‘Hey, everybody, how about it, huh?’ Paul Ryan said, coming onto a stage decorated with hay bales and pumpkins in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, on the afternoon of 9 October. ‘Man, good day! Good to see you, what a beautiful day, huh? Welcome to Fall Fest, you guys! Welcome to Fall Fest! Look, let me just start off by saying, there is a bit of an elephant in the room. And it is a troubling situation. I’m serious, it is. I put out a statement about this last night. I meant what I said and it’s still how I feel.’ The previous day, Ryan had disinvited Donald Trump from his home state rally after the release of the 2005 tape on which Trump bragged about kissing and groping women. It was the culmination of the long festering feud between the Republican establishment’s pseudo-intellectual leader, the eminently respectable speaker of the House, and the party’s heretical blowhard presidential nominee. ‘But that is not what we’re here to talk about today,’ Ryan continued. ‘You know what we do here at Fall Fest? We talk about our ideas.’ Republican ideas – usually summarised as ‘freedom’ and ‘individual liberty’, reliable code for cutting benefits and pursuing privatisation – are what Ryan is a champion of. The national media has long been happy to repeat the Ryan-as-brainiac myth, somehow traceable to his deep reading of the works of Ayn Rand. One Wisconsin native explained it to me differently: ‘He’s a dumb person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like.’
Whatever his public contortions, Ryan has always clearly hated Trump. There’s the contrast of their personas: Ryan the clean-cut, humble rural prom king and Trump the sleazy big-city real estate mogul and reality television executioner. Trump has never shown fealty and at best paid lip service to the conservative movement’s three-prong catechism of which Ryan is the most prominent and doctrinaire national exemplar. In shorthand these are a ‘strong defence’ (Trump claims falsely to have opposed the Iraq War and would allow or encourage South Korea and Japan to defend themselves with nuclear weapons); free enterprise (Trump rejects global free trade); and social conservatism (Trump has little concept of the religious right’s anti-abortion pieties). Trump’s alienation of Latinos and women has flown in the face of the GOP’s stated long-term national strategy. His apparent tolerance for and sometime stoking of white nationalists (the going euphemism for neo-Nazis) and his abandonment of ethnic dog whistles in favour of blatantly racist rhetoric have painted the GOP into a corner as the party of the resentful and ageing portion of a white population that will soon fade from majority to plurality status nationally.
The ‘ideas’ Ryan made so much of onstage that afternoon in Elkhorn included welfare reform (i.e. austerity), increased defence spending, deregulation, gutting federal agencies, repealing Obamacare. The local officials who preceded him at the rally all touted their legislative victories at state level: drug-testing for recipients of food stamps, a school-choice programme that undermines public education, defunding of Planned Parenthood, anti-union right-to-work laws, the raising of the cap on campaign donations, ID requirements that suppress African-American and student votes, and more than $4 billion in tax cuts. All of them disparaged Hillary Clinton but avoided mentioning Trump by name. Most of the crowd was docile, happy to be served a lunch of pulled-pork sandwiches and crisps, but a vocal minority was incensed at Trump’s absence. The rally was a fundraiser – I had purchased a ticket for the minimum donation of $30 – and one woman, who had paid to see Trump, wanted her $500 back. The loudest of the hecklers was Paul Anderson, a red-headed young man in sunglasses, shorts and a MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN baseball cap. He was holding a TRUMP/PENCE sign with HILLARY IS A CRIMINAL written on the reverse. He was surrounded by television reporters, and over the weekend he would become a minor national meme. Most of what he was saying was more or less a twist on popular Trumpite anti-Clinton sloganeering. ‘What do I know? I’m just a deplorable!’ he said, referring to Clinton’s characterisation of half of Trump supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables’ for their racism, xenophobia, misogyny etc. He shouted at every speaker and led chants of ‘We want Trump!’ When Ryan asked the crowd, ‘How many of you think Obamacare is working?’ Anderson, who’d approached the stage with his sign, screamed: ‘Donald Trump!’ ‘I don’t think he thinks Obamacare is working either,’ Ryan said.
It was the afternoon’s one moment of levity. After Ryan left the stage (he’d spoken for seven minutes) to chants of ‘Shame on you!’ from Anderson and his sidekicks, I approached an elderly woman who had scolded Anderson for his heckling and asked him to sit down. Her name was Louise Bauman. ‘He shouldn’t be here,’ she said, referring to Anderson. ‘It’s silly what he’s doing. This is Paul’s party. We come here every year to have lunch and see our friends.’ I asked her if she’d be voting for Trump after hearing the remarks he had made on tape. ‘Yes, I am. It’s a shame that they put that on television, but I’ve said some of those same things myself, and I’m a good person!’ She didn’t seem like the sort of person who said those things. She asked where I was from, and I told her Massachusetts but added that my great-grandfather had immigrated from Denmark to nearby Janesville. ‘Welcome home!’ she said.
Some reporters at the rally were able to find stray supporters of the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, but everyone I spoke to insisted they were voting for Trump. (I did speak to one Hillary voter, Ryan Solen, the Democrat running for Congress against Paul Ryan. I asked him who would have the upper hand in Washington if both Trump and Ryan prevailed. ‘Trump will be Ryan’s puppet,’ he said.) The Trump voters included many women. They expressed their support either sheepishly like Bauman, or with an enthusiasm rivalling Anderson’s. As one 23-year-old woman put it to me, ‘I don’t think it’s right what he said, but I think he has a better plan for his country, better than Hillary’s.’ An attorney called Suzanne de Rath, sitting with a group of women wearing DEPLORABLE LIVES MATTER T-shirts, was disgusted that Ryan had disinvited his party’s nominee. ‘Paul Ryan probably has fraternity pictures of himself that are worse than what Trump said. I’m a woman and I’m not offended. It wasn’t actions, it was something he said in private. I’m offended by men saying we should be offended. What world do you live in? Disneyworld?’
I had come to Elkhorn to get a glimpse of Homo Republicanus or Homo Trumpiens, but I had to admit the sample on hand was disappointing. The Ryan loyalists were mild-mannered conservative suburbanites, perhaps disproportionately affluent since they were able to attend a fundraiser. The Trump diehards like Anderson and de Rath were not unsavvy and well-schooled in their hero’s favourite sayings. Later, Frederick Kessler, a Democratic state representative from Milwaukee, explained to me that in the event of a Trump loss a ‘civil war’ would break out among four factions of Republicans in Wisconsin. There are the Trump supporters, clustered in ‘non-tourist, rural’ areas in the north of the state, like Forest County, and in areas like West Allis, a suburb of Milwaukee and former home of Allis-Chalmers, a tractor and farm machinery manufacturer shuttered in the 1990s, where the grandchildren of Eastern European immigrants are nostalgic for vanished factory jobs. Then there is the ‘business establishment’ of the so-called WashWaukee, or WOW, counties around Milwaukee: they are traditional conservatives, supporters of Ryan and the governor, Scott Walker; 80 per cent of the women among them oppose Trump. Around Green Bay the population is largely descended from immigrants from the Benelux countries, including the highest percentage of ethnic Belgians in the US, and they are moderates who reliably vote Republican. (Kessler was full of trivia: the town of Holland has never not voted Republican; similar records apply in the town of Belgium, which was settled by people from Luxembourg, and in the town of Luxemburg, which was settled by the Dutch.) A fourth contingent without ethnic or geographic cohesion are ideological libertarians.
Wisconsin was the home of Robert La Follette Sr, the Senate’s greatest progressive, and of Joseph McCarthy, its most infamous reactionary. It has voted for Democratic presidential candidates in every election since 1988. But off-year elections with low voter turnout – and proportionally higher turnout by older white voters – have allowed Republicans to consolidate power at the state level, and achieve a ‘trifecta’: since 2010, after an infusion of money from the Koch brothers, Wisconsin has been one of 23 states where Republicans control the governor’s office and both branches of the legislature. The year 2010 – the height of the Tea Party moment – was also the occasion of the last US census, which every ten years is used to determine the shape of legislative districts. The Wisconsin GOP used their trifectas to strengthen their advantage with aggressive gerrymandering. So in 2012 Wisconsin Republicans won five of the state’s eight congressional seats on 49 per cent of the vote and increased their advantage in both branches of the state legislature despite being outvoted by Democrats overall. Nationally, this process has given the Republicans a semi-permanent majority in the House of Representatives, which means that the often mentioned potential for Trump to poison the national brand is grossly exaggerated. The source of Republican national power is Republican local power, which will be hard to shake until after the 2020 census, no matter how badly they behave. In Wisconsin, the Republican trifecta has allowed the party over the last five years to push through a series of laws that reduce corporate taxation and regulation, cripple unions and increase private opportunities to mine the state for profit. ‘It is amazing how much the Walker wrecking crew has been able to accomplish in five years,’ Matthew Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, told me. ‘Progressive legislation that had been on the books for decades. It’s an effort to turn back the clock and wage war on the legacy of progressivism in Wisconsin.’ The achievements the Fall Fest speakers rattled off weren’t met with a groundswell of cheers from the crowd: this isn’t the result of a grassroots movement.
As has been documented by the historian William Cronen, reporters for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison, Wisconsin, much of the GOP programme, as handed down to state legislators, was conceived if not written by an organisation called the American Legislative Exchange Council. The group is of Cold War vintage, founded in 1973 by Henry Hyde, Lou Barnett and Paul Weyrich, a Wisconsin native. (Weyrich also had a hand in starting the Heritage Foundation and the Moral Majority.) By defining itself as a non-partisan, non-profit organisation, Alec eludes legal definitions of lobbying while serving to connect state legislatures with corporations at its conferences, which also stand in as family-friendly luxury vacations for legislators, sometimes billed to their states or their campaigns. Alec generates ‘model bills’, written by its corporate membership for passage in Republican-controlled state legislatures. Laws requiring state-issued photo ID cards, designed to suppress voting by African-Americans and students, are among the bills it has disseminated. Wisconsin’s voter ID law has been weakened after a federal court ruling determined aspects of the law unconstitutional, citing the case of a 100-year-old African-American woman who couldn’t be issued an ID because the Wisconsin Department of Motor Vehicles could find no record of her birth in St Louis in 1916. ‘Many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome – good government,’ Weyrich told a crowd in Dallas in 1980. ‘They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of our country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.’
The list of Alec’s present and past corporate members is long and encyclopaedic: the Koch brothers, ExxonMobil, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and Walmart have been among its corporate board members. Some Silicon Valley firms, including Google, Amazon and Yahoo, have left Alec in recent years, after model bills were promulgated denying climate change. Liberal activists in Milwaukee told me that attempts to pass Alec-drafted legislation can be so clumsy that a bill put forth in Wisconsin will still include language referring to a state where it was previously passed, like, say, Kansas. The Wisconsin law requiring civics tests for high school students and aspiring citizens has been traced back to Alec. What’s the motive there? Patriotism? Adding another barrier to legal immigration? Perhaps both, but there’s certainly also a payday involved for a company that administers standardised tests.
All this is a world away from the sort of people who pay the minimum ticket price of $30 to attend Fall Fest. After I left Wisconsin I corresponded with Paul Anderson, who explained that he counted himself a libertarian, and said: ‘Trump is not part of the corrupt establishment. A total outsider. Self-funded his primary campaign. Didn’t take money from Goldman Sachs and the corrupt banks like every other candidate. Isn’t owned and operated by anyone but himself. Isn’t part of either corrupt “party”. Isn’t a politician. Doesn’t use political correctness. He is the voice of the People. He symbolises how fed up Americans are with our federal government. The fact that both “parties” are against Trump is proof that Trump is 100 per cent real. That and the fact that all of mainstream media is against Trump proves how scared the Establishment is of him.’ He was confident Trump’s Supreme Court nominees would ‘model Justice Scalia’. ‘Hillary will appoint radical “liberals” who will spell the end of America. People who hate the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. I put “liberals” in quotes because liberals today are not real liberals at all. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were real liberals.’ He takes his news from the Drudge Report and Infowars and has soured on the GOP: ‘These corrupt establishment neoconservatives actually want Hillary Clinton to win in order to preserve the status quo where they keep their cosy, corrupt positions of power. Paul Ryan is a corrupt traitor piece of trash. The same goes for Walker, McCain, the Bushes and any other “Republicans” who turn their back on Trump and the People.’ He was confident when I asked him if the election made him worried about his business, which was selling popcorn: ‘Small businesses are dying as a result of our federal government, but I will remain successful regardless of what happens in this election. However, the same can’t be said for our republic. Hillary Clinton would be the closing pitcher if you know what I mean. The death of America.’