Scott Walker is a pastier Donald Trump: The Wisconsin governor's ethno-nationalism is just as egregious

A conservative pundit blames Trump for racism in the GOP. But is governor union-buster also "the Donald's" fault?

Published August 1, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Carlos Barria/Brendan McDermid/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Carlos Barria/Brendan McDermid/Photo montage by Salon)

A few days ago, the Daily Beast published an article by self-styled Reasonable Conservative Matt K. Lewis on “cuckservative,” a relatively new term of abuse that has recently set off some intramural sniping within the conservative movement. As Lewis rightly noted, the term is tribalist and racist. It’s also misogynist, paternalistic and xenophobic — the nasty consequence of racial panic and toxic masculinity, but in word form.

It wasn’t Lewis’s willingness to criticize a bunch of white supremacists, however, that made his piece interesting. (His response, in truth, was an unsympathetic mix of whining and unearned chest-puffery.) What made the column noteworthy instead was the way Lewis tried to load such ethno-nationalist sentiments — or “this white nationalism business,” as he put it — entirely on the shoulders of the cuckservative-slinging Republicans’ favorite candidate. A fellow by the name of Donald Trump.

Lewis granted that “these people have always been around.” But before Trump, he wrote, they were “confined to the nether regions of the Internet.” White ethno-nationalists only became significant members of the conservative crusade because “Twitter allows them to spread their pernicious message, and Trump has given them a candidate to get behind.” But apparently it wasn’t until 2015 that the movement behind the Southern Strategy, Willie Horton and Obamaphones started flirting with racists.

Much like comparing Trump’s supporters to Black Lives Matter, which Lewis did in a column for The Week, this is self-serving, dumb, and wrong. The modern conservative movement — the amorphous coalition of different kinds of angry white people that burst on the scene with Barry Goldwater in 1964, won the reins of power with Ronald Reagan in 1980, and reached its apotheosis by controlling all three branches of government with George W. Bush in 2004 — has always depended on racial resentment to be the solvent holding its business, religious and militarist wings together.

But rather than take a stroll back through recent American political history, how about we stick to the here-and-now? And rather than focus on Donald Trump, how about we concentrate on one of his more electable opponents? Because if Twitter and Donald Trump are to blame for the rise of white ethno-nationalists in the conservative movement, then how do we explain Gov. Scott Walker? Would Lewis say of Walker what he said of Trump? Is he, too, “not on [the conservatives’] team”?

If connecting Trump and Walker strikes you as odd, you probably don’t know very much about Wisconsin’s governor, who is currently sporting an approval rating of 41 percent. Walker’s name is usually associated with anti-unionism, and few could argue that he hasn’t earned the reputation. But along with turning Wisconsin into a “right-to-work” state — just like he promised a billionaire donor in 2011 — what’s defined Walker’s time in Madison has been a divisive and racially charged approach that has rendered the state’s politics “toxic and ruptured.”

Last summer, the New Republic published a superb profile of Walker by Alec MacGillis, one that looked at both his personal history and his political milieu. It would be impossible to give an adequate summary of the piece here, and you should really read it for yourself. But what I can say is that anyone familiar with the life and times of former GOP campaign consultant Lee Atwater will immediately recognize how Walker handles race; and anyone similarly well-versed on Karl Rove will understand his view of partisanship.

Perhaps the best way to quickly show how similar are devotees of Trump and Walker is to compare their rhetoric. Trump’s presidential campaign went from an oddity to a media sensation largely due to the truly odious things he said about undocumented immigrants during its launch. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” said Trump. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” These grotesque pronouncements lost Trump a lot of money in endorsements, but made him the darling of conservative ethno-nationalists.

If people drawn to rhetoric like this were marginal players in the pre-Trump conservative movement, as Lewis claims, then why is it that Walker’s staff, in their emails to one another, sound scarcely different? Via the TNR piece, here’s a summary of some of the worst moments:

One anonymous e-mail, forwarded by Walker’s then–chief of staff, went like this: “THE NIGHTMARE ... ‘I can handle being a black, disabled, one armed, drug-addicted Jewish homosexual ... but please, oh dear God, don’t make me a Democrat.’ ” Another compares welfare recipients to dogs: They are “mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who the r [sic] Daddys [sic] are.” This message was forwarded around by Walker’s then–deputy chief of staff, who remarked that it was “hilarious” and “so true.”

And just in case anyone wonders if the Walkerites’ hatred only extended to African-Americans and Jews, there’s the story of Taylor Palmisano, the former campaign deputy finance director who was fired in 2013 for tweeting about “choking” Latinos — or, as she put it, “illegal mex [sic].” There’s also the story of Steven Krieser, another former Walkerite who, just a month before Palmisano’s ouster, was fired for ranting on Facebook about the “stream of wretched criminals” — by which he meant undocumented immigrants — who reminded him of no one so much as “Satan.”

Beyond offering an unpleasant view of some nasty people during some of their nastier moments, what these quotes show us is that the rise of white ethno-nationalism is not a new development for the conservative movement. These anti-cuckservative racists are not a heretofore unknown commodity in the conservative market. They are not an invasive species that, as Lewis puts it, is “polluting” the conservative movement’s “message.”

Lewis is right when he describes them as “vile goddamn racists,” no doubt. But if Scott Walker, the ultimate movement conservative, is “not on [the conservative] team,” as Lewis puts it, that raises a simple question: Who the hell is?

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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