Commentary

Wisconsin Republicans step back from Trump, but Trumpism is alive and well

November 17, 2022 6:12 am
WAUKESHA, WISCONSIN - AUGUST 05: Former President Donald Trump greets supporters during a rally on August 05, 2022 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Former President Trump endorsed Republican candidate Tim Michels in the governor's race against candidate Rebecca Kleefisch, who is supported by former Vice President Mike Pence. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

WAUKESHA, WISCONSIN – AUGUST 05: Former President Donald Trump greets supporters during a rally on August 05, 2022 in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Former President Trump endorsed Republican candidate Tim Michels in the governor’s race against candidate Rebecca Kleefisch, who is supported by former Vice President Mike Pence. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Wisconsin Republicans are moving away from Trump. Who can blame them? Trump-endorsed candidates, among them GOP gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels, sustained heavy losses in the midterm elections. And Trump’s rambling, petulant speech announcing that he is running for president in 2024 was not exactly inspiring.

“Two years ago, we were a great nation,” Trump declared, but now “the blood-soaked streets of our once-great cities are cesspools of crime … the U.S. has been embarrassed, humiliated, and weakened.” 

It wasn’t exactly Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” speech. Instead, Trump delivered a rehash of his inaugural “American carnage” address. After more than a million deaths from COVID-19, Americans are getting weary of carnage — and of Trump’s obsessive sense of personal grievances. 

In the aftermath of last week’s election drubbing, Republicans were not delighted by the announcement or by Trump’s timing —  which might have had as much to do with his efforts to avoid criminal charges as it did with his “movement” to “make America great and glorious again.”

But if Republicans are done with Trump, it’s not at all clear that they are done with Trumpism.

There is something troubling about the way Wisconsin GOP leaders are shaking off Trump, as reported by Molly Beck and Lawrence Andrea in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as “a drag on our ticket” (former House Speaker Paul Ryan), a figure from “the past” (GOP consultant Brandon Sholz), and a “not … the strongest candidate” (Assembly Speaker Robin Vos). No one in the Wisconsin GOP is actually reckoning with what’s wrong with Trump and several Wisconsin Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Scott Fitzgerald and former Gov. Scott Walker, are hedging their bets, refusing to say they won’t ultimately support him. 

Former state party chair Andrew Hitt — one of the fake electors who cast phony electoral votes for Trump in an effort to subvert Wisconsin voters’ choice in the 2020 presidential election — now says it’s time to walk away and “recognize that new successful leaders will guide our party forward to victory.” 

Not so fast.

Of course Hitt and the rest of Trump’s enablers would prefer not to get into the gory details of the Jan. 6 insurrection or the subversion of democracy that voters roundly rejected at the polls last Tuesday.

But the Republicans have more than an image problem.

In his speech, which was widely panned as “low energy,” Trump rehearsed the false rhetoric and dangerous demagoguery of his last two campaigns, focusing on “illegal alien criminals” he said were swarming the country and “radical Democrats,” whom he described as “enemies within.” 

Instead of denouncing Trump’s scapegoating and authoritarianism, Republicans are treating it as stale and passé. That’s just not enough.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s presumed rival for the Republican presidential nomination, is imitating Trump, targeting immigrants and even luring asylum seekers onto an airplane bound for Martha’s Vineyard in a publicity stunt designed to shame Democratic voters by using bewildered families fleeing persecution as human litter, dropped on the beach.

That kind of disgusting, brazen bullying has become the new Republican brand.

It turns out that most Republicans can’t match Trump’s malignant narcissism. Here in Wisconsin Michels threatened not to accept the results of the governor’s race if it didn’t go his way, but then quickly folded his tent when it was clear he’d lost.

But if they are actually going to learn a lesson from the midterms, Republicans should realize that, as Vos put it, “Having a discussion about where society is and making sure that we are in tune with the majority in society is important.” Unfortunately, Vos made that point as he was explaining that he would support legislation requiring women and girls to produce police reports proving that they were victims of rape or incest before they’re allowed to have an abortion. “We have to work on winning the culture war,” Vos said, “but we also have to work on making sure that we have a position that is tenable and that makes sense to the vast majority of people.”

One lesson of the 2022 midterms is that “winning the culture war” is a losing proposition for Republicans. A large majority of Wisconsinites say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. And they demonstrated their displeasure with Wisconsin’s draconian 1849 abortion ban, and Republicans’ refusal to repeal it, last week. You don’t need a focus group to figure out that forcing women and girls to prove they are legitimate rape victims by producing a police report is not going to make those voters feel better.

Republicans need to renounce the ugly authoritarianism of the Trump era, or they will keep on turning off women, people of color, and the majority of Americans who never were in love with Trump.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.

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