Scott Walker’s dilemma: Will GOP voters settle for the bland Donald Trump when they can have the real thing?

Walker’s campaign launch got lost in Trump hype. So he’s turning up the volume on his racial dog whistles

By Joan Walsh
Published July 15, 2015 5:13PM (EDT)
Scott Walker, Donald Trump                (Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/Dennis Van Tine/Photo montage by Salon)
Scott Walker, Donald Trump (Reuters/Yuri Gripas/AP/Dennis Van Tine/Photo montage by Salon)

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is now suing the federal government to get permission to drug test food stamp recipients. He’s not likely to win, but that doesn’t matter. The move has become a big applause line in his stump speeches.

Walker is no longer using dog whistles; he’s got a big old trumpet blaring out racial appeals to white working class voters. And yet Donald Trump is sucking up all the media attention, jumping into first place in the USA Today/Suffolk University national poll, 9 points ahead of Walker. His numbers are twice that of Walker in the latest Fox News poll.

He’s also winning over a formerly skeptical GOP base. The latest Washington Post/ABC poll shows that 57 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Trump, while 40 percent have an unfavorable view. But in the same poll last May, 65 percent of Republicans had an unfavorable view. Trump’s increasingly shrill nativist rhetoric is clearly finding a receptive audience in the GOP.

Trump is posing Walker’s first big national dilemma. The birther-in-chief is aiming at the same white working class men the Wisconsin governor thinks will make him president. But why would they settle for a bland Donald Trump when they can vote for the real deal?

Bloomberg's Margaret Carlson, more charitably, calls him "the quieter Donald Trump," noting that "in his political life, Walker has tried to bring about the America that Trump says we need." Even Fox’s Howard Kurtz is asking whether Walker has “lost his mojo,” suggesting he’s stalling in polls “because he is missing a certain pizzazz.”

It’s a little unfair that Trump is stealing Walker’s thunder among white working class voters, when Walker has long out-Trumped Trump in racial appeals. While the real estate mogul merely harassed our first black president, asking for his papers, Walker actively made life harder for thousands of black people. He’s long campaigned on racial issues, crusading against light rail that would unite the inner city and suburbs, and for prison privatization, tougher drug sentencing and voter identification laws. In the years Walker was Milwaukee County Executive, Milwaukee had the second highest black poverty rate in the country, and its black unemployment rate was four times the national average.

To be fair, Trump probably disadvantaged thousands of African Americans with discriminatory housing policies, which is why the Justice Department sued him in the 1970s. Still, he never got himself elected on a platform committed to doing so. And he can’t boast of a string of aides who’ve been caught making racist jokes in email or on social media, like Walker can.

Walker’s strategy is clear. He’s hoping his lead in nearby Iowa propels him to a caucus win that vaults him over the rest of the field in 2016. He’s protecting that lead devotedly, with ever-stronger rhetoric condemning marriage equality and illegal immigration.

Still, hatemonger Iowa Rep. Steve King, whose attacks on Mexicans as drug mules with “calves the size of cantaloupes” was the ugliest language until Trump called them “criminals” and “rapists,” says Trump could upend Walker in Iowa. He’s currently running second to Walker in Iowa polls, but King says polls underestimate his appeal. "He's riding a good wave and right now if the caucus were held today, he'd probably come out on top," King told National Journal. That’s probably an exaggeration, but a Trump win in Iowa is certainly possible.

So Walker is trumpeting his attempts to drug test food stamp recipients, in order to compete with Trump. He’s also trying to burnish his tough-guy image by turning up at Harley Davidson events, touting his love for his “Road King” and trying to come off as a brawler/biker. That’s hard to watch, especially because the Milwaukee-based motorcycle manufacturer was saved by its union workers.

Trump and Walker are both campaigning like it’s the mid-19th century and the only eligible voters are white men. Appeals that play well in Iowa will cost them next November, if either of them manages to get the nomination. But for now, Trump is prevailing as the real Donald Trump, and he’s overshadowing the bland imitation named Scott Walker.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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2016 Elections Dog Whistles Donald Trump Food Stamps Gov. Scott Walker Immigration Reform Milwaukee