Here’s why Koch-backed Scott Walker is an American dictator in waiting
Before Scott Walker officially announced his candidacy for president this month, he said he’d kill President Obama’s nuclear pact with Iran. A week after announcing, Walker said he had no compunction about killing Iranians, saying he was ready to go to war with Iran on “day one” of his presidency.
Walker’s war-mongering isn’t theoretical. In his home state of Wisconsin, his latest political assassination target is the blandly named Government Accountability Board, a bipartisan panel of judges whose mission is keeping state elections fair and corruption-free. The GAB sided with different Wisconsin prosecutors (Republicans and Democrats) who launched a probe into illegal campaigning by Walker and his right-wing allies. By the time lawsuits landed at the state’s Supreme Court, Walker’s benefactors had bankrolled successful high-court campaigns and had a sitting majority.
Thus, days before Walker officially announced his 2016 candidacy, the Court not only ruled 4-2 that the corruption probe was out-of-bounds, it also rewrote the state’s campaign finance laws to allow the very collusion that was seen as illegal under the prior law. Lincoln Caplan, a legal writer for The New Yorker, summed that ruling up as substituting “the misrule of politics for the rule of law.”
But Walker wasn’t satisfied with a hometown version of a Citizens United ruling, empowering the richest right-wing Wisconsin interest groups. Instead, he called for GAB’s head, urging the Republican-majority legislature to disband what is arguably the nation’s most reputable state election oversight board, and replace it with panel of political allies, mirroring his Supreme Court majority.
“Someday, a novelist with Wisconsin roots will tell the story of Walker’s engagement in squalid politics—and whether it carried him to the White House,” Caplan wrote. “Now, however, it is possible to document the close ties between the national network of major conservative donors backing Walker and the conservative lobbying groups that turned the Wisconsin court into a political tool.”
Whether waging war on his political enemies at home or fantasizing about attacking enemies abroad, Walker arguably is the most toxic authoritarian candidate in the Republican field. It’s insufficient to merely say that Walker likes to punish his enemies, or that he relishes sneak attacks, or that his career has been marked by the politics of fear, blame and divisiveness, and an inability to show restraint. All of these are true.
“I find [him] more Nixonian than even Richard Nixon himself (the authoritarian leader with whom I was, and am, so very familiar,” wrote ex-Nixon White House Counsel John Dean in April 2012, on the eve of a special gubernatorial recall election Walker won. “To me, it is clear that Wisconsin has a double high authoritarian governor, a conservative without conscience.”
Today, three years later, Walker is parading around the campaign trail like an American dictator in waiting. He has a lengthy record on so many issues that reveal the same pattern: pick fights, launch sneak attacks, smear and scapegoat opponents, and then punish the defeated, according to Wisconsin media analysts. But he also has the personality of an aspiring American tyrant, as Dean noted. Walker may not be Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy’s ghost, but he certainly is heir to that anti-communist crusader’s hateful lineage.
“Democracy and democratic institutions do not function well with dogmatic, unbending authoritarian leaders,” Dean wrote. “Authoritarians are great as dictators, and even at times benevolent. They are often outstanding at running businesses, and when serving as high-ranking officers in the military, not to mention law enforcement. But they are failures as presidents and governors, and… dangerous to democracy.”
The Pattern: Incite, Sow Fear, Attack, Punish
There is a method to his madness—or his angry politics. Walker is best known outside of Wisconsin for his anti-union crusades as governor. Once elected, he did the bidding of his libertarian sponsors, including the Koch brothers, by passing Act 10 in a state budget crisis. That law did not merely raise revenues but stripped most state employee unions of collective bargaining rights (pro-GOP police and firefighters were exempt) and cut state contributions to health plans and pensions. The anti-union attack prompted the 2012 recall, which he won against a lackluster Democrat. Back in office, Walker waited for revenge.
After his 2014 re-election, he and the GOP-led legislature surprised the public by passing a “right-to-work” law, further undermining unions. They didn’t stop there. Their latest attack, in the just-passed state budget, is gutting academic tenure in the state university system, a long-held goal of right-wingers who believe academia is far too liberal.
Brendan Fischer, a journalist and attorney with the Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy, said there was a pattern to Walker’s actions. He reeled off examples of Walker picking unprovoked political fights, not backing down and punishing his enemies. There was Act 10, defeating unions. There was tort reform, another longtime libertarian goal, thwarting trial lawyers. There was a new tougher voter ID rule, disenfranchising Democrats and partisan redistricting, consolidating GOP control. There was gutting tenure, hitting academic labor rights. There was the recent effort to narrow the state’s open records law, pushing back against press and public access to his administration’s deliberations. “This is about going after political enemies and not backing down, even when the public is against you,” Fischer said.
Many of these political assaults were sneak attacks, he added. Walker never mentioned going after collective bargaining when running for office in 2010. He never raised the possibility of passing right-to-work laws, instead pledging to form a new partnership with labor. Before his re-election in 2014, Walker, a strident pro-lifer, said a woman’s right to choose was between her and a doctor, but last week he signed into law a draconian 20-week abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest.
In many of these fights, Walker demonized his opponents, Fischer said, pointing to a pattern he’s used throughout his political career. Walker fans grievances to sow fear and to scapegoat enemies. He started as a state legislator by pushing draconian crime bills—tougher sentences, no chance for parole or probation, expanding prisons—all drafted by national right-wing groups whose donors and members either become more powerful or wealthy when the prison system grows. He sold it by stirring fears about crime from nonwhites and the poor, Fischer said, adding that Walker only slightly changed that narrative to attack unions and labor. “They’re lazy or taking your money,” Fischer said, summarizing the line of attack. “He’s applied the same scapegoat tactics that he applied to people of color and welfare recipients to unions.”
The Personality of a Dictator
In 2006, John Dean, who served as White House Counsel to President Nixon from July 1970 to April 1973, wrote a book that became a New York Times bestseller, Conservatives Without Conscience. “I relied on a half-century of empirical studies by social scientists to better understand political figures who evidence little concern for anyone and anything other than themselves, their tribe, and their goal of imposing their worldview on others,” he wrote. “That science on authoritarianism remains valid and unchallenged.”
In 2012, Dean wrote a two-part series for Justia.com describing where Walker fit into this malevolent spectrum. In the first part, he discussed the personality, or psychological traits, of classic authoritarians. In part two, he delivered his verdict on Walker, citing even more examples than those given by Fischer, such as Walker’s ongoing assaults on same-sex couples and LGBT equality. But more intriguing than Dean’s conclusion is the underlying basis for his verdict. Dean relied on Robert Altemeyer, a retired University of Manitoba psychology professor and noted author who spent decades studying authoritarian personalities and citing North American politicians as examples.
Dean’s summary of what authoritarians do perfectly mirrors Walker’s track record cited by Fischer and others. He wrote, “Social dominators (authoritarian leaders) have the following recurring traits: They’re typically men; they are dominating; they oppose equality; they are desirous of personal power; they are amoral, intimidating and bullying, faintly hedonistic, vengeful, pitiless, exploitive, manipulative, and dishonest; they will cheat to win; they are highly prejudiced (racist, sexist, and/or homophobic), mean-spirited, militant, and nationalistic; they tell others what they want to hear, take advantage of ‘suckers,’ and specialize in creating false images to sell themselves. They may or may not be religious, but usually they are both political and economic conservatives and/or Republicans.”
Dean noted that the followers of these leaders also exhibit certain traits. “They are submissive to authority but aggressive on that authority’s behalf. They are conventional and highly religious, with moderate to little education. They trust untrustworthy authorities, exhibit prejudice (particularly against homosexuals, women and followers of religions other than their own), and are mean-spirited, narrow-minded, intolerant, bullying, zealous, dogmatic, and uncritical toward chosen authority. Moreover, they are hypocritical, inconsistent and contradictory, prone to panic easily, highly self-righteous, and moralistic. They are strict disciplinarians, and are severely punitive; they demand loyalty and return it; they exhibit little self-awareness, and they, too, are usually political and economic conservatives and/or Republicans.”
In some cases, the same politician exhibits the traits both of authoritarian leaders and their followers, Dean explained. “Social scientists labeled these people ‘Double Highs,’” he said, adding that Altemeyer said this was not a contradiction. “He found that these Double Highs relate to the questions regarding submission not by considering how they see themselves submit to others, but rather how others submit to them. They simply see the world as a place where they are always in charge.”
“Double Highs are endowed with a host of negative personality traits, and, it seems such traits, in Double Highs, are always present in excess,” Dean said. “Double Highs are not merely prejudiced, they are doubly so. Their orders are to be followed, but not by them. They are not merely dogmatic, but defiantly insistent upon their dogmas. They are not only manipulative of others, but talented at their manipulation.”
Not surprisingly, Dean concluded that Scott Walker “possesses… all of these defining traits.”
He cited Walker’s biography to show “the behavior, writ large, of a dominator.” By age seven, Walker “formed a ‘Jesus USA’ club, which was a mix of his father’s Baptist ministry and his attraction to patriotism.” A year later, he raised money for an American flag for his village. As a scout, he “sought leadership posts, which provide some control.” At Marquette University, though he didn’t graduate, he was elected to the student senate, and lost twice running for student body president. He ran for the State Assembly the year he lost the president race, and lost there too. “Since then, Walker has never stopped running.” In 1993, he was elected to the Assembly. In 2002, he became Milwaukee County Executive, and in 2010, governor.
Dean cites Walker’s opposition to equality, noting “the Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology (which is searchable) further defines social dominators as ‘hard, tough, ruthless, and unfeeling toward others, as opposed to compassionate, generous, caring, and altruistic.’” Dean cites Walker’s intolerance toward gays and lesbians. “As Governor, he has worked to end Wisconsin’s recognition of the rights of same-sex couples. He fired the law firm defending the state’s domestic-partnership law. And he appointed a woman to the state’s Labor and Industry Review Commission who believes that gays can be harassed in the workplace.”
Always escalating in the service of his ideology, Walker the presidential candidate recently called for a constitutional amendment to allow states to decide the question of same-sex marriage after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of nationwide marriage equality.
The next authoritarian trait Dean cites is Walker’s lifelong hunger for power—and increasing the power of the offices he’s held. “Scott Walker has been seeking personal power his entire life, and has never stopped reaching for it,” Dean wrote. “Often overlooked in Walker’s infamous union-busting ‘budget-repair bill’ [Act 10] is the power grab to fill three dozen civil-service jobs with political appointees. For instance, the bill politicized and placed under Walker’s control functions like open-records requests, the selection of general counsels for key agencies, and the selection of communications spokespeople in key departments. He has increased his personal power over some fifteen state agencies, and I suspect that he is (or was, depending on the recall vote) just getting started.”
Fischer makes the same point, saying that Walker’s “gratification is not perks [of office] but advancing his career. He does what it takes to get elected. Once in office he pays back donors and their interests.”
Dean also noted that authoritarian leaders are amoral. “A politician like Scott Walker will wrap himself in a cloak of morality, while, in fact, acting anything but morally,” he said. “Needless to say, Walker’s policies that attack poor women by cutting off funding to Planned Parenthood; his slashing of education budgets while giving tax breaks to wealthy corporations; and his pursuit of similar radical Republican actions all raise serious moral issues.” Moreover, Walker has a long record of lying to the public; it was not just a pledge to respect a woman’s right to choose, or not to pursue right-to-work laws before a tight election.
“His lying is notorious,” Dean wrote. “Politifacts Wisconsin (which I am told is more reliable than most of these sites) finds Walker to be an accomplished falsifier. With respect to 44 statements that Politifacts examined, Walker was found to have been truthful only on six occasions. The fact that 38 statements were pants-on-fire false, false, mostly false, or half-truths is stark evidence of amorality. I watched a video of a Walker speech at the Goldwater Institute. He’s slick: Fast-talking, confident, and dishonest—I watched him distort facts with which I was familiar. He spoke in mostly half-truths, and certainly not with the kind of candor that the late Senator Goldwater expected from political figures.”
You might think Dean’s indictment of Walker as an American authoritarian—written three years before Walker announced he was running for president—would end here. But it doesn’t. Dean also noted how Walker exhibits the traits of authoritarian followers, “because such people see themselves as running the world, and believe that others should always follow leaders, like themselves.”
Walker’s biography is filled with fealty to authority, whether to his father, scout leaders or church elders; and as an adult, to the Republican Party’s leaders and top donors. “While Scott Walker plays by the rules of the authorities he accepts, because he is a dominator, it is not surprising that his resume shows he has constantly sought to become an authority himself.”
Dean writes that Walker’s belligerent tactics, always escalating against enemies and punishing them when victorious, comes from a mix of fears and self-righteousness. “Another classic example of authoritarian aggressiveness is the public official who is always calling for greater punishment for perceived and real criminals,” he wrote. “And indeed, the most striking and telling example of Walker’s aggressiveness on behalf of radical right-wing Republican philosophy are his views on crime and punishment.”
Walker’s crime policies are unrepentant. He pushed to build a Supermax prison when experts said it wasn’t needed. He shepherded “truth in sentencing” legislation that ended parole and increased mandatory sentences by 50 percent. He supported failed legislation that would have sent juvenile offenders to adult prisons after age 15. These examples — apart from being outside of today’s growing Republican consensus that tough-on-crime prison reforms don’t work, are too costly and should be repealed — are nonetheless “examples of classic authoritarian behavior at work,” Dean said.
Finally, Dean said that Walker, like many authoritarians, has a simplistic set of personal beliefs that takes refuge in black-and-white thinking, fundamentalist religion and sees itself as upholding traditional norms. “Scott Walker is Mr. Conventional,” he said. “He has long been an active member of a fundamentalist church. He wears conservative, off-the-rack clothing. His hair is always closely trimmed, and his manner polite and pleasant. And he keeps company with like-acting and like-thinking people. (I cannot find a single radical right-wing position that Walker rejects.)”
Commander in Chief or American Dictator?
Dean’s observations cast Walker’s behavior and gaffes from the early 2016 campaign trail in a new light. Indeed, in last winter’s Iowa Freedom Summit, where he emerged as the early right-wing frontrunner, his best applause lines were bragging about beating up on state employee unions and how his wife taught him to buy shirts at discount outlets.
It is easy to say that Walker’s early foreign policy remarks show he is both naïve and dangerous. Last winter, he absurdly compared taking on ISIS, the Islamic State, to beating pro-union protesters during the recall election. More recently, he has said several times that as commander in chief, he would be ready to go to war with Iran on “day one” of his presidency.
The Center for Media and Democracy’s Fischer says Walker “talks about foreign policy as a public safety issue; it’s similar to the strategy he used as a young legislator when talking about crime, but now he’s applying it to Iran—be scared, they can’t be trusted, and so on.”
John Dean wrote that as Wisconsin governor, “Walker’s push to get… [union-busting] Act 10 passed was done in about as authoritarian a fashion as you will ever see outside of a dictatorship.” But as Fischer observed, Walker is deploying his authoritarian personality and mindset to global problems where the stakes are much higher. He may be running for commander in chief, but he has all the makings of an American dictator.
One can only hope that by next summer, when Republicans choose their presidential nominee, voters and even the GOP establishment will conclude it is too risky to give the keys to the White House to the toxic authoritarian governor from Wisconsin.