Far-right conspiracies abound at Phyllis Schlafly Eagle Council in St. Louis

The 46th annual Eagle Council played host to a litany of far-right leaders in St. Louis, kicking off the weekend Friday, September 22 with a keynote speech from anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant extremist David Horowitz and ending with a Sunday afternoon rally headlined by Stephen Bannon, whose nativist ideology has influenced the so-called alt-right.

Throughout the weekend, conference speakers and attendees traded conspiracies and myths that vilified Muslims, immigrants, refugees and LGBT people.

The “Eagle Council” is the annual conference of the Eagle Forum, the political interest group founded by the influential and polarizing conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. The meeting in St. Louis from September 22 through 24 was the second of two rival Eagle Councils in two weeks, the result of an acrimonious split in Eagle Forum leadership after Schlafly endorsed Donald Trump during the 2016 election. When Schlafly died in September 2016, that disagreement led to a schism that tore the Eagle Forum in two. The pro-Trump faction, called Phyllis Schlafly Eagles, put on the St. Louis conference. The group includes Schlafly’s two sons, Andy and John, as well as Missouri Tea Party politician and Schlafly ally Ed Martin.

Horowitz set a paranoid tone early, delivering a speech at dinner on Friday that imagined an America pushed to the brink of Civil War by a malevolent, powerful “Left.” He told the audience that leftist operatives were driven by an ideological framework they call “Cultural Marxism.” In reality, Cultural Marxism is a conspiracy born on the far fringes of the extreme right that alleges a secret and sinister plan by the left to destroy Western culture.

He also indulged in a common refrain of right wing victimhood, that America does indeed have a problem with racism — against whites. In a lengthy diatribe against the phrase “people of color,” Horowitz complained that this designation automatically “gets you at the front of the line” in the United States.

“Pirates in Africa, cannibals … beheaders, public beheaders in Syria — they’re all people of color,” he said. “White people are the bad people.”

Horowitz’s remarks were just the beginning. The rest of the weekend was a parade of wild theories and fictions. Maria Espinoza of the Remembrance Project claimed undocumented immigrants are committing murder with impunity. At the same session, a speaker compared Muslim refugees to the alien invaders in the film Independence Day who come to destroy Earth. He fielded questions and comments from attendees about sharia law in America and the false narrative that Europe is at the mercy of Muslim rape gangs.

“Europe is dead,” one participant fretted. “It just doesn’t know it’s dead.”

Babette Francis, a radical conservative from Australia, flew in to deliver a talk called “Islam: The Political Enemy,” where she repeatedly compared Islam to Nazism and said Muslims should free themselves by converting to Christianity.

It wouldn’t have been a proper Eagle Council without a few potshots at some of Schlafly’s oldest targets: feminists and LGBT people. David Usher, president of the anti-LGBT Center for Marriage Policy, said “alligator feminists” had a stranglehold on national policy. He traced some of this omnipotence to Barack Obama’s Council on Women and Girls.

“When he announced the office, he took every ranking NOW lesbian and put them on that committee,” Usher said. “So you have all of the worst, nastiest lesbians in the whole country in the White House.”

The conference also hosted Janet Porter, who spoke on Saturday about outlawing abortion. Her organization, Faith2Action, is designated an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center because she has characterized LGBT people as diseased, violent and mentally ill. She has also said Noah’s flood in the Bible was God’s response to gay marriage, and she predicted in 2015 that if the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, the decision would prompt the Second Coming of Christ.

On Sunday, many attendees traded their blazers and ties for Infowars T-shirts. Bannon arrived to receive an award and headline a small rally featuring a series of far-right unknowns with political aspirations. Among them was Paul Nehlen, a Wisconsin Republican who challenged Paul Ryan in the 2016 primary and is looking for a rematch in 2018. In a question and answer session on Reddit in August, Nehlen said he thinks the Pizzagate conspiracy is real. In that same conversation, he belittled a participant by calling them “amazingly retarded.”

To some degree, propagating these kinds of far-fetched conspiracies is in keeping with Schlafly’s legacy of anti-intellectual conservatism. One of Schlafly’s favorite accessories during her heyday — along with her characteristic string of pearls and prim, perfectly coiffed hairstyle — was a proverbial tinfoil hat. She once accused the Truman administration of selling nuclear intelligence to foreign Communists and running a secret program to brainwash the American public. And no matter what the topic, her rhetoric painted her political enemies as nefarious agents hell-bent on destroying America.

But in the era of fake news and alternative facts, outlandish claims and baseless accusations coming from the Eagle Council are no longer just occasional outbursts from an extreme political interest group. They feed into a dangerous ecosystem of conspiracy that has found fertile ground across all factions of the radical right.