Though there is a chance Donald Trump could win, it appears women will be the firewall keeping him from the Oval Office. As a conservative activist who has spent years trying to reconcile women's rights and right-leaning policies, I am appalled by how Trump has destroyed the GOP's social capital with women. In the wake of Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss, the party autopsy laid the blueprint for connecting with women; by 2014, the party seemed to be making strides by nominating women like Mia Love, Martha McSally, Elise Stefanik, Marilinda Garcia and others. As results poured in on Election night 2014, it was a moment of sweet irony for me that the Senate balance of power shifted to the Republicans when the Iowa senatorial race was called for Joni Ernst — the first female combat veteran elected to the U.S. Senate. That night I called the GOP's so-called “War on Women” a fiction.
After losing the popular vote in five of the last six elections and faced with a bleak demographic future, the GOP must completely revamp itself or face extinction. Conservative and Republican women like myself are livid (see the recent comments and commentaries by leaders Amanda Carpenter and Dana Perino) over our years of labor squandered and hard-won gains undone by Trump — a nominee who brags about sexual assault and degrades minorities and the disabled, among other transgressions.
The problem that conservative thinkers like David Brooks miss (as he did in one of his recent columns) isn't that there is no conservative policy intelligentsia — it's that we lack a conservative cultural elite, especially among women. Hollywood and the larger world of culture and entertainment is incredibly left-leaning — its leaders donate to Democrats far more than to Republicans. These are the people who make culture, and culture drives policy. Conservatives and Republicans have not learned to speak in culturally relevant ways that resonate with any group beyond old, white men. This bodes terribly for the GOP’s future, particularly demographically, as the millennial generation is 43 percent non-white.
Many younger voters from minority backgrounds are particularly turned off by the tin-eared rhetoric from Trump on African-American and Latino issues; but his rhetoric is, in many ways, not so much an aberration as a crude restatement of the Republican Southern Strategy. Consider the disastrous Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty" policies: They had their roots not in politics but in the cultural impact of the civil rights leaders, not through policy think tanks. Martin Luther King, Jr. was no policy wonk — he was an emotive spiritual leader and charismatic cultural figure. Johnson was a racist — and many of his people were too — but he responded to the power of culture.
Surveying the culture, there's the problem of prominent female conservatives in the media: the vitriolic Ann Coulter, who has said women should lose their suffrage; the self-proclaimed Christian Kayleigh McEnany, who defends an adulterous and vindictive Trump; the needlessly acerbic Tomi Lehren and the anti-intellectual Sarah Palin. Some of their intentions may be laudable — their arguments for limited government and American exceptionalism — but they do not appeal to anyone outside the usual GOP suspects.
Generally speaking, conservatives don’t have Oprah Winfreys, Whoopi Goldbergs, Arianna Huffingtons — liberal female celebrities who connect with female audiences and hold sway in youth-oriented Hollywood. To be a celebrity inherently means that you are celebrated — and we conservatives aren't. That's what Reagan, as a former actor, understood. And love him or hate him, Trump shows the power of culture. He met people where they were and didn't sequester himself in the Ivory Policy Tower.
Even though the odds are currently stacked against us, there is a new vanguard of female conservative media and cultural leaders, people like Caitlyn Jenner, Michelle Fields, Tara Setmayer, Kristen Soltis Anderson, Jedediah Bila, Patrice Lee, Ana Navarro, Candace Cameron, Leslie Sanchez, Margaret Hoover, SE Cupp, MaryKatharine Ham, and more. If Republican leaders are smart, they will increase the visibility of women like these in Hollywood and mainstream media rather than simply cultivating the next generation of “Fox News Famous” women. And I say this with respect as someone who regularly appears on Fox News — it’s a great venue to teach the choir how to sing, but the choir has an average age of 68.