The Radical Right Gave Us President Trump. Don't Underestimate It Again | Opinion

In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, as the American public reeled from Donald Trump's upset, political strategists and commentators alike reached for answers. Who were Trump voters? Was their vote based on race, gender bias, "economic anxiety" or another factor yet uncovered? Even worse, had American politics finally been subsumed by reality TV culture or pervasive social media? While each question unveiled some grain of truth, one key factor was overlooked time and again: Trump had a political apparatus that Democrats underestimated and the media largely dismissed. A trap that we could easily fall into again in November.

Our new book, The Lie That Binds, offers an analysis of the wide-reaching political machinery that conservative leaders activated to push Trump to victory—which progressives ignore at their peril.

The following is a lightly edited excerpt of The Lie That Binds, by Ilyse Hogue and Ellie Langford.

Of the anti-choice movement's original architects, only Phyllis Schlafly lived long enough to see Donald Trump's rise. She made it clear that he was nothing less than the culmination of everything the Radical Right had been working toward. She endorsed him in early 2016 in a move so controversial that it prompted board members at her Eagle Forum, including her own daughter, Anne, to conspire to oust her. Never one to shy away from unpopular decisions, Schlafly persevered, saying, "We've been following the losers for so long—now we've got a guy who's going to lead us to victory."

Schlafly's endorsement was hugely symbolic. Alongside early supporters like Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell Jr., it gave supporters permission to believe in a relative newcomer, and it carried a formal stamp of approval on the candidate's chances from the old guard. What it didn't carry was much institutional power, as her Eagle Forum grassroots had atrophied and given way to new structures with a more overt focus on abortion.

Even with the nomination in hand, Trump had a steep hill to climb. He had no political machine he could call his own, and as a GOP outsider, he could not count on marshaling its resources. A June 2016 Atlantic headline blared "There Is No Trump Campaign," reporting that despite raucous attendance at his rallies, Trump had failed to build any meaningful ground game. The clock was ticking, and the Democratic apparatus was well-resourced. It seemed basically impossible for his campaign to cover the shortfall. The fervent, vocal support of white supremacists and men's rights activists had propelled him to the nomination, but these outsiders were not well-resourced or organized offline and had zero infrastructure for a real general election campaign.

When Trump became the nominee, he inherited the Republican National Committee's infrastructure, but it paled in comparison to Hillary Clinton's political organization and the Democrats' mobilization. As Trump shrugged off calls to moderate his message and professionalize his approach in preparation for the general election, Republican leaders and funders shifted resources to focus their efforts on down-ballot races instead. Certain that their nominee would lose, they chose to save hard-fought gains from the impact of a disaster at the top of the ticket.

Trump needed a team, and the anti-choice movement—with all of its foot soldiers and political apparatus—was it. New guard leaders like Susan B. Anthony List's Marjorie Dannenfelser or Concerned Women for America's Penny Nance were intrigued, but hesitant to put their credibility on the line for anyone less than a movement loyalist. If they were going to put themselves and their influence on the line, they needed more proof to be convinced that the risk was worth the reward.

Trump's advisers knew he didn't have the full trust of the movement, and he didn't have years to prove his loyalty. Instead, they decided to sweeten the deal by promising massive rewards if he won. Trump was nothing if not transactional, and the radical right and anti-choice leaders proved willing to negotiate. They would drive a hard bargain as far as commitments on judges, pro-life positions and staffing—including the vice presidential pick.

...Trump sealed the deal with the right by adopting their policies and hiring their people when he took the stage at the final debate of the general election. There, in a dramatic and unforgettable moment, Trump channeled the propaganda of John Willke when he viciously attacked Clinton for her position on abortion rights. After nervously stalking her around the debate stage, he flew into a tirade about how she would allow doctors to "rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby."

Viewers were stunned. Fact-checkers rushed to correct Trump's claims, with a Vox headline proclaiming, "No, Donald Trump, Abortions Do Not Happen at 9 Months Pregnant." Doctors took pains to explain the facts about later abortion, fetal diagnoses and clinical procedure. Clinton supporters rushed to point out that her position was grounded not only in constitutional law but also her compassion for women's experiences. And many women and families who had experienced the frequently agonizing situations that lead to abortions later in pregnancy shared personal stories, hoping to put an end to the politicization of their real lived experience.

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump walks through Lafayette Park for a photo op after authorities used tear gas and rubber bullets to remove peaceful protesters in Washington, D.C., on June 1. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty

In a parallel universe, Trump basked in adulation from members of a movement who were hearing their gospel come to life on one of the biggest stages in the world. Revved up, he began to center anti-choice themes in many speeches, with complete disregard for facts and feelings of those affected. With characteristic brashness, Trump frequently alluded to two unnamed friends who ended up deciding against aborting a child he described now as "a total superstar."

Kellyanne Conway praised the effectiveness of Trump's blunt, if inaccurate approach: "I've been working on pro-life messaging for two decades in this town," she said. "And it took a billionaire man from Manhattan who had spent most of his life being pro-choice to deliver the most impassioned defense of life that many have ever heard." Her allies followed suit, with Susan B. Anthony List's Mallory Quigley calling the debate moment "clarifying for voters." Trump had cleared up any question that he intended to live up to his end of a bargain.

The once-fractured and skeptical far right was now unified in the belief that they could count on Trump's loyalty. They fully embraced his election as an unprecedented opportunity to bring the agenda of their movement's architects—both the Trojan Horse and everything it represented—to the center of the political agenda in Washington. When the votes were later counted, it would become clear that leaders of the Radical Right had mobilized their own to put him over the top, an organizational feat that had once been predicted as almost impossible.

Ilyse Hogue is the president and Ellie Langford is the research director of NARAL Pro-Choice America. Their new books is The Lie That Binds.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.