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Trump got a bargain in Wisconsin

He lost the state, but effectively used it to further poison American politics.

Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images.

“I’ll keep you in suspense.”

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This, from the final debate of the 2016 presidential election cycle, is the most rock-solid promise Donald Trump has ever made. Rather than commit to accepting the results of the election if he lost, Trump relished the opportunity to tell us that he… just wouldn’t tell us. Throughout an erratic and incompetent presidency, he has remained steadfast on that point. We know he’ll reject any challenge to his power as illegitimate until proven otherwise, and likely after proven otherwise. We don’t know quite how far he’ll go, but we’re pretty sure it’s pretty far, and then why wouldn’t his fascist mob storm the seat of government?

Every bully, fraudster, abuser, narcissist, manipulator, and megalomaniac who’s ever walked the earth instinctively knows the power of simply putting people off-balance through shock, surprise, withholding information, and generating a sense of dread about what comes next. It doesn’t take any particular strategic brilliance. Combine all that with a shameless lust for power and a drumbeat of prurient stupidity, and you’ve got the visceral core of right-wing politics in the United States.

Wisconsinites are uniquely positioned to understand this. Throughout the Scott Walker era and the early Tony Evers area—which is less a hangover from Walker than a morning after where you somehow wake up more drunk and die and are unwillingly reincarnated and get drunk again—Republicans in Wisconsin have routinely governed by springing things on us. 

It’s not simply about abhorrent policies and slimy maneuvering, but about the gleeful, wholesale disconnection of the political process from any semblance that the consent of the governed matters. Walker didn’t explicitly campaign on wiping out public-sector unions in 2010, but once in power he “dropped the bomb” (his words) in the form of Act 10, and instantly turned the ensuing fight into the cornerstone of his valiant-ham-sandwich-guy mythology. He then continued to lie about his intentions to leave private-sector unions alone, until proudly signing a 2015 “right to work” law. When it was time for Walker to leave, he worked with Republicans to adopt a series of last-minute bills that undercut the Evers administration’s executive powers.

Yes, anyone who’s paid attention to Wisconsin politics over the past decade is well aware of the many injustices of Act 10 and the lame-duck laws, but the most important result of it all was to keep the ground constantly shifting under our feet. During Walker’s tenure, bills moved measurably faster through the Republican-controlled Wisconsin State Legislature, and everyday Wisconsinites became more and more frustrated in their attempts to participate in state government. When Walker appointed two state legislators to executive-branch jobs in 2017, he refused for months to call special elections to fill their seats—a routine matter that had basically never been controversial before—instead arguing for an absurd misreading of state elections law, defying a court order, and even weighing a last-ditch attempt at changing said law, before eventually relenting. During that particular fight, Republican legislative leaders offered up a lot of pious gibberish about the sacred power of state legislatures to determine election procedures—something that will sound familiar to anyone who watched Republicans challenge the certification of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes this week. 

The point is that well before Trump’s daily presidential tantrums and his attempt to overturn the 2020 election, we in Wisconsin were living in a climate of weaponized uncertainty. Once Trump came in, federal and state government began to operate in grating harmony, especially when it came to direct attacks on democracy itself

Will people have basic labor rights? Will people at state agencies be allowed to actually do their jobs? What will we end up owing Foxconn, and what do they even want to do anyway? Will a state legislative seat arbitrarily remain empty for a year? Which provisions of our voter ID laws will be in effect in a given election as the courts review them? Will the governor and legislature abide by court rulings they don’t like? What attacks on abortion rights or tenants’ rights or environmental protections might the legislature ram through in the wee hours? Will the new governor actually have the job voters elected him to do? Will the legislature help us survive the pandemic? Will the governor be allowed to help us survive the pandemic? Will we have to vote in-person in a pandemic? Has gerrymandering doomed us to never having a reasonably representative state legislature and Congressional delegation again? Will the ballots we dropped off at city parks be counted? What deranged notions might dribble from the jellied maelstrom of Steve Nass or André Jacque‘s brains and into state statute? Will just one of our fanatically right-wing Wisconsin Supreme Court justices defect in order to prevent catastrophic rulings? Will Democratic state legislators be able to work remotely? Will the legislature confirm cabinet appointments? Will the basic plumbing of state government keep on changing at whim? We’ll keep you in suspense.

Over the past two months, Trump and Wisconsin Republicans have worked together to crank that suspense up to toxic levels. Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos used his powers to amplify Trump’s dangerous claims of election fraud, convening a sham hearing that prioritized the ravings of a right-wing radio host over the testimony of actual elections officials. In addition to challenging the results in the courts, the Trump campaign asked for recounts, but only in Dane and Milwaukee Counties, and, per state law, paid $3 million to cover the costs.

It was easy to laugh at the futility of this effort—let the rich oaf waste his money (really other people’s money, which he’s even better at) on a recount, just as Jill Stein wasted her money here in 2016. The Wisconsin State Journal‘s editorial board even sarcastically thanked Trump for “investing in Madison.” Trump-supporting election observers did that thing right-wingers do of walking into a “liberal” city and pretending it’s the lion’s den. Trump didn’t get Wisconsin’s electoral votes back. 

But what he did get was quite a bargain. In the bloated obscenity of American campaign finance, $3 million is nothing. The Wisconsin recount and baseless claims of impropriety bought Trump the complicity of charlatan state legislators, dissenting Wisconsin Supreme Court opinions from some of the only judges across the country who bought into his legal claims, and varying degrees of complicity from Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation. Senator Ron Johnson used his power as a committee chair to hold an embarrassing hearing of his own, and was pretty much fully aligned with Trump’s attempts to overturn the election until Tuesday’s violence in DC shamed various Senators into backing down. Congressmen Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Tiffany joined in voting for ultimately failed objections to certifying the election results. Tiffany also supported the Texas Attorney General’s attempt to throw out Wisconsin’s electoral votes. Glenn Grothman did not vote for Trump’s ploy, but gamely fulfilled his role as the delegation’s most colorful horse’s ass, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that “I’m in my office and it looks pretty serene outside” as MAGA loons stormed the chambers of Congress. 

The drawn-out process in Wisconsin bought time for conspiracy theories and anti-democratic nonsense to spread, all the more intense for their focus on one of the country’s most pivotal swing states. (I’d say the most pivotal, but Georgia has brilliantly upstaged us.) It allowed Republicans to keep pushing the unsubstantiated claims about mass voter fraud they’ve been advancing for years, and using as pretexts to suppress the vote through ID requirements, restrictions on early voting, voter-roll purges, and limits on mail-in ballots. Just about all of Wisconsin’s Congressional Republicans contributed to the bogus rhetoric about “legal votes,” and Bryan Steil called on Monday for more of the kinds of election “reforms” that ultimately end up disenfranchising people. They only tapped the brakes on Trump because, as this week has so gruesomely illustrated, their attacks on democracy are unleashing forces that they can’t always control.

And as for that investment? Legislative Republicans are holding up the money, never missing a chance to stick it to Madison and Milwaukee. Even when it comes to something as mundane as reimbursing counties for a recount, you can’t actually depend on things to go the way they are supposed to go. We’ll keep you in suspense. 

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Even the Wisconsin Republicans who didn’t fully support Trump’s coup attempt took advantage of it to further the ongoing Republican effort to smother democracy. They helped him poison our public discourse with even more conspiracy theories and anti-democratic talking points. They helped him incite mob violence, and let’s not kid ourselves that there will be more violence, and that in the future it could well be more organized and more effective. Those who called out Trump for his role in the violence, including 8th District Rep. Mike Gallagher, were at best using a tragic spectacle to launder their own contributions to an unabashedly authoritarian party. 

Wisconsin helped to get Trump out, but also played a key role in his 2016 upset. The past decade in Wisconsin has provided a great road map for the far right to attack democratic institutions at the federal level. New generations of fascists will be preying upon Wisconsinites long after Trump is gone, and it’s clear that they’ll be welcome in Wisconsin’s legislature and Congressional delegation. Tuesday’s events were a reminder to not get smug. Trump used our fellow Wisconsinites against us, and he used them well.

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