GOP risks igniting a backlash as it doubles down on division and resentment
Ted Nugent speaking at the 2015 Maricopa County Republican Party Lincoln Day dinner in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Pushing for a wolf massacre and an open season on sandhill cranes; attacking school board members and trying to force schools to drop COVID safety measures; bringing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to Madison and then moving his speech because of the University of Wisconsin's “Marxist COVID mandates". What are Republicans and their so-called conservative allies up to?

Neither Hunter Nation, which brought Ted Nugent to the Capitol on Wednesday to call for shooting and eating sandhill cranes, nor Young Americans for Freedom, which brought Cruz on the same day to denounce “lefty students" and “commie professors," and tell people to “take off your damn masks," nor the state Republicans who welcomed them to town want to win hearts and minds. It's all about getting attention — the crazier and more controversial you act, the better.

The Trump administration is over, but the GOP is not ready to get out of the deep end. They're still addicted to former President Donald Trump's reality TV approach to politics.

Clearly, this has some benefits — it generates headlines and helps exacerbate division and resentment, which motivates the hard-right, identity-politics base. And it has the added advantage, for Republicans, of depressing the majority of regular citizens and turning them off so they don't turn out. Low turnout, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told us, is the explicit goal of GOP party leaders who are working on a coordinated strategy to make it harder to vote nationwide, so a minority of angry voters can help them hold onto power.

Wednesday's two Ted talks in Madison, by Nugent (in the Capitol) and Cruz (off campus), are part of a national push by Republicans and their allied interest groups to win our crucial swing state. To do that, they are trying to make Wisconsin politics as divisive and toxic as possible. That approach is a gamble, especially given Democratic victories in statewide races led by Gov. Tony Evers in 2018 and President Joe Biden's win here in 2020. Still, the Republicans are doubling down on former Gov. Scott Walker's “divide and conquer" approach — turning people against each other and feeding the politics of resentment nurtured by Walker and weaponized by Trump.

A recent story in the Washington Post calls Wisconsin “an incubator for the kind of tribal politics and deep divisions that [now] characterize civic life." It all started with Walker's attack on unions and the mass protests that followed. The Post's Dan Balz writes: “The widening gulf between the two parties exposed in 2011 foreshadowed the extent to which American politics would come to focus more on the extremes rather than the middle of the political spectrum."

Wisconsin is not a purple state, according to Balz, but a patchwork of blue islands in a sea of rural red. And the whole nation is headed in a similar direction. That's why moderates like retiring congressman Ron Kind (D-La Crosse) are going extinct, while the rest of our state's delegation in Congress is squarely on the right or left.

Of course, Trump made things worse. As Wisconsin's Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin told Balz, “Having a leader who kind of was a divider-in-chief has given a green light to that sort of conduct, and it's filtered into our communities."

Following the Trump model, Republicans are stoking rage and rebellion against school board members, local public health departments, election clerks and civilization itself. Remember that Cruz was on the floor of the Senate delivering a speech opposing the certification of the 2020 presidential election just moments before the “stop the steal" rioters broke down the doors.

Even after that harrowing moment in our nation's history, the burn-it-down rhetoric from GOP officials who know perfectly well the election wasn't stolen and the pandemic is real continues. Inchoate anger is too alluring a power to give up, apparently, even as the country spins closer to the edge.

So what about Wisconsin voters? Are we really driving all of this?

In 2020, Trump voters in rural areas of the state doubled down on their 2016 choice, throwing a rock at the establishment — in both parties — that has paid insufficient attention to rural concerns.

What Republicans have recognized is that, as little as either party has done for rural areas, rural people had a strong sense of grievance that their needs are not being met and that urban liberals view them with contempt.

Resentment at feeling looked down on motivated a lot of Trump voters, and Republicans continue to capitalize on it. That's why the idea of shocking the “commies" in Madison by talking about blowing graceful birds out of the sky is so appealing. It's a revenge fantasy.

I spent a lot of time between the presidential elections of 2016 and 2020 working on a book for which I spoke with dairy farmers in Wisconsin who rely on undocumented Mexican workers and yet voted for Trump — twice. A question I was asked repeatedly by editors on the East and West Coasts was whether those rural voters had learned the error of their ways. The answer is no. And the question shows a striking failure to grasp why dairy farmers who have been watching their neighbors go bankrupt at a rate of two family farms per day were drawn to a populist candidate who claimed to represent “the forgotten men and women of America."

If Democrats did a better job of offering major help to rural areas — as both Evers and Biden have been making an effort to do, the politics of rural Wisconsin might change. Recognizing that, Republicans are frantically pushing distraction, tribalism and macho posturing.

Will the politics of division continue to be a winning strategy for the GOP? Balz doesn't offer an opinion. But at some point Republicans are going to realize they have jumped the shark.

Our state Legislature has put an awful lot of effort into rejecting federal COVID relief and support for schools and infrastructure and health care that people really want. In exchange, they are offering the chance to blow things up, spread COVID-19 and eat migratory birds.

My own experience talking to people around the state, and recent election results, show that people want real fixes for their real problems more than cheap talk. On the whole, people care more about their own interests than photo ops by loudmouths like Ted Nugent and Ted Cruz.

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