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Wisconsin and the politics of resentment

On Point continues to explore populism in our series The power of populism. In this episode, Wisconsin and the politics of resentment.

“It did feel for a while as if Wisconsin was ground zero in American politics. In many ways a precursor of the kind of hyper-polarization that we later saw all around the country,” Charlie Sykes says.

How has populism flourished in the Badger state?

Today, On Point: The power of populism in Wisconsin.

Guests

Charlie Sykes, founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark, a centrist website. Host of The Bulwark podcast. Author of the 2017 book How the Right Lost Its Mind. (@SykesCharlie)

Shawn Johnson, state capitol bureau chief at Wisconsin Public Radio. Also co-host of the Derailed podcast from Wisconsin Public Radio. (@SJohnsonWPR)

Also Featured

Kathy Cramer, American politics professor and Natalie C. Holton chair of letters and science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Author of The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.

Show Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Episode three: Wisconsin and the politics of resentment. Charlie Sykes is founder and editor at large of The Bulwark. He’s host of The Bulwark Podcast. He’s also author of How the Right Lost its Mind. And he knows more than a thing or two about Wisconsin. He’s in Milwaukee now and he’s a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. And there’s another specific reason why he knows a lot about Wisconsin, which we’ll talk about in a second. But first, Charlie. Welcome back to On Point.

CHARLIE SYKES: It’s good to be with you.

CHAKRABARTI: So do you think that the Wisconsin of the past ten or 15 years is a good example of the politics of resentment? And if so, why?

SYKES: Yes, I do think it’s a good example, because we have been a microcosm of American politics for some time now. I think for the last decade and a half, you could describe Wisconsin as being ground zero for many of the developments that we’ve seen nationally. But as usual, Wisconsin politics is very complicated. Our legacy is more of progressivism than it is of populism. But clearly, you can’t discuss what’s happened here without talking about this politics of resentment and the way that it has been weaponized in the era of Donald Trump.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, So that’s exactly why we wanted to focus on the Badger State today. So how would you define what the politics of resentment is and how it emerges or plays out in Wisconsin?

SYKES: Well, I think part of the problem that we have here in Wisconsin is that you do have a lot of the voters who feel that they have been neglected, they feel they have been overlooked or they’ve been looked down upon and they see the world passing them by and they’re looking for some explanation for that. They’re looking for someone to blame for that.

And so you are seeing this in rural areas of Wisconsin where people are looking around and going, okay, so as globalization helped me, are the political parties actually talking about people like me or are they taking me for granted? Or even worse, are they looking down on people like me with contempt? So if someone can tap into that sense of resentment that I am being victimized, I am being treated unfairly, I am not able to benefit by, you know, the prosperity and things that are happening around me the way that I think that I deserve. And of course, there’s long traditions of all of this, but it’s flared up really in the last decade and a half.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So we’re going to talk about why, as you’re saying, the sense of resentment has been there for a long time. But why it’s become electorally successful. And then specifically in Wisconsin. That’s what we’re going to focus on this hour. But as I mentioned a little earlier, Charlie, there’s another reason why you were one of the experts on Wisconsin politics and we were really thrilled to have you back on the show today. And that reason is this.

… From ’93 to 2016, you hosted a conservative talk show on W-TMJ in Wisconsin. And so, I mean, what kind of stuff did you hear over that time that might have given you a little bit of an inkling that this resentment was going to sort of burst forth and be become a major political force in Wisconsin?

SYKES: Well, I’ll note that I do remember that show that you’re particularly playing for. If it was 2000 before that, one of the guests I had on that program was Condoleezza Rice. So we trace the trajectory of Wisconsin conservatism from people like Condoleezza Rice to Donald Trump in 2016. And look, as I said before, I was taken by surprise by the turn that the right took in 2015 and 2016. There were many things that I think that we should have paid more attention to, that we should have watched that took a different took a different direction over those many years.

I really did think that I understood what the conservative movement was, what was motivating people. And as 2016 played out, it became increasingly obvious that there were perhaps things that I did not understand, that things that we talked about were not being heard in the same kind of way. Wisconsin was one of the last states to resist Trumpism. He did not do well here. He was beaten in the Wisconsin primary by double digits.

But as 2016 played out, what became apparent was that the partisan divide was so strong, the tribal poll was so intense that even voters who had not been willing to go along with that populist resentment message that Donald Trump was bringing fell back into line. And we’ve seen that accelerate since then. So we’ve seen things that were there as a preexisting condition. But then we’ve also seen the way in which it was like throwing kerosene on a smoldering fire, and it has accelerated since then.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. But it’s that dramatic shift that I want to explore over the course of this hour, because to add to the points that you made, Barack Obama won Wisconsin, right?

SYKES: Twice.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, twice. So something really powerfully changed there. But I just can’t let go of your remarkable past as a radio host. And I think we got a little bit more here. This is again from 2004 and you’re talking to a caller named Patty. And by the way, since I am located here in Boston, I’ve just got to say that 2004 was the year the Red Sox won the World Series.

SYKES [Tape]: The great part about the playoffs this year in the World Series and why I’m a little bit again. The only downside I can come up with is it would have been nice to have had a few more games because just for a few hours we don’t all have to obsess about this presidential election because, you know, I think without things like the World Series, I think that millions of Americans heads will explode in the next 48 hours.

PATTY [Tape]: Well, I think you’re right. And I’m honestly a former Democrat from Massachusetts and now a conservative Republican in Wisconsin, and I think I called my mom to try to turn a have returned to C-SPAN because I’ve even gotten her, she’s going to vote for George Bush. She already voted absentee.

SYKES [Tape]: So, Patty, you’re a recovering liberal. Just like me. I don’t describe myself as a conservative. I just describe myself as a recovering liberal.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Charlie Sykes on his talk show in Milwaukee in 2004. Aside from that brief, fantastic moment in time when the Sox won the World Series, I was really fascinated to hear Patty say she was a former Democrat from Massachusetts, but now a conservative Republican in Wisconsin. So in 2004, what did it actually mean to be a conservative Republican in Wisconsin?

SYKES: Well before the current era. I think that Wisconsin’s conservatism was reformist. The longtime governor of Wisconsin was Tommy Thompson, who worked across the aisle, had strong bipartisan support, was able to engage with Democrats on a variety of things, including welfare reform and education reform. Of course, he was out of office by 2004. In 2004, Republicans were not really in power. They didn’t come into really controlling Wisconsin government for another half decade. But it was not the kind of, you know, virulent tribalism that we have now.

When you think about Wisconsin Republicans, the dominant, you know, figures in Wisconsin politics, you know, going back into that particular with people like Paul Ryan, whatever you think about Paul Ryan, Paul Ryan was not part of that, that populist movement necessarily. But see, as we discussed this, I think back to your question and I wonder what was simmering there, what was simmering beneath the surface. I remember, you know, after the 2016 election, I had a long conversation on the air with George Will.

And we were both saying that, you know, we had thought we understood, you know, conservatism was about small government, that it was about fiscal conservatism, but it was about personal responsibility. It was about, you know, believing the character mattered. And it turned out that many of those things were much thinner than we had perhaps imagined. And there were a lot of things that we did not see or understand.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Back in 2007, Kathy Cramer wanted to better understand how social class identity affected how people understand politics. And decided to use Wisconsin as her test state. Because she’s from the Badger state. She’s now a professor of American politics at the University of Wisconsin- Madison.

Cramer chose about 30 different communities across Wisconsin — a mix of small towns, suburbs, and cities with different kinds of industries, et cetera. Then she called around to local newspaper editors and asked them where should she go to talk with a group of regulars? A diner? Some place like that? She got a surprising answer … nope, not a diner. The place to go was the local gas station.

KATHY CRAMER: The smaller town paper editors would say, like, “Well, you know, Joe’s Gas and Sip like 5:00 every morning. That’s where you go. And so then I would just go online, look up at the closest Super 8. Stay overnight. Get up. Drive over to a gas station and take a deep breath and walk in.

CHAKRABARTI: And she found local residents, gathered inside, having their morning coffee … and talking. So, for several years, Cramer returned often and spent time with the people there, listening to how they talked about their lives.

CRAMER: What I heard in the smaller places was new to me and seemed politically really important because in a variety of places around the state, in these smaller places, rural communities, people were basically saying, “We do not get our fair share. Like, we don’t get our fair share of political power, of attention, like people don’t come here. They don’t ask us what’s going on.

“We don’t get our fair share of resources because all the good jobs are in the cities. It seems like all the good infrastructure’s in the cities. Like, our taxes are going up and it sure doesn’t seem like it’s coming back here. Our towns are dying. Our schools are struggling. And we don’t get our fair share of respect because you city people who make all the decisions, you don’t know us. You don’t understand what our lives are like and the challenges that we face. And you think we’re all racist and sexist and backward and uneducated. We see ourselves as good, hardworking Americans and we’re not getting what we deserve.”

CHAKRABARTI: Recall, Cramer started this project back in 2007. She called this phenomenon “rural consciousness.” Then, in 2010, as she was getting ready to finish up her book on this idea, Scott Walker kicked off his campaign for governor. Cramer noticed something familiar about how Walker was selling his candidacy.

CRAMER: He was Milwaukee County executive at the time, and he was running against Milwaukee, is … pitching himself very much as “I’m with you, like good Wisconsinites, I’m running against the city. I bring a brown bag to work every day. I’m super frugal.”

CHAKRABARTI: Cramer said Walker framed the cities of Madison and Milwaukee as the “haves” and those in the rest of Wisconsin as the “have nots.”

CRAMER: The facts are quite different, particularly for Milwaukee. Almost a quarter of Milwaukee residents live below the poverty line, in comparison to 10% across the entire state of Wisconsin. Milwaukee has the second-highest poverty rate among the 50 most populated cities in the country. Almost 40% of Milwaukee’s population is Black…compared to 12% of Wisconsin.

CHAKRABARTI: Nevertheless, Walker amplified his haves-have nots message. … He went after a plan for a high-speed rail between Madison and Milwaukee. He argued Wisconsin taxpayers were unfairly shouldering the cost for state employee benefits.

Cramer calls this the politics of resentment. Then, after Cramer published her book, Donald Trump came along.

CRAMER: He did a similar thing in a very different way. But he also said, “You’re right to be so pissed off, you do deserve more. And you know what? It’s their fault.” And he pointed his finger to what? Immigrants, uppity women, lefty urban people. He resonated with that sense of, “Something is really off here like, we’ve been working really hard and. Living life the way people in this community have been living it for generations.

And we cannot make ends meet and no one’s listening to us and we’re really upset about it.” A savvy politician, a populist politician, can come in and say, “You’re right. And not only should you be resentful, but you should be angry, and you should hate them and they suck because look what they’re taking from you.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Kathy Cramer, author of “The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.”

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Charlie Sykes. Well, so much of what Cathy said is really interesting to me, specifically the idea that Scott Walker was running against the city of Milwaukee. I mean, you’re in Milwaukee today. … I wonder, like, why did it stick? Why did that message, which wasn’t necessarily grounded in fact, stick with so many Wisconsin voters?

SYKES: Well, he usually would pair it with running against both Milwaukee and against Madison. You know, the Madison elites. And part of it was, you know, I am the brown bag guy versus the elites. And when you look at it in Milwaukee, you know, there’s several different levels. I mean, a lot of the resources of the state did go into Milwaukee and into Madison and came there. But also, you know, in retrospect, as you look back on it, what he was doing was he was trying to weaponize, you know, the issue of crime, the issue of social dysfunction.

Clearly, there’s a racial division here in Wisconsin, very small minority population, you know, compared to other major states, but heavily concentrated in southeastern Wisconsin. So that was certainly part of it. But it was not on the forefront the way that Donald Trump pushed it to the forefront, where Donald Trump came in and specifically said, you are the forgotten Americans and it is because of the Mexicans who are coming here for your jobs, for your women.

… It is all of these folks that are threatening. And he really was able to leverage that sense that the people felt victimized and treated unfairly. So while Walker sort of tiptoed toward it, Trump put it on speed dial and accelerated it.

Okay. So that actually, in a sense, predicts what my next question was going to be to you, Charlie, because we should walk back in time a little bit with recent Wisconsin Republican politics in particular. So there’s Trump who threw, you know, fuel on the fire. Scott Walker, I guess you could say he helped that fire smolder. But what about with Tommy Thompson? I mean, how different was Tommy Thompson from Governor Scott Walker?

SYKES: There were very, very different figures tied to Tommy, came from a very different political generation. I mean, he was also from rural Wisconsin. He was also, you know, willing to play that card. When there was a big fight over whether or not to fund a Brewer stadium in Milwaukee. He campaigned outside. He was supporting it, but one of the lines that he used was, You should stick it to them, stick it to Milwaukee, make them pay for it. So he was capable of doing it.

But Tommy was also able to work on a bipartisan basis, whereas when Scott Walker became governor and he had big majorities in the legislature, he decided that he was going to move at ramming speed, that he was going to embrace radical change. Tommy always managed and again, you know, Tommy did some pretty big things here, but he always was able to have Democratic support. You can draw a real line here in Wisconsin, the politics before 2011 and after 2011, because after 2011, nothing was done on a bipartisan basis. And as a result, the partisan divisions became much deeper. They became much more defined and they became more tribal. It really became us versus them. So all of this was a preexisting condition. It was always there, but it accelerated in those years.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. Okay. So when you say that Scott Walker kind of went at things at ramming speed, you mean you’re talking specifically about one of then Governor Walker’s first actions. Which was to go after the state public employee unions, right?

SYKES: Yes. This was Act Ten. And this was something pretty much in his first month, one month in office that would have stripped most public employees of their collective bargaining rights.

CHAKRABARTI: … Charlie, I got to ask you, I mean, you were a very prominent a radio host during all of this time in Wisconsin. I presume you talk to Scott Walker very frequently. I mean, did you ever get a sense from him about why he decided to run his campaign in this way? I mean, did he come from those people who had that sense of resentment? Was it a political calculus and what was it?

SYKES: Well, it’s interesting that he did not actually raise this issue during his election campaign in 2010, which took some people by surprise. This was the kind of thing that had been talked about by people like Chris Christie in New Jersey. It had been broached among conservative think tank wonks. If you could dial down the power of the public employee unions.

And I think he acknowledged this afterwards. He did not prepare public opinion for this. This was not something that people talked about. You know, let’s go after public employees. Let’s destroy the public employee unions. And yet, obviously, it set off an absolute conflagration in Wisconsin. I mean, it was you had recall elections, recalls of state legislators, a recall election of Scott Walker. You had tens of thousands of people descending on Madison.

CHAKRABARTI: And that’s probably why he didn’t talk about it when he was running.

SYKES: I don’t think he anticipated that it was going to be as contentious as it was. I think he thought he would be able to push it through quickly and then just simply move on. It was a miscalculation on his part and he acknowledged that afterwards. But what was interesting was at the time when it happened, it did surprise people that he was putting all of this capital into this particular issue.

And the public opinion polls did not show that the Wisconsin residents supported all of this. And there were people in the Republican Party that thought that he should back off from this, that it was, you know, spending too much political capital. And I’ve thought a lot about what this did to Wisconsin politics, because at a certain point, the fight over Act ten was not about collective bargaining rights. The fight became about the fight, by which I mean, this was one of those moments where people became deeply engaged because it was our side versus the other side, and it was red versus blue, us versus them.

And it became very tribal. If you asked people, you know, in the diners or at the gas stations, what do you think about Act 10? Would you think about collective bargaining rights? You know, I don’t know that this was something that people were talking about over their cringles. But what they were talking about was, whose side are you on? And that’s been the real legacy of that period, the partisan loyalties became so deeply ingrained and the hostility to the other side so deeply ingrained.

And I think that when you again, look back at what happened in 2016 and afterwards, you see the fruits of that. That Republicans felt so, you know, deeply loyal to their tribe, they were willing to go along with anything. I was actually talking to a Republican legislature legislator in the last week, and he said, you know, nobody in the Republican base remembers Act 10 anymore. They don’t care about it. They don’t talk about it. They don’t think about it. What they remember is the fight, is that we were under siege, and we pushed back. And that’s where you really got the intensity and the division in Wisconsin politics.

CHAKRABARTI: So resentment then sort of metastasized into full blown tribalism. But again, you know, in a sense, people were primed for the fight. So let’s listen to what Scott Walker said in 2010 after giving a victory speech. Or I’m sorry, this is his victory speech after winning the Republican nomination for governor. And you’ll hear him reference then Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle.

SCOTT WALKER [Tape]: Because of this primary, we are tested and we are ready to take on the liberals in Madison. Tonight, I also want to speak beyond this room to those individuals across the state who voted for Mark Neumann to tell you, we have a lot in common. We each want to stop the Doyle disaster and we each want to put the government back in the hands of the people.

CHAKRABARTI: Scott Walker in 2010. So a little more us vs. them language in a more extreme version followed in 2016 with of course, Donald Trump. And here he is in West Bend, Wisconsin.

DONALD TRUMP [Tape]: Aren’t you tired of a system that gets rich at your expense? Because that’s what’s happening. Aren’t you tired of big media, big businesses and big donors rigging the system to keep your voice from being heard? Are you ready for change?

CHAKRABARTI: Donald Trump in 2016 in Wisconsin. Okay, so, Charlie, what I’m trying to get a sense of and so when we’re talking about, you know, the politics of resentment and how it plays out in in populism, the cracks were already there. Did you know Scott Walker and then, of course, other members of the Republican Party in Wisconsin as they fell in line with Donald Trump? Did they do so because they were true believers, or they had their finger on the pulse in a way that you even admit you didn’t have. And they just saw this as a as a winning electoral strategy.

SYKES: No, I think that they saw this as a winning electoral strategy. And keep in mind, you know, that Walker and his entire political operation, were strongly anti-Trump until they were pro-Trump. I mean, Trump came in and trashed Walker. But, yes, I mean, and I think that this is part of the part of the dynamic, is that that you need to go along with all of this to be part of the tribe.

But, you know, that soundbite you played from Donald Trump in West Bend, I remember that speech. You know, convincing people that you’re being screwed, that it is being rigged. It’s interesting that you would hear similar messages from, say, Bernie Sanders, but it was only Donald Trump and the Republicans that were able to really set that on fire here in Wisconsin.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Joining us now from Madison, Wisconsin, is Shawn Johnson. He’s the state capital bureau chief at Wisconsin Public Radio and co-host of the Derailed podcast. Shawn, welcome to you on Point.

SHAWN JOHNSON: Hi, thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So what I still can’t quite get a handle on, and maybe it’s because I don’t fully understand Wisconsin as well as I should, is Charlie has been talking about the fact that there was always something smoldering under the surface. And then it turns into this conflagration of resentment and politically successful resentment. How do you think that happened? Where were folks getting their language from about us versus them, about Madison and Milwaukee versus the rest of the state? I mean, something supersized, all that.

JOHNSON: I think it takes the right situation for that message to work. And when Scott Walker was running for governor back in 2010, you had an economy that was just coming out of the Great Recession. And so people were feeling that acutely everywhere. But certainly in Wisconsin, the unemployment rate was high. The economy was struggling. And so his message had kind of welcome ears out there. People felt it. So when he talked about the election in terms of us versus them or framed the public versus private sector as an us versus them message, it worked.

CHAKRABARTI: When it comes to American politics, as we all know, there’s of course, there’s policy, there’s money, there’s tribalism, as Charlie was talking about. But I also wonder and Charlie, I’ve just got to go there. I’m going to ask Sean this. Sean, what role do you think the media played, including folks like Charlie who were on the radio for a quarter century in Milwaukee?

You know, Charlie Sykes and Scott Walker definitely talked a lot. And, you know, I would say that Charlie played a big role in having Scott Walker, you know, win the nomination, become governor. I’m not saying that he officially endorsed or anything like that. I don’t remember the particulars. But Scott Walker was a frequent guest on Charlie Sykes’ show. I think you could point to Ron Johnson’s candidacy. He’s our U.S. senator now, just won a third term, got his start kind of with Charlie Sykes. And so he was a major factor in conservative politics for many years. And so that was where Scott Walker often would go to get his message out. He talked to the rest of us, too. But, you know, that was I think one of his preferred mediums was, you know, conservative talk radio in southeast Wisconsin, where his political base lived at the time. Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: Charlie, you want to talk about that? You want to respond to that?

SYKES: No, that’s totally true. It’s totally fair. Mea culpa. No, I have that emblazoned on my resume. And part of the problem is trying to think like, okay, so I thought we were talking about X, but perhaps it was playing differently in different parts of the state. And the thing about, you know, you’re saying you’re having a hard time getting your handle on Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is, I’m sorry, is a weird place. Because there are different Wisconsin’s. You know, we are the state gives you Joe McCarthy, but also Robert La Follette, the Progressive era. You know, we are, you know, the state that has, you know, really intensely liberal areas like, for example, you know, Dane County, but also intensely conservative areas like Waukesha. So it’s easy to look at Wisconsin and feel like it’s being schizophrenic. But I think that what Kathy Cramer was tapping into was part of the state that a lot of us weren’t paying attention to, that we didn’t understand at that particular time that we were focused on the politics of Madison and Milwaukee.

But everything that John is saying is true. And I look back on all of that and, you know, I try to think that we were talking about ideas, but I would be incredibly naive for me to think that I did not contribute to all of that. And this is something that I think a lot about. You know, to what extent did we contribute to what happened? I mean, I opposed Donald Trump as strongly as I could have from 2015 to 2016.

I thought I understood what the audience believed and what their values were. And then to watch them slide over made me think that perhaps my understanding was not as complete as I imagined it was. So, I mean, I had people that I had thought I knew for 20 years who were suddenly believing things and saying things and adopting values. That shocked me. And perhaps they should not have done.

CHAKRABARTI: What did you believe their values were?

SYKES: I thought they actually were that this was Wisconsin, that Wisconsinites were serious believers in responsible, good government, personal responsibility. That character mattered, believed in common sense, like policies that in fact worked, were suspicious of, you know, people who had, you know, believed that they had all of the answers in public policy, but that generally Wisconsin had a long tradition of good government, of sound government. We were leaders in everything.

Wisconsin was a leader during the Progressive era, and many of the policies that led to the New Deal. We were leaders in education reform. This was a thoughtful place. This was the kind of state where someone like a Paul Ryan would come out of. And by the way, I certainly did not anticipate that Ron Johnson would become what he did. And again, Mea culpa there.

CHAKRABARTI: But to be clear, even Paul Ryan eventually capitulated to Trumpism. And then resigned from the House because I presume, he didn’t want to deal with it anymore. But the reason why I wanted to ask about the media’s role is because what you’re saying, Charlie and Sean reminded me of something of an experience I had several years ago. We visited Pennsylvania and we were in western Pennsylvania, and I was having this terrific conversation with a local voter. She was very thoughtful.

We were talking about the economy in her town and sort of the changes she’s seen in the fortunes of her family. You know, who she wanted to vote for, talked even about immigration. And, you know, she asked me where I was from. I was like, well, my parents are immigrants, etc. And it was really great. And then all of a sudden, out of the blue, I can’t even remember what triggered it. But this language came from her about the globalists. It just started pouring out from her. And all of a sudden, I was like, Did someone hit a play button in her head for Fox News?

It was like just like that. And the suddenness of it, I think, was something that folks, including those of us in this conversation right now just don’t or didn’t fully understand. But Shawn, I want to take that into today. I mean, how would you assess the Republican Party in Wisconsin today and its embrace of now the Trumpist version of populism?

JOHNSON: I think the Republican Party in Wisconsin today is trying to decide what its relationship is, with Donald Trump. I mean, when Donald Trump initially ran, you know, Charlie mentioned that he did not win the presidential primary here, and that also was very much a Charlie Sykes operation, as I remember it, too. He was very much behind Ted Cruz in Wisconsin. And for a time there, you had Wisconsin Republicans wouldn’t even say Donald Trump’s name in public.

So in our state party convention, I remember that year in 2016, all these Republican notables in Wisconsin would get up on the stage. They would not say Donald Trump. That’s kind of how things started once he became the nominee. And the choice was between Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. They got behind Donald Trump. And then after four years of his presidency, I think you would say Wisconsin Republicans were firmly behind Donald Trump.

I think you’re seeing a little transition now because they feel like Donald Trump post-presidency cost them some, you know, gains potential gains in the midterm elections and that he is more potentially harmful for them than good going forward. The thing is, you know, the he could win the primary again and we could be kind of the story could be is repeating itself. And so I think that’s where Wisconsin Republicans are today, is what are we going to do with, you know, this giant figure that’s in our life and isn’t going anywhere?

CHAKRABARTI: But, Shawn, what you’re saying is, when you say post-presidency, you mean after he lost. … Losing was the thing that had folks being ready, willing to jump off the Trump train, but they could jump back on if he wins again.

JOHNSON: I think they were still with him after 2020. I think two years of him talking about, you know, falsely claiming the election had been taken from him. And then the 2022 midterm losses, when you finally heard Republicans in Wisconsin start to say, we need to move on from Donald Trump.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, Charlie, though, But there’s something interesting about the alignment of various different kinds of Wisconsin Republicans under the populist banner of Trumpism that I know you’ve talked about before. And that is, if I have this right, that very quickly, the sort of grass roots populists and the more traditional sort of corporate free market Republicans were rowing in the same direction. Is that right?

SYKES: Yes. But there’s obviously some tension between them. There’s no question about that. And there still remains tension between them.

CHAKRABARTI: But I wonder, I mean, why do you think that’s significant?

SYKES: I had a conversation with a leading Republican recently, and the conversation began with me saying, if only you had been warned. But he was describing that the normie Republicans in Wisconsin really want to move on, that the vast majority of, say, state legislators were not part of the MAGA world, that they were more aligned with the, you know, the free market approach, you know, post-Trump approach.

But the problem, of course, is that the normies continue to empower the extremists, and they are unwilling to step up and, you know, push back against them. And you asked the question about the media, and this can’t be overstated here. So he was describing the problem of dealing with the Republican grassroots. And he said, you know, people will come up to me and they’ll have these weird conspiracy theories, these wacky ideas about the election, and they’ll say, well, where did you get that?

And they’ll say, Well, I saw it RisingPatriotEagle.com YouTube channel. And he said there’s all of these sources out there that we cannot counter and there’s no way that we can push back. And this of course was my experience because I thought when I was in conservative talk radio that we were sort of the other point of view, but that other people would hear from the mainstream media.

What happened, you know, and it accelerated throughout 2016 and is continuing to accelerate is that, you know, the right has created this hermetically sealed alternative reality, which is like a silo. And increasingly it becomes difficult for anyone, whether you are on the outside or whether you are in the Republican Party, to push back against this flood of disinformation, misinformation and the kinds of, you know, you know, language that, you know, we feel like it’s been prefabricated.

And this is a real problem for the right, because there are no gatekeepers. There are no credible individuals who can say, okay, I’m sorry, that’s just not true. You cannot believe that. And unfortunately, Republicans still believe that they can control it, that they can grow the baby alligator in the bathtub, throw them a little bit of red meat, and then are shocked when that baby alligator grows up, becomes big, crawls out of the bathtub and starts going down the street and chasing them and that they’re going to be eaten.

So, for example, even Republicans who knew that Donald Trump lost were willing to go along with a bogus investigation of the election. They were willing to appease the election denialists. And this is part of the dynamic. That they cannot figure out how to lead the grassroots, when the grassroots has so much information being pumped to them by so many outlets. Fox News is just the tip of the iceberg. Talk radio is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s just so much more.

CHAKRABARTI: So this helps us sort of encapsulate once again why Wisconsin is such a good example of this modern form of right-wing populism that we’re seeing in the United States. Because, as you said, Charlie, if the quote-unquote, normies won’t push back against the extremists and there’s this tsunami of misinformation. Like, what needs to happen in order to curb the anti-democratic, sort of anti-democratic muscle of this form of populism?

And Shawn, I want to turn that to you, because in our first episode in this series, the answer to that question came from one of our guests who said, well, actually, in fact, what has to happen to save a democracy from extreme anti-democratic populism is that the quote-unquote, normies do have to push back against the extremists.

Are we actually maybe seeing some of that now in Wisconsin, given this recent state Supreme Court election?

JOHNSON: I think in the state Supreme Court election where our justices or judicial candidates don’t run with party labels. But the candidate that was, you know, supported by the Democrats … it was kind of Democrats using their own brand of populism in this race. It used to be these state Supreme Court races were pretty sleepy, low turnout affairs.

They’d talk about, you know, their approach to the law, who their favorite justice was, stuff like that. Janet Protasiewicz ran a campaign on really two issues. One, we have in Wisconsin this 1849 ban on abortion that went back into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. And every time she would talk about it, she’d say, look, I’m not saying how I would rule in this case. However, I believe in a woman’s right to choose. She would say this very forcefully and repeatedly. The other thing she would talk about, she would call our state’s Republican drawn legislative maps rigged.

And again, she’d say, I’m not saying what I would do if there was a case before a court, but I’d like to take another look at those maps. So how is it received by her voters? They were very energized. And if you went out and talked to [her] voters, they would list those two issues to you. And as particularly on the issue of abortion, they felt like a right that, you know, they had known some of them for their whole lives had been taken from them. And they viewed this election as a chance to get it back. And that’s almost solely how they viewed the election. So that’s kind of how you’ve seen Democrats respond recently in Wisconsin.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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