a weapon: persuasion wrapped in deference that appealed to male legislators’ egos and made them imagine they weren’t being manipulated. Her followers spoke in a unified voice that she herself defined—and that stood out against a pro-ERA movement that was divided over tactics. ERA America, an umbrella organization based in Washington, favored traditional lobbying activities, Critchlow says. But NOW was “much more confrontational, and they tried to pursue what might be called a civil rights strategy of protests and threats to state legislators. And I think it really backfired on them.”

Schlafly’s heirs today share her take-no-prisoners drive, but they show less appetite for engaging with opponents—and, when they do, they sometimes have trouble matching Schlafly’s restraint. Even their book titles evoke a kind of shouting in the schoolyard; Coulter’s bestsellers include Godless, Treason, Guilty, Mugged and If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans. Jeanine Pirro’s forthcoming book is titled Are You Stupid? Or Were You Just Born a Democrat? These books aren’t attempts at persuasion; they’re firebombs, calculated to rile up the base and excite the already-converted. They’re echoes of the strategy Donald Trump has used leading into the 2020 election—even now, as he foments anti-government protests, rather than deferring to the scientists on his staff.

In video appearances, conservative stars can be equally inflamed. Take Kayleigh McEnany, Trump’s new press secretary, who has repeatedly laid her emotions bare in tense CNN exchanges, shouting over hosts and other guests. Or take Lahren, another telegenic blonde who, at age 22, was handed her own news show on OAN—the conservative news network that drew a stir at President Trump’s press briefings this spring, when a correspondent asked questions so friendly to Trump that they sounded like parody, and was later removed for violating social distancing rules.

Lahren’s breakthrough moment came in 2015 when, at the end her OAN show, she drilled into the Obama administration for what she called a sluggish response to the murder of four Marines in Tennessee by a Muslim gunman. “I’ve had it with this failed strategy, this halfway, half-baked, tiptoe, be-friendly-to-jihadis mentality pushed by this administration,” she intoned in what would become her trademark: a rapid-fire machine-gun barrage of insults and invective, pointed at an outside enemy. The diatribe lacked Schlafly’s slyness, her restraint, her equanimity. Still, the clip went viral on YouTube, and Lahren’s star continued to rise.

Even Lahren has turned out to be capable of a Schlafly-level moment—to some degree—when presented with the right opportunity. In December 2016, when she had moved to the conservative platform The Blaze, she scored a crossover appearance on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.” Lahren bounded onto the Comedy Central set in a little black dress, eager to face the fire. “I’m in the Lion’s Den, Trevor!” she said cheerfully.

Throughout the interview, Noah was friendly but relentless, grilling Lahren on her apparent racism, her outrageous equation of Black Lives Matter with the Ku Klux Klan, her lack of internal logic. At one point, when she declared, “I’m a millennial, so I don’t really like labels,” he nearly blew a gasket: “I’m sorry, my brain—you just gave a label to say you don’t like labels,” he said, as the audience howled. Lahren acted as if the moment had never happened. For 14 minutes of bombardment, she was Schlafly-level unperturbable; no matter how smart Noah’s rejoinders were, he couldn’t get under her skin.

But Noah did manage to scratch at something new about Lahren’s public persona: the apparent gap behind the figure she projects to exclusively right-wing audiences and the one she was willing to show in a neutral setting. In her solo-TV screeds to a faceless audience, Noah told her, “you are angry about everything, it seems.” Her response, when she was sitting four feet away, was matter-of-fact and uncharacteristically cheerful: “Sometimes people just need to be called on their s--t.”

It was enough to make you wonder what a Lahren or a Coulter or a McEnany would look like in a media landscape that wasn’t quite so polarized—or what Schlafly’s activism would have looked like if she were a young conservative coming up today. Over time, as her personal profile waned, Schlafly’s own book titles evoked a growing sense of rage against the wind: The Supremacists: The Tyranny of Judges and How to Stop It; Who Killed the American Family? (Her last book, published at the time of her death in 2016, was titled The Conservative Case for Trump.) Her cunning brand of equanimity was easier to build in the 1970s—long before shoutfests and “gotcha” moments became the cable-news norm, or media offered a 24-hour open mic for preaching to a fired-up choir. Betty Friedan might have worked herself into a lather in Schlafly’s presence, but TV anchors and reporters of the time had different standards of conduct. “Although she was attacked by her opponents on various grounds,” Critchlow says, “the media in general, even while not liking her, didn’t deride her or go after her in a way that was trying to trip her up.”

Today, every cable-news appearance is fraught with traps. There are fewer chances for a lightning rod like Lahren to appear on a friendly crossover stage (and Noah took plenty of hits for inviting her on his own show that one time). So it’s little surprise that Schlafly’s successors learned to lean into the anger that their audience wants and expects. It’s a strategy that will sell books and get attention. But with fury as their guide, conservative media stars today will fall short of Schlafly’s success in one key way: They’re unlikely to change anybody’s mind.

אין תגובות:

הוסף רשומת תגובה