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In life, observers overlooked writer, editor and political activist Midge Decter, focusing more on her pugnacious husband, Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine from 1960 to 1995. But Decter’s death, on May 9, has led to renewed attention for this “architect of neoconservatism.”

This attention is welcome because Decter’s writings were indispensable to unifying the conservative movement and help explain the twists and turns of conservatism in the late-20th and early-21st centuries — including the embrace of Donald Trump.

Born in Minnesota, Decter moved to New York at age 19 after dropping out of college. She briefly studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) before taking a job as a secretary at the newly launched Commentary. After a short first marriage, which produced two children, she reconnected with Podhoretz — an old acquaintance. They married in 1956 and had two more children. She quit working because child care cost more than her salary.

At first glance, Decter epitomized two histories tied to the rise of conservatism in the 1970s. She and Podhoretz were among the leading wave of “neoconservatives,” formerly liberal intellectuals who shifted politically rightward by the early 1970s in response to 1960s radicalism and what they saw as the excesses of liberalism under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs. Decter was a champion of social conservatism and “family values” — which emerged in the 1970s as a backlash against the demands of the women’s rights movement.

But in reality, Decter’s history reveals far more complexity in what drove the rise of neoconservatism — and especially social conservatism. Her writings make clear that her political metamorphosis predated these standard timelines by at least a decade. Additionally, unlike many on the right, her politics were not rooted in Christianity (she was a secular Jew).

Instead, a devotion to mid-century Freudianism, which advocated “maturity” through heterosexuality and marriage, compelled Decter to speak out against what she saw as an assault on masculinity and the nuclear family long before these charges became common refrains among opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment, legalized abortion, women in the workplace and the gay rights movement in the 1970s. Decter, in fact, took to her soapbox even before publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963 — a book widely considered to have launched the modern feminist movement, which critics saw as an assault on the traditional nuclear family. She balked at 1960s radicalism from the start and was a champion of “family values” before the term even existed.

Decter, for example, defended the traditional capitalist male breadwinner economy and families like hers as early as 1960. She lamented that marriage had evolved from “an institution founded on solid rock which creates a rational economic organization for the family” into something focused on “relationships” and “we-feelings.” Where marriage had once “thrust [men] into adulthood and responsibility,” its modern — feminized — guise was emasculating them.

A year later, when John F. Kennedy assembled a Presidential Commission on the Status of Women to study sex discrimination, Decter flatly dismissed the problem. In 1964, she added a new element to her critique, warning that women were increasingly opting out of heterosexuality and that lesbianism was a growing “popular new form of female chastity.”

Although her motives were different from the Christian champions of the New Right, which emerged to fight the demands made by the growing women’s liberation movement, these demands only made Decter’s positions more strident. In 1972 — as the battles against feminist-backed legal abortion and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution heated up — she published “The New Chastity and other Arguments Against Women’s Liberation,” followed by a broader attack on the New Left, “Liberal Children and Radical” (1975).

Perhaps Decter’s most famous essay was “The Boys on the Beach,” written in 1980, which was a vicious polemic about gays and lesbians — even by the standards of the time. Decter accused gay men of deriding both sexes. Gay men, she wrote, impersonated women (through dress and manners) to “appropriate the advantages of girlishness.” At the same time, “their smooth and elegant exteriors,” unhampered by the stresses of family life, mocked straight men.

Decter’s analysis of traditional gender roles and heterosexuality filtered into neoconservative foreign policy. In 1977, Podhoretz blamed gay writers for “Vietnam Syndrome,” a conservative critique that America had become so weak and emasculated that it could no longer flex its military muscle abroad.

In 1981, Decter became executive director of the Committee for the Free World, an anti-communist organization she helped found which sought to “alter the climate of confusion and complacency, apathy and self-denigration, that has done much to weaken Western democracies.” Decter’s turn to foreign affairs reflected the direction of neoconservatism by the 1980s.

This focus reached its apotheosis some two decades later with the presidency of George W. Bush, whose foreign policy team was stocked with a younger generation of neoconservatives, explaining why much of the early domestic culture wars’ emphasis of neoconservatives faded from memory. Yet, Decter’s thinking provided a clear tie between the two. While she had shifted her emphasis, Decter maintained a laserlike focus on what she saw as the key problem plaguing American culture — the slow erosion of the nuclear family and traditional gender roles.

That made Bush’s swaggering, assertive response to 9/11 appealing to Decter. In 2003, she published a hagiography of Donald H. Rumsfeld, Bush’s secretary of defense and key architect of the invasion of Iraq, which lauded his manliness. “The key to [Rumsfeld] is that he is a wrestler,” Decter told the New Yorker. As she put it, “A wrestler is a lone figure. He battles one on one, and he either wins or loses.”

When Trump campaigned in 2015, his “America First” slogan was seen as rebuke of the interventionist neoconservative foreign policy agenda that Decter had pushed for a half-century. It harked back to an isolationist, nativist and antisemitic group that opposed America’s entry into World War II. Prominent neoconservatives were avowed anti-Trumpers, including William Kristol, son of two prominent neocons, and John Podhoretz, Decter’s own son. Other neocons might not have liked Trump but were willing to serve in his administration to shape its foreign policy.

As for Norman Podhoretz and Decter? In a 2019 interview Podhoretz said that he initially opposed Trump because he sounded too much like “a protectionist, a nativist, and an isolationist.” Moreover, when Trump “said that they lied us into Iraq, I thought, ‘well, to hell with him.’ ”

Yet over the course of Trump’s presidency, Podhoretz became troubled by the vitriol directed against Trump and became “anti-anti-Trump.” Moreover, Podhoretz admired Trump: He “fights back. … If you hit him, he hits back.” “When I was a kid, you would rather be beaten up than back away from a fight. The worst thing in the world you could be called was a sissy.” Trump was no “sissy.”

While Decter did not make her views of Trump known, her book on Rumsfeld made clear where she stood when it came to swaggering masculinity. Trump embodied her vision of American manhood. In many ways, her writings on both domestic affairs and foreign policy — stretching back decades — and their influence on American conservatism helped explain why conservatives found Trump so stylistically appealing. Her thinking also revealed that the desire for a Trump-like figure exuding masculinity extended beyond the religious right and helped unify the various strands of conservatism.

Decter’s defense of traditional gender roles, heterosexual marriage and polemics against homosexuality, in fact, exemplified that “common ground” existed within the various strands of conservatism, according to Edwin J. Feulner Jr., founder and former president of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

While Decter never received the spotlight during her life, anyone who wants to understand the twists and turns of conservatism over the last half-century need look no further than her writings.

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