The tension between Donald Trump and the party he hopes will nominate him for president was never so obvious as when the GOP front-runner gave a speech last week in Janesville, Wisconsin, and asked, “How do you like Paul Ryan?” The crowd reacted with loud boos. This, in the hometown of Ryan, the Republican House Speaker, the 2012 vice-presidential candidate, the party’s leading policy wonk, and a life-long Janesville resident who has represented it in Congress since 1999. Yet he got a shower of jeers from Trump’s supporters.
That, in miniature, has been the story of the run-up to Tuesday’s Republican primary showdown between Trump and Ted Cruz. Wisconsin is a state that should be prime Trump territory, given our relatively small percentage of minority voters and large percentage of whites who lack a college degree. It is also the most politically polarized state in the nation, as a result of Governor Scott Walker’s law crushing public-worker unions—which in turn has made Republicans here remarkably united in recent elections.
That unity can now be seen in the overwhelming opposition of state GOP leaders to Trump. But the sheer clarity of that anti-Trumpism, in turn, has helped unmask an alienation between the Republican establishment and a major portion of the party’s voters. Wisconsin is displaying with unusual clarity the schism in the national GOP, and the picture isn’t so pretty.
That begins to become clear when you see how talk radio here is treating Trump. Elsewhere, conservative talk radio has mostly supported him or stayed neutral. After all, Trump’s style is in so many ways a match for right-wing radio, which has made a living on nastiness and sneering at liberals—which Trump certainly offers, blended with shots at his fellow Republican candidates and just about anything else that comes to his meandering mind. Talk radio helped lay the groundwork for Trump’s brazenness, and many of its listeners love him.
But in Wisconsin, he’s getting no love from radio talkers. As Milwaukee talk-radio host Charlie Sykes has written on his Right Wisconsin website, “Wisconsin boasts an unusually robust talk radio infrastructure,” and “there are no Hannity-like Trump fan boys here.”
No siree. In Wisconsin, talk radio has been uniformly supportive of arch-conservative Governor Walker, whose brief, meteor-like rise in the GOP presidential primary thudded back to earth in September, the first major casualty of Trump’s success. “We sent him packing like a little boy,” Trump boasted in his Janesville speech, rubbing salt in the wound.
The pain of Walker’s failure, along with Trump’s attacks on Ryan, was felt by the radio talkers. “You’re in Wisconsin, where it’s a different state, sir, than you might be used to,” Milwaukee talk-show host Vicki McKenna lectured Trump last week. “This is a state that pulled together Republican coalitions.” Walker didn’t win “in a blue-state-turned-purple-state like Wisconsin by dividing Republicans,” she said.
Trump eventually hung up on McKenna, and he fared no better in his calls to Sykes or Jerry Bader in Green Bay. All three hosts of popular Wisconsin shows are backing Cruz, Trump learned to his surprise, and were very chilly to the front-runner. Sykes won national coverage for the way he lectured the real-estate tycoon, in fact, comparing him to “a twelve-year-old bully on the playground” and suggesting he lacked “civility and decency.” The irony that this came from a talk-radio host known for his own lack of civility was nowhere noted.
In response, Trump has done what he always does, going on the attack. “Ted Cruz likes to pretend he’s an outsider,” Trump said in Janesville, not long after his disastrous foray into local talk radio. “In the meantime he gets all the establishment support, including your governor.” Trump had a high old time blasting Walker. Wisconsin “is doing very poorly,” is “losing jobs all over the place,” and is mired in “vitriol” (a neat way of describing the state’s polarization) over Walker, Trump declared, but “you have a governor that has you convinced that it doesn’t have problems,” as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
Meanwhile, he blasts trade deals that hurt workers, immigrants who take away jobs, and politicians paid off by the powerful. It’s the world according to Trump, and the message resonates powerfully with less-educated whites—many left behind by the global economy—but has no appeal to more well-to-do, college-educated-and-up Republicans. That fault line in the party is remarkably well-defined in Wisconsin: In the 21 more urbanized counties of southern Wisconsin, which include Milwaukee and Madison, Trump has a very negative (minus 10 to minus 39 percent) favorability rating; in the 51 less populated counties to the north, he has a very positive (plus 8 to plus 21 percent) rating.
That divide is all the more striking when you consider that 95 percent of Republicans statewide were unified in their support of Walker in his 2014 reelection campaign.
In Milwaukee, Sykes has coined the term “Trumpkins” to describe The Donald’s followers. Sykes wrote a book, A Nation of Moochers, condemning people who depend on government benefits, a view that echoed Mitt Romney’s infamous comment that 47 percent of the nation depends upon government help and believes they are victims, and one largely embraced by Ryan. But until now, the Republicans’ extolling of “the makers, not the takers” had never seemed aimed at the party faithful, but rather at unnamed “others”—blacks, Hispanics, single mothers.
But as less-educated white voters have turned out in droves for Trump, he has defended their reliance on Social Security and Medicare and warned that Republicans like Ryan want to cut those benefits. In response, conservatives are increasingly aiming their sneers at these Republican and “Reagan Democrat” voters. As National Review columnist Kevin Williamson put it in yet another of the magazine’s anti-Trump columns, here is how we should view these struggling low-income whites: “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible.”
What Sykes and talk radio are signaling in Wisconsin is not just that their allegiance lies with more well-to-do conservatives, but that their sneers at a “nation of moochers” really is as all-encompassing as it sounds, and includes many of their own listeners.
Polls have consistently shown Trump running behind Cruz in Wisconsin. “If the Trump Train derails, it may start right here,” Sykes trumpeted. But win or lose here, Trump has exposed some disturbing truths about the Republican and conservative establishment that may sow lasting bitterness among the Trumpkins. They will either be rejected, as party leaders join forces to deny Trump the nomination, or they will be blamed for the party’s defeat, should he get the nomination and fail to achieve victory. Either result could leave the party as badly divided as the GOP map of Wisconsin.