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The Unelectable Whiteness of Scott Walker

A journey through the poisonous, racially divided world that produced a Republican star

Photo by Narayan Mahon

In early August of 2011, a few days after Congress passed a deal to end the debt-ceiling showdown that brought the nation to the brink of credit default, a conservative talk-radio host in the Milwaukee suburbs went on an extended riff about Gwen Moore, the first African American elected to the House from Wisconsin.

Moore had missed the debt-ceiling vote, and her office explained that she had been unable to make her way through the massive crowd that gathered to celebrate Gabrielle Giffords’s triumphant return to the floor. This account provided an opening for radio host Mark Belling.

“She’s been in the Congress now for about ten years. During that time, she ... has managed to be known for absolutely nothing,” Belling said. “Gwen Moore simply occupies a seat. A very large seat. ... The woman is so fat and out of shape, she literally can’t get to the floor to vote anymore. ... It’s time to vote and here’s Gwen: ‘I’m out of breath! Blew-ee, blew-ee!’ ” (Here Belling affected the exertions of an overweight black woman.) Or, he continued, perhaps there was another possibility: “What do you think the chances are she was sitting on the toilet? ... Maybe Gwen was sitting there on the crapper and this was one that was not working out too well for her or something. ‘Blew-ee!’ ‘Congresswoman, you’ve got to vote.’ ‘I am sittin’ on de toilet!’ ” Belling concluded: “Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head, got there, and voted. ... Gwen Moore can’t waddle her way across the street.”

For Belling, this kind of performance was hardly out of character. Back in 2004, he’d been briefly suspended for referring to “wetback” voters in Milwaukee’s Hispanic neighborhood. It was, perhaps, a sign of his audience’s uniform outlook that the diatribe against Moore went unnoticed by anyone who might have objected to it, including Moore herself.

Photo by Carlos Javier Ortiz

In any case, the riff did not keep the state’s governor, Scott Walker, from appearing on the show a few days later. Belling’s treatment of Walker was notably more deferential. “Have you,” he asked, “sat back and thought about what has been accomplished by yourself and the Republican legislature? Has it really sunk in that you’ve transformed a fiscally reckless state into perhaps the most fiscally sound state in the nation? Has it sunk in, I guess is what I’m saying, do you realize what’s been accomplished?” Walker replied that no, his achievement had not sunk in, because he had been “so busy doing it.”

That accomplishment—effectively eliminating collective bargaining for most public employees in the state, facing down the angry protests that followed, surviving a rancorous recall election—has vaulted Walker into the top tier of Republican presidential contenders for 2016. He is the closest person the party has to an early favorite, and not simply because of Chris Christie’s nosedive from grace or because Jeb Bush is still waffling about his intentions. Walker has implemented an impeccably conservative agenda in a state that has gone Democratic in seven straight presidential elections. Unlike Mitt Romney, or, for that matter, John McCain, he is beloved by the conservative base, but he has the mien of a mainstream candidate, not a favorite of the fringe. His boosters, who include numerous greenroom conservatives in Washington and major donors around the country, such as the Koch brothers, see him as the rare Republican who could muster broad national support without yielding a millimeter on doctrine.

This interpretation of Walker’s appeal could hardly be more flawed. He has succeeded in the sort of environment least conducive to producing a candidate capable of winning a national majority. Over the past few decades, Walker’s home turf of metropolitan Milwaukee has developed into the most bitterly divided political ground in the country—“the most polarized part of a polarized state in a polarized nation,” as a recent series by Craig Gilbert in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel put it. Thanks to a quirk of twentieth-century history, the region encompasses a heavily Democratic and African American urban center, and suburbs that are far more uniformly white and Republican than those in any other Northern city, with a moat of resentment running between the two zones. As a result, the area has given rise to some of the most worrisome trends in American political life in supercharged form: profound racial inequality, extreme political segregation, a parallel-universe news media. These trends predate Walker, but they have enabled his ascent, and his tenure in government has only served to intensify them. Anyone who believes that he is the Republican to save his party—let alone win a presidential election—needs to understand the toxic and ruptured landscape he will leave behind.

Scott Walker’s parents are friendly and unfailingly earnest, and to hear them tell it, their son was called to leadership by God. His father, Llewellyn, was a Baptist minister, and before Scott could even read, he was summoned to the front of church to offer prayers. At age seven, in tiny Plainfield, Iowa, where Reverend Walker served on the town council, Scott founded the “Jesus USA Club” and would hop up on an improvised soapbox to raise money for a state flag outside the village hall. Not long after that, his family moved to Delavan, a small manufacturing town in southern Wisconsin. Walker went door to door to campaign for a classmate’s father who was running for local office. Walker’s parents told me that his teacher asked him why he was doing that. “Because he’s a good man,” he informed her.

Photo by Narayan Mahon
A victorious Scott Walker after the 2012 recall election.

Walker was the prototypical preacher’s kid, acutely aware of the need to present a genial face to the world. “When you’re a ‘P.K.,’ you live in a fishbowl and are trained to be careful so that you don’t do anything that embarrasses your parents,” says his mother, Patricia. He absorbed many of his father’s sermons—these tended to be more homespun than fiery—and would later fill in for Llewellyn occasionally when he was sick. “Sometimes, in high school,” Patricia recalls, “he’d stay awake thinking of all the things in the world he could do something about.”

Walker had an easy smile and impressive 1980s mullet, and he played on the football team, but his friends would apologize if they swore in his presence, and he wasn’t much for chasing girls. “He was a very nice-looking young man, always very neat in appearance,” says Neill Flood, the town’s fire chief, whose daughter was a year ahead of Walker in school. “He was the kind of guy who liked everyone, and everyone liked him. There was never any physical attraction for Scott, girls being all over him.” On Scott’s prom night, his mother recalls, he, his date, and some friends stayed up very late talking politics.

Those politics were staunchly conservative. Delavan was in solidly Republican territory, and by the time Walker arrived at Marquette, the Jesuit university in Milwaukee, he was describing himself as a missionary for the conservative cause. “He would literally say, . . . ‘God has told me I’m chosen to cut taxes and stop killing babies,’ even in casual conversation,” recalls Glen Barry, a classmate who went on to become a well-known environmentalist. On occasion, Walker would compare himself to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., noting that they were both the sons of Baptist ministers. In the 1990 Marquette yearbook, he said, “I really think there’s a reason why God put all these political thoughts in my head.”

Campus politics offered few opportunities for Walker to exercise his higher calling, but he did his best to raise the stakes. In freshman year, he was put in charge of an investigation into a lavish homecoming-weekend dinner at the Pfister Hotel that had been charged to student government accounts. The student-body president and vice president resigned, and the participants repaid the tab. Barry was one of the other student leaders at the dinner, and Walker told him that he would need to question him as part of his inquiry. What followed, Barry says, “was the weirdest thing I have ever been through.” Walker announced that he was recommending impeachment of Barry and several others, which led to a full trial before the student senate, with, as Barry recalls, Walker “standing there in his ill-fitting suit coat like a grand inquisitor, asking: ‘Did you know where these flowers for your corsage came from?’ ” The defendants were acquitted, and the prosecutor earned the nickname of “Neidermeyer,” after the authoritarian frat-house enforcer in Animal House.

In his sophomore year, Walker ran for student-body president against a liberal Chicagoan named John Quigley. Quigley argued that the university should divest funds from apartheid South Africa; Walker backed up the administration, criticized student protests, and, in a move unusual for a campus election, emphasized his opposition to abortion. The race was rife with accusations of campaign rules violations, says the fact-checking organization Politifact. When The Marquette Tribune endorsed Quigley, stacks of papers mysteriously vanished from the racks around campus, prompting an investigation by campus police and a harsh Election Day editorial in the Tribune headlined: “WALKER UNFIT.”

Walker lost and retreated from his high-profile campus role. He took a part-time job at IBM and started showing up for classes in a three-piece suit, “like Alex [P.] Keaton,” as one professor recalled to the Tribune in 2002. He mellowed out a bit toward his former foes—Barry recalls standing on a rocking chair in a campus lounge arm in arm with Walker, sharing a pitcher of beer, to the amusement of onlookers. Then, in the spring semester of 1990, right as Walker’s class was on the verge of graduating, he abruptly dropped out of school.

Walker had been an indifferent student at best, but it was nevertheless a strange move. Years later, rumors would circulate that Marquette had asked him to leave. But college officials say he departed in “good standing.” His parents told me that he had cited financial guilt—his younger brother had started college and he worried that his family couldn’t afford both tuitions—an explanation they found unpersuasive. Walker declined to comment for this story. But he has said that he had found a job doing marketing for the Red Cross and wanted to pursue the opportunity full time. A more likely explanation, though, is that he had already decided to embark on his political career. Real politics this time, in the city.

Among U.S. cities, Milwaukee has long been an outlier. In the late nineteenth century, it was the most foreign city in the country: By 1890, a mere 13 percent of its inhabitants were the children of American-born parents. For most of the period between 1910 and 1960, the city was governed by Socialist Party mayors. And, as the twentieth century wore on, Milwaukee stood apart for another reason: It remained remarkably and stubbornly white. The Great Migration that had brought some six million African Americans from the South between 1910 and 1930 and in a second wave around World War II transformed just about every major city in the North—except Milwaukee. Few migrants made it past the great sponge of Chicago, in part because there wasn’t a plentiful supply of jobs to entice them: Milwaukee’s labor market was then amply filled by European immigrants and workers from the declining timber and mining industries up north. By 1960, blacks made up nearly a quarter of Chicago’s population and nearly 30 percent of Detroit’s and Cleveland’s. In Milwaukee, they accounted for less than 10 percent of residents, the smallest proportion of African Americans in any of the 15 largest cities in the country.

It wasn’t until the ’60s that African Americans started to drift into Milwaukee in large numbers. For the next 20 years, the city offered safer streets and better schools than Chicago, and its industrial base was faring better than in many other urban areas. By 1990, Milwaukee’s black population had shot up to 30 percent. Today, it stands near 40 percent, while Hispanics make up another 17 percent.

This delayed arrival would prove highly consequential. Not long after a substantial African American community took shape, Milwaukee’s industrial base began to collapse and its manufacturing jobs disappeared. This left almost no time for the city to develop a black middle class or a leadership elite. Within short order, Milwaukee had some of the most glaring racial disparities in the country. Today, it has the second-highest black poverty rate in the United States, and the unemployment rate is nearly four times higher for blacks than for whites. The city had never been exactly welcoming to African Americans—its tight-knit enclaves of Germans, Jews, and Poles had fiercely resisted housing and school integration. But the decline of the black ghetto so soon after many of its residents had arrived made it easier for white Milwaukeeans to write off the entire African American community, or to blame it for the city’s troubles. White flight, like the Great Migration, came late to Milwaukee, but it came fast and fueled with resentment. Between 1960 and 2010, the population of the three formerly rural counties around Milwaukee County (Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington, or the “WOW” counties, for short) nearly tripled, to 608,000.

Courtesy of the Delavan-Darien School District
The future Republican darling, in high school.

And if the exiles had any lingering doubts about the wisdom of leaving the city, two men were eager to reinforce the necessity of their choice, every morning and every afternoon on the long commute home. Mark Belling, a Wisconsin native, grew up liberal and supported Jimmy Carter. In the 1980s, though, he took a job in the post-industrial city of Benton Harbor, Michigan, and underwent a conversion. “The entire city was an experiment in American liberalism and it was an absolute disaster,” he said in 2012. “I realized anti-poverty programs, welfare, aid to cities, allegations that ... black underachievement is because of racism, I realized that all of those things were wrong.” Meanwhile, watching Ronald Reagan in office, he was struck by the “undeniable renaissance of America.” “I became far better at arguing my point of view and far more satisfied with my political positions once I became a conservative, because I realized I was correct,” Belling said. “It’s the same thing a lot of people have when they convert to Christianity. They suddenly become very committed and dedicated to it, as opposed to the ambivalence they had about their former atheism.”

In 1989, as the crack-fueled crime wave was nearing its peak in Milwaukee, Belling began hosting a talk show on WISN, an A.M. station. Often, a man named Charlie Sykes would appear as a panelist or substitute host. Sykes, too, had started out on the left. His parents were World Federalists, a movement that called for global government and universal disarmament; his father, an editorial writer at the Milwaukee Sentinel, had managed Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 campaign in Wisconsin. Sykes had adopted his father’s politics; he even ran (unsuccessfully) for the state legislature as a Democrat. He told me that he had grown disillusioned with liberalism while covering City Hall for the Milwaukee Journal in the late ’70s. “I was a reporter covering urban programs that were well- intentioned but utterly dysfunctional,” he says. “I thought: This thing doesn’t work as planned.”

Within a few years, Sykes had gotten his own show, on WTMJ, and for the next 20 years, he and Belling would share the airwaves: Sykes in the late morning, Belling in the late afternoon. Their styles are very different. Sykes is a thrice-married man-about-town with a smooth on-air manner and modish eyeglasses who has built himself into a multimedia brand, with a Sunday TV show on the NBC affiliate, books subsidized by conservative funders (his latest: A Nation of Moochers), and a subscription-based website, “Right Wisconsin” (which sometimes refers to Michelle Obama as “Mooch”). Belling is introverted and brooding—he zips in and out from the station’s suburban studio in his Jaguar, interacting with co-workers no more than necessary. His demeanor on air is more intense, with long foreboding pauses between his acid declamations. In one 2012 riff, he called a young black Milwaukee man who had died in police custody a “piece of garbage” and attacked “the pigs of mothers who are too lazy to put their children in a crib and roll over the top of them while sleeping on a futon on the floor.” Christopher Terry, who worked with Belling at WISN and now teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says that Belling is more of a “true believer,” whereas “if Sykes thought there was money on the other side of the street, he would sell out in a second.”

Over time, the two shows became known by a single name: “SykesBelling.” In the halls of the statehouse, Milwaukee City Hall, and area county governments, elected officials, particularly insufficiently conservative Republicans, lived in dread of denunciations by the hosts and the tsunami of angry calls from listeners that would follow. Sykes is credited with, among other accomplishments, having blocked public funding for needle-exchange programs and having helped drive into bankruptcy an urban mall after harping on security issues there. In April 2013, he played a clip of “It’s Free (Swipe Yo EBT),” a viral video produced by a right-wing activist in which an African American woman raps about liquor stores where one can allegedly use a food-stamp card. Returning to the same theme later in the year, Sykes declared, “The number of Americans who receive means-tested government benefits— welfare—now outnumbers those who are year-round full-time workers.” No other midsize city has this kind of sustained and energized conservative forum for discussion of local politics. The only counterweights on the left are Wisconsin Public Radio, with its implicit but restrained liberalism, a lefty F.M. talk show in Madison with limited reach, and two African American talk-radio stations in Milwaukee, one of which recently went out of business.

In the past dozen years, two moderate state senators in metro Milwaukee have lost their jobs in Republican primaries after falling out of favor with SykesBelling, while a third has moved sharply right to avoid their wrath. “The listenership is just so much higher here,” says Scott Jensen, the former Republican speaker of the state Assembly. “And the ability to get people to march in step when [the shows] are all hammering the same themes is extraordinary.” Dale Schultz, a moderate Republican state senator in southwestern Wisconsin who is retiring this year, is blunter. “Talk radio gets going and some of my colleagues end up wetting themselves,” he says. “It’s appalling.”

In 1990, at age 22, Scott Walker launched his first campaign, for the state Assembly seat held by Gwen Moore. It was a Democratic-leaning, majority-white district stretching west from Marquette; Moore recalls hearing that Walker thought he had a shot at winning because he was younger and better-looking than the Republican she had beaten two years earlier. “He had a certain kind of vanity,” she says. Walker ran on an anti-crime platform, pushing what Moore refers to as “dog-whistle literature.” This included one mailing that featured an image of a big gun, “implying that the neighborhood was going to go to hell” if Moore won.

Walker lost, and soon thereafter settled with his wife, Tonette, in more amenable political territory. Three years later, he ran in a crowded GOP primary field for the local state Assembly seat in the historically Republican inner suburb of Wauwatosa. This time, he won. The party, which under the leadership of Governor Tommy Thompson was pushing hard for welfare reform and private-school vouchers in Milwaukee, made Walker its point man on criminal justice. He authored a bill calling for “truth in sentencing” (eliminating time off for good behavior) and championed prison privatization, though he also surprised some Democrats by supporting legislation to improve defendants’ access to DNA evidence. As chairman of the elections and rules committee, he advocated for voter-I.D. laws, long seen as an effort to limit minority access to the polls.

But Walker didn’t really seem all that interested in making an impact in Madison—colleagues from both parties recall him as an amiable backbencher. Instead, he seemed most intent on cultivating a constituency via the airwaves. Jensen, then the speaker, started sending Walker on television and the radio talk shows when he couldn’t make it and quickly realized that his colleague had an unerring ability to stay on message. “He’s the kind of guy you can wake up at three a.m. and ask him a question, and he’ll have a nice sound bite for you,” says Jensen. Charlie Sykes adds, “He is probably as media savvy as any politician we’ve ever dealt with here in Wisconsin.”

Walker’s growing profile served him well as he advanced through the political ranks. In 2002, the Democratic executive of Milwaukee County, which encompasses the 600,000-person city and 355,000 in its inner suburbs, resigned amid a pension scandal. Walker won the special election and proceeded to spend the next eight years tussling with the Democratic-led county board over taxes and spending. He succeeded in making deep cuts to county parks and public transit; once, he sent layoff notices to county workers so they would pressure the council to buckle to his budget demands. So often did he call in to Belling’s show—to chat on air or to spin the host during a commercial break—that he had access to an emergency-only phone line to the studio that was off- limits to station employees, even for calls to family. “It was essentially the ‘zombies are rising’ line,” says Terry, the former WISN employee.

During this period, the WOW counties continued to expand. But unlike suburbs elsewhere, they had not grown more diverse. Today, less than 2 percent of the WOW counties’ population is African American and less than 5 percent is Hispanic. According to studies by the Brookings Institution and Brown University, the Milwaukee metro area is one of the top two most racially segregated regions in the country. The WOW counties were voting Republican at levels unseen in other Northern suburbs; one needed to look as far as the white suburbs around Atlanta and Birmingham for similar numbers. The partisan gulf between Milwaukee and its suburbs in presidential elections has now grown wider than in any of the nation’s 50 largest cities, except for New Orleans, according to the Journal Sentinel series.

In such an environment, “there’s no persuasion going on at all,” says GOP pollster Gene Ulm, who often works in Wisconsin. In fact, there is not a single competitive state Senate seat left in the entire Milwaukee media market. Both parties focus entirely on turnout, and with impressive results. The WOW counties were in the top eleven nationwide for turnout in 2012, with Ozaukee first at 84 percent. Similarly, among urban counties, Milwaukee County ranks near the top, at 74 percent. (The national average was just over 60 percent.) In midterm elections, Republicans often win because the WOW counties vote no matter what, an achievement that Mark Graul, a Republican consultant, attributes in large part to the motivational power of Milwaukee talk-radio stations. However, in presidential-year elections, when turnout is up everywhere in the state, Democrats win—in fact, they have won every single major statewide race in presidential years since 1984. Even Walker admits that he isn’t working the middle much anymore: “It was always a divided state but it used to be (that) you’d explain it as ‘40/40/20,’ and 20 percent was the persuadable middle,” he told the Journal Sentinel. “That percent has shrunk now to 5, 6 percent maybe ... or five or six people.”

It is as if the Milwaukee area were in a kind of time warp. Like the suburbanites of the ’70s and ’80s elsewhere in the United States, the residents of the WOW counties are full of anxiety and contempt for the place they abandoned. “We’re still in the disco era here,” says Democratic political consultant Paul Maslin. This has affected the politics of the state in myriad ways. The nationwide trend of exploring alternatives to prison hasn’t reached Wisconsin—it has the highest rate of black male incarceration of any state in the country. Sykes told me he could track the desertion of the city through the discussions of Milwaukee public schools on his show. “Through the 1990s we were very interested in education reform, and then it was like a button was switched, and those were someone else’s kids,” he said. “That’s when I realized we weren’t a Milwaukee station anymore.”

Predictably, by 2010, the WOW counties were aflame with anti-Obama fervor, and Walker set his sights on the governor’s mansion. This climate should have favored his primary opponent, Mark Neumann, a highly conservative ex- congressman from southern Wisconsin. But so formidable was Walker’s talk-radio base that it altered the course of the race. Day after day, Sykes and Belling lauded Walker and savaged Neumann. Belling called Neumann a “liar” for criticizing Walker’s county budgets and declared, “No one I know thinks [Neumann] has a chance of winning.” The attacks were unfair but damaging, Neumann told me. Walker beat him by 18 points. In some precincts of the WOW counties, he won close to 75 percent of the vote, but lost to Neumann across much of the rest of the state. To Sykes, it was no coincidence that Walker’s support aligned so closely with the listening range of their stations. “If you look at that map, you see talk-radio land,” Sykes says.

Walker won the general election against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett with 52 percent of the vote. Some prognosticators expected that Walker might fare better than previous Republicans in Milwaukee County, given that he had spent eight years governing it. In fact, he did no better than the Republican norm, with 37 percent. But in the WOW counties, he exceeded even the GOP’s usual sky-high numbers. In his inaugural address, he took the audience on a long rhetorical tour of the state—“Superior to Kenosha; Sturgeon Bay over to Platteville ...” He did not mention Milwaukee.


A Guide to Scott Walker's Hyperpolarized Home Base

Barely more than a month after taking office, Walker introduced legislation to eradicate collective bargaining for all public employees except police and firefighters. Fourteen Democratic state senators fled the state to prevent Walker from assembling the quorum necessary for a vote, and tens of thousands of protesters descended on the state capitol for an occupation that lasted three weeks. Nationally, the tumult was described as a kind of alien visitation on Wisconsin’s paradise of Upper Midwestern civility. In fact, the episode had simply brought the polarization between the WOW counties and liberal Milwaukee and Madison out into the open for the first time.

Throughout the protests, Walker remained almost eerily unperturbed—even after he received death threats that resulted in round-the-clock security at his home. “It’s always been difficult for me to understand—if you’re an ideologue, you have passion, and he’s almost the most passionless human I’ve ever encountered,” says Milwaukee County Supervisor Gerry Broderick, a Democrat. “He never reacts with anything other than a shrug or a smile.” Walker’s only overt enthusiasms appear to be his Harley Davidson motorcycle and Ronald Reagan. He and Tonette married on Reagan’s birthday, and every year they celebrate their wedding anniversary / Reagan’s birthday by serving the Gipper’s favorite dishes, such as macaroni-and-cheese casserole and red, white, and blue jelly beans. Walker’s mother attributes his even keel to his faith. “He prayed and read the Bible every day, and when things got rough, [supporters would] tell him they were praying for him,” she says.

But there was another explanation for Walker’s calm. In the WOW counties, his support was near-absolute; on talk radio, his views were echoed and amplified without question on a daily basis. A network of powerful conservative supporters, from the Koch brothers to Wisconsin’s own Bradley Foundation, had rallied to his side. Ensconced in this bubble of affirmation and adulation, Walker believed that he could crush collective bargaining without provoking a backlash.

On the rare occasions that the bubble was punctured, the results could be humiliating. Eight weeks into Walker’s term, a prankster called him pretending to be David Koch. Walker didn’t realize he was speaking to an impostor and chatted chummily with him for nearly 20 minutes about his strategy for dealing with the protests; he hung up without figuring out the ruse. He was mocked around the country for his gullibility, but what the call really revealed was the insularity of his worldview. Only in an environment where Walker was praised so unrelentingly (around the same time, a TV-station manager who was miking him up whispered that she and her children had got down on their knees to pray for him) could the call have ever seemed plausible. The prankster, Ian Murphy, showered Walker with the same gushing reinforcement he had received from Sykes and Belling for years. “You’re not talking to any of these Democrat bastards are you?” he said. “Beautiful, beautiful. Got to crush that union.” Walker responded just as he had on the radio shows, with aw-shucks faux-humility. “We’ve had all the national shows. We were on ‘Hannity’ last night, I did ‘Good Morning America’ and the ‘Today’ show and all that sort of stuff, was on ‘Morning Joe’ this morning. We’ve done ‘Greta,’” he said. Walker’s radar failed to go off even when Murphy urged him to plant provocateurs among the protesters to make it look like they’d turned violent. “We thought about that,” Walker responded, incredibly, before explaining that he had decided against the idea because it might backfire: “My only fear would be if there’s a ruckus caused is that would scare the public into thinking maybe the governor has to settle to avoid all these problems.”

Walker’s 2013 memoir of the protests, Unintimidated, offers other moments similarly disconnected from reality. In one scene, Walker describes having been besieged by protesters as he was leaving an appearance at a La Crosse factory in February 2011: “We watched in disbelief as the throng of people rushed toward the second exit to block our path. As we tried to pull out, they surrounded the car and began beating on the windows and rocking the vehicle. ... We were dealing with people who were so blinded by their anger that they were not in the least bit afraid to storm and shake a police car.”

In fact, there is scant evidence that any such attack occurred, according to Politifact. Chris Hardie, editor of the La Crosse Tribune, told me that the reporter and photographer covering the event had not seen anything like what Walker recounts: “We tried to backtrack and talk to other people who were there—I even contacted our local TV station, and they still had some video that showed the car leaving the parking lot. They had nothing there that would’ve verified the governor’s story. Even the layout of the grounds of the plant where he stopped didn’t match up with his story in the book. Where they tried to leave one way and it was blocked, none of that seemed to make any sense.”

Walker and the GOP-led legislature eventually pushed the anti-union bill through without the Democratic senators present, which prompted an effort to recall Walker and replace him with Barrett, the Milwaukee mayor. The race got very nasty very quickly. Walker ran an ad charging Barrett with covering up violence in Milwaukee featuring an image of a brutalized toddler—a Willie Horton–style spot one rarely sees in other parts of the country anymore. At one point, Walker declared, “We don’t want Wisconsin to become like Milwaukee,” as if the state and its largest city were separate entities. The final vote showed his suburban base had become more hypercharged than ever. Turnout in Ozaukee and Waukesha counties surpassed 70 percent of voting-age adults, astonishing for a June election; he won some WOW communities with more than 80 percent of the vote. “There were lines of demarcation,” says John Gurda, author of The Making of Milwaukee, the definitive popular history of the city. “And then you get a governor’s—well, let’s call it boldness, bravado—taking action that was just jaw-dropping, and people waffling found themselves on one side or the other. Walker all by himself crystallized those longstanding but latent divisions and made them as deep as the Maginot line.”

In his victory speech at the Waukesha Expo Center, Walker pledged to be “committed to working with [Barrett] to help the city of Milwaukee.” But in the two years since the recall, his actions have only deepened the rift between the city and the suburbs. Milwaukee has been badly hurt by the state funding cuts that accompanied the public-employee union emasculation. City leaders are angry that the state is withholding from Milwaukee much of the settlement award for fraudulent mortgage practices in the city. They feel betrayed by a new state law overturning Milwaukee’s city residency requirement for police officers and firefighters. Walker also eliminated Milwaukee’s regional transit authority, undermining efforts to improve the city’s woeful bus access to suburban workplaces. And in refusing to accept the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, he cut thousands of Milwaukee residents from the program’s rolls. City officials are especially livid about Walker’s signing of a strict voter-I.D. law and a law sharply curtailing early voting, when thousands of Milwaukeeans cast their ballots. A judge overturned the voter-I.D. law in April, but the early voting cutbacks stand. Given how crucial turnout has become in the state, the intent was plain.

Walker has dismissed the complaints about his policies, telling the Journal Sentinel this year, “Increasingly, you’ve had Milwaukee leaders wanting to have help from surrounding suburban areas, like light rail, street cars. I think those types of things in particular get people in Waukesha, Ozaukee, and Washington counties worked up, because they don’t feel like they directly benefit, but they feel like they’re being asked.”

Walker made these comments in his characteristically bland way, but inside his team, the conversation sometimes took on an uglier edge. In February, a court ordered the release of thousands of e-mails collected in a wide-ranging investigation by state prosecutors that has led to the convictions of six former Walker aides and allies. The team had used a secret router system in the county office to communicate with each other, and the e-mails revealed an obsession with burnishing Walker’s image in the most small-bore ways. Walker himself urged employees to write favorably of him in the Journal Sentinel’s online comments. The e-mails also included several in which Walker, his aides, and Sykes discussed political and p.r. strategy. When I asked Sykes about these messages, he joked that he was surprised that the release hadn’t included even more communications between him and Walker, given how often Walker wrote him, especially now that Walker has gotten into text-messaging, which, Sykes said, “has changed [Walker’s] life.” “He keeps in very close touch with us,” Sykes said. “I don’t make any secret we’re close to Scott. ... People say, ‘Oh my God, he communicates with talk radio.’ Well, anyone who knows Scott Walker knows he does that all the time.”

But what was most striking was the casual racism of many of the conversations. 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.” Last year, Walker also fired two aides after reporters exposed offensive comments they had made on social media. His campaign’s deputy finance director, for instance, sent out tweets that included references to “half-breeds” and one in which she vowed to “choke that illegal mex cleaning in the library.”

I arrived in Milwaukee on the weekend of the Wisconsin Republican Party’s convention. The crowd assembling at the Hilton was mostly male and nearly all white. The only visible diversity was in the age of the participants, with a large contingent of blue-blazered College Republicans milling alongside older men with canes. During a break in the proceedings, Jeff Johns, the genial chairman of the Ozaukee County Republican Party, warned me about Fond du Lac Avenue, which bisects the black swath of northwest Milwaukee. “You don’t want to travel that at night,” he says. “You’re basically traveling the colored section.” He also voiced suspicions about Democratic turnout operations in Milwaukee, with campaigns “picking people up for their votes” and rewarding them with “free meals and benefits.”

The convention promised to be an eventful one. Some delegates were pushing platform language threatening nullification of federal laws, and even secession, to protest President Obama’s agenda; the party establishment was doing its best to prevent Walker’s national image from being tarnished by these efforts. When I attempted to attend a session titled “Media panel”—with Sykes and another conservative radio host—a stern young doorman informed me that “the media panel is closed to media.”

So I waited for Sykes, and when he emerged, I tagged along with his entourage to the grand nineteenth- century community hall where Walker was hosting a party for the delegates. To Sykes’s irritation, the GOP bouncer failed to recognize him and wouldn’t let him in. “To hell with these guys,” Sykes muttered and retired with three associates to the bar area, where I joined them for drinks. Moments later, a young woman materialized to apologize profusely for the mix-up and to assure Sykes that he was welcome upstairs. Playing hard to get, he told her he might make an appearance later.

Over Sykes’s second glass of wine, we got onto “The Wire,” which Sykes loves, a fact that, along with his cerebral manner, was making it hard for me to reconcile him with his abrasive on-air persona. Later, I asked whether his rhetoric was contributing to Milwaukee’s polarization. “I don’t think radio shows change people’s perceptions, because people’s perceptions are based on people’s own experience,” he said. “We hear that, that we’re driving the divisions, but the divisions are very real and are reflected in the discussions we have.”

The next day began with a string of notables, among them Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Ron Johnson, but the convention was clearly all about Walker. One of his two sons, Matt, spoke in his capacity as head of the state’s College Republicans, and throughout the day, Walker’s parents watched attentively from the front row. His mother had brought home-baked cookies to share with convention attendees, as she often used to do for his staff when he was county executive. (She and her husband wore shirts that read “SCOTT WALKER IS OUR SON” throughout the recall campaign.)

Then Walker himself finally appeared. Wisconsin politicos say his public-speaking skills have improved, but he still manages to come off as phlegmatic and self- impressed at the same time, with a boyish smirk that can recall George W. Bush. This speech was a forgettable recapitulation of his first term’s successes, delivered in tones even more nasal than usual, thanks to a head cold. “We believe in less dependence on government and more dependence on hard work and personal pride,” he said. “Wisconsin is not only great, it’s greater than the one we grew up in.” Watching him, it was hard to believe that a politician so seemingly banal had been the catalyst for such turmoil.

Photo by Narayan Mahon
Walker has been ensconced in a bubble of adulation.

And yet as pedestrian as the speech was, the crowd clearly loved it. This reminded me of what several state political veterans had told me, that Walker’s ascent had not prepared him well for the national stage. In Wisconsin, he occupies a comfortable cocoon; nationally, he’ll face tougher questions and even tougher opponents. A segment in February with Fox News’s Chris Wallace about the investigation into Walker’s county administration and the e-mail release did not go well. “He hasn’t shown the ability to do that, to step out of Nerf territory,” says Chris Larson, a Democratic state senator from Milwaukee. Terry, the former Belling employee, agrees. “No one’s really pushed his buttons, and trust me, when they get a hold of him and he can’t jump in the safety zone, it’ll go hard on him,” he said. In Wisconsin, “if he says something stupid ... he can run to the outlets and they’ll take care of it. He could eat a child on television and [Milwaukee talk radio] would go on about how it benefits children.”

Walker is deflecting any 2016 speculation for now, since he must first win reelection this fall against Mary Burke, a former bicycle-manufacturing executive. But he has been traveling extensively outside of Wisconsin building ties with national Republicans. In a single four-day stretch last year, as the legislature was grappling with the budget, he gave a speech at the Prescott Bush Awards Dinner in Stamford, Connecticut, attended a New York GOP fund-raiser at the “21” Club, and gave a keynote speech to the Polk County Republican Party in Iowa. And there is little doubt Walker believes himself ready for the national scene. In 2012, he took the unusual step of sending Mitt Romney a lengthy e-mail telling him what he was doing wrong. (He got no reply.) Compared with Romney, Walker would offer one clear advantage—it would be hard to cast a small-town preacher’s son as a plutocrat. Otherwise, though, it is difficult to envision how Walker would broaden his party’s national appeal beyond the same shrinking pool of voters that Romney drew from.

After the proceedings adjourned for the day, I headed down the stairs of the convention hall, where I encountered a banquet for the Metropolitan Milwaukee Alliance of Black School Educators. It was difficult to imagine a sharper contrast with the scene upstairs. One guest, Jimmie Spivey, told me he had recently tried to buy a house in Waukesha County but had been told by the lender that, while he could afford the house, he couldn’t afford the taxes. He was struck when he went to visit black friends in Atlanta or Los Angeles to find them living in the suburbs. Another attendee observed, “You’ve got the city of Milwaukee ... and you’ve got the suburbs, and it’s two different worlds,” he said. “I don’t feel a tension, but you feel something. It’s almost like you’re in a bubble if you’re in the city, and you’re in a bubble in the suburbs, and it’s only when the two bubbles collide that something happens.”

On Sunday morning, as the convention concluded with a closed-door prayer breakfast, I headed to my hotel and flipped on the television, just in time for Charlie Sykes’s weekly show. One of Sykes’s panelists raised the issue of “an incident in the fifteenth aldermanic district where supporters of a liberal candidate bought meals for voters.” The fifteenth district is mostly black, the candidate is black, and the former acting mayor who provided the lunches to voters is black. But the panelist didn’t mention any of that. For his audience, who live beyond Fond du Lac Avenue and its check-cashing outlets and shuttered storefronts, over the city line where the humble frame houses and bungalows give way abruptly to McMansion subdivisions with names like Harmony Hills and River Heights, he didn’t need to.