Dubbed the “direct mail wizard of the New Right” for his pioneering techniques in the pre-Internet age, Richard Viguerie helped elect conservative firebrand Jesse Helms to the U.S. Senate from North Carolina for five consecutive terms in the eighties and nineties.
At 83, he has been around long enough to qualify as Old Right, and with conservative cultural values at the core of his politics, he and President Donald Trump don’t appear to have much in common. Yet Viguerie is riding the Trump train for all it’s worth, and loving every minute.
In an interview with the Daily Beast, he praises the “movement conservatives” around Trump: Kellyanne Conway, Jeff Sessions, Steve Bannon, Mike Pence, exclaiming, “I know them…We know them.”
“From August on, the campaign was run by movement conservatives,” he says, and that’s never happened before.
“Kellyanne is one of us,” he exclaims. Viguerie attended her wedding more than fifteen years ago, and he recalls how her husband, George, secretly packed her wedding dress on their honeymoon trip to Rome so she could wear it when they had their marriage blessed by the Pope. “She’s very Catholic,” he adds.
“They’ll be in the meetings,” Viguerie says of these movement conservatives, along with Trump’s hard-right nominees to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services, Scott Pruitt and Tom Price, respectively.
“Trump won’t be in 99 percent of the meetings,” he says confidently. “That’s Trump’s management style. You can’t run something like he did, a worldwide corporation, and be a micromanager. You hire the pilot of the plane, and you pick the surgeon, and you let them go. 99 percent of the meetings he won’t be in, but Pence will be there, and Scott Pruitt.”
“Justice (with nominee Jeff Sessions as Attorney General) and the White House are solid,” says Viguerie. “Who knows what course things can take, but every indication now is they are looking good for us. Personnel is policy, and the personnel while it’s not 100 percent is really, really good—and conservatives like me, we’re just wildly excited.”
Asked how cultural conservatives and evangelicals can support Trump given his checkered history, Viguerie says the media are consumed with Trump’s personal behavior, while “we conservatives are consumed with Supreme Court judges that could rule for thirty years.”
In the third debate, after Hillary Clinton said she would appoint Supreme Court justices that stand up for women’s rights, Viguerie sent out some seven million pieces of direct mail targeting Catholic households in the states surrounding the Great Lakes: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
A third of the people who live there are Catholic; 40 percent of registered voters are Catholic, and on Election Day, almost 50 percent of those who showed up to vote were Catholic, says Viguerie. Mitt Romney lost Catholics 50 to 48; Trump won them 52 to 45, according to the Pew Research Center. Unlike the evangelical vote, which is reliably Republican, but will turn out in greater or lesser numbers, the Catholic vote is a true “swing” vote, he says, and Trump carried it by 7 points.
Viguerie had been building the case against Clinton among Catholics for some time. Her comment at a Global Women’s Summit in New York on March 23, 2015, that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed” for women around the globe to have access to abortion as part of their health care, was readymade.
“What that says to me, Richard, you’re going to have to change your religious beliefs,” says Viguerie. “That’s lock and load and go to war.”
For movement conservatives, Trump’s victory is even better than Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. Reagan gave the religious right a seat at the table, and he had Ed Meese, a true conservative, among his top advisors. But he also had James Baker, Michael Deaver, and David Gergen, pragmatists and skilled infighters who saw their job as reining in the right.
Viguerie remembers Washington Post reporter Lou Cannon, whose sources in the Reagan camp were unrivaled, writing a week before the Inauguration in a front page story that a high-ranking Reagan official, asked what the new President would give the religious right that was so instrumental in his election, replied, anonymously of course, “We’re going to give them symbolism.”
“Truer words were never spoken,” says Viguerie. “Symbolism is what we got. And we got Sandra Day O’Connor, really bad news, and Anthony Kennedy,” two justices that were not rock-ribbed social conservatives, and who helped preserve the fundamental right to abortion set out in the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.
Last spring, before he wrapped up his party’s nomination, Trump released a list of eleven potential Supreme Court nominees compiled by the conservative Heritage Foundation. In September, seeking to reassure the GOP’s evangelical base, Trump put out an additional list of ten names, which included three minorities.
Asked what he thinks of the proposed nominees, Viguerie says some are “suspect on cultural issues,” mainly gay marriage. “There are not 20 Scalias on that list,” he says. “Maybe if we’re lucky there are one, two or three. Lots of people are going through those lists now.”
Antonin Scalia is the patron saint of movement conservatives. His death on February 13, 2016 was “the most important event” that happened last year, says Viguerie. It put the focus on the Supreme Court and the animating principle for so many conservatives of overturning Roe.
In the third debate, when the abortion issue was raised, Clinton said that she would repeal the Hyde amendment. That was big, says Viguerie. The Hyde amendment bans the federal government from using Medicaid funds to pay for abortions for poor women.
Asked how many voters even know what the Hyde amendment is, Viguerie says if you follow the new and alt-right media, you knew the significance of Clinton’s remark and how it would be received on the right.
As president, Trump immediately reinstated a ban on federal funds to international groups that have anything to do with abortion services, and he is expected to sign the Hyde amendment into law.
Trump is not a conventional conservative, or even much of a Republican, but for movement conservatives, what is there not to like?