How Scott Walker’s Wisconsin Paved the Way for Donald Trump’s America

Dan Kaufman

Much like Ronald Reagan’s defeat of the air traffic controllers, Scott Walker’s assault on public sector unions should be remembered as a turning point in American history that opened the floodgates to new attacks on the working class — and as a harbinger of Trumpism.

Former governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, 2017. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

Interview by
Luke Savage

In the summer of 2018, author Dan Kaufman published The Fall of Wisconsin — a lucid, disturbing account of how a right-wing offensive successfully stormed the ramparts of one of America’s most historically progressive and pro-labor states. Later that year, Republican governor Scott Walker was finally defeated in his bid for reelection, but the state’s public sector remains a shadow of its former self — and Walker’s divide-and-conquer strategy continues to be exported across the country with devastating consequences.

Earlier this month, Kaufman wrote for the New York Times about the lingering influence of Walkerism in his home state and in American politics writ large. Jacobin’s Luke Savage spoke to Kaufman about why the Republican conquest of Wisconsin matters so much — and offers deep insight into the roots of Trump’s improbable 2016 victory.

Luke Savage

To set the stage a little bit: you began your recent New York Times piece by comparing the 2011 passage of Wisconsin’s Act 10 to Ronald Reagan’s famous 1981 offensive against the air traffic controllers. For those who don’t know or don’t remember, what was the context for Act 10, and what was its immediate aftermath?

Dan Kaufman

It seemingly came out of nowhere. In 2010, Scott Walker, who was then the Milwaukee County Executive, did not campaign on it. In fact, he had said a couple of weeks prior to the election that he would use collective bargaining to win concessions over pensions and health insurance.

However, the demise of public employee unions had been a long-standing goal of a powerful right-wing network that’s spearheaded by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and includes groups like the Bradley Foundation and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity.

Walker was very connected to this network. In fact, he was almost auditioning for it. There was a lot of posturing in 2010 by a number of Republican governors who were looking to attract attention from the Kochs in particular.

So Walker went furthest. Act 10 essentially eliminated collective bargaining rights for the state’s public employees — both municipal employees and state employees — except for nearly all of the police unions and all of the firefighters unions. Many of those unions had endorsed Walker.

Walker framed it as a way to save money: communities would gain “flexibility.” And, of course Act 10 played into economic resentment that had been building. The 2008 financial crisis was severe and lasting for many people, especially in rural America. So Walker was able to stoke resentment against public employees because they had decent benefits — pensions, health insurance. They might, for example, be among the few people in a small community who even had employer-sponsored health insurance.

Thousands gather outside the Wisconsin state capitol building during the 2011 Wisconsin budget protests. (Justin Ormont / Wikimedia Commons)

So there was this opening for a new Republican assault on labor. And prominent Democrats in some ways abetted this effort, with rhetoric attacking the public sphere. (Arne Duncan, Obama’s secretary of education, in particular, had a lot of ideas that deeply antagonized public school teachers.)

There were these huge protests in Madison against Act 10 — at least a hundred thousand people, some people say more — showed up. They occupied the statehouse for three weeks, and Democratic state senators fled for Illinois (much like how the Texas Democrats are doing now over voting rights) in order to prevent a quorum on the bill. But there was little support for this among national Democrats. Neither Obama nor Joe Biden came to Wisconsin.

In the piece, I talk about how Obama had promised that he would walk on the picket line and protect collective bargaining rights if they were ever attacked. So that was a really important thing that people in Wisconsin, especially those who were part of the protests against Act 10, were keenly aware of and felt deeply betrayed over. Tellingly, I think many establishment Democrats wanted to distance themselves from that movement; Walker even boasted about that in his book. He bragged that Obama was too frightened to come to Wisconsin and defend labor.

Why has labor weakened so much? On one side you have these direct attacks; on the other side you have a negligence that is, in a way, a more subtle attack.

One of the criticisms made by some labor activists in Wisconsin was that this grassroots movement was quickly subsumed by an electoral effort, which in the end favored Walker because of the massive influx of dark money that flooded into the state to aid him. You had a hundred thousand people mobilized, and then all of a sudden they were told to go home and put their energy into a recall petition drive with the goal of ousting Walker. They did get a million signatures, and it was a remarkable grassroots effort — not just centered in Madison or Milwaukee, it was really all over the state.

But ultimately, Walker was able to frame the recall as unjust and undemocratic, even though recall elections come out of a democratic reform that’s been a part of Wisconsin’s political tradition for nearly a hundred years.

So Walker won, narrowly. Obama didn’t campaign with Walker’s opponent and even distanced himself from the whole episode, because he was worried about his own reelection. That was the most bitter blow for a lot of people in Wisconsin who had been activated by the fight for labor rights. All the energy at the Capitol just vanished.

However, in the piece I talk about the ways in which the Act 10 protests were an underappreciated spark for Occupy, the Sanders 2016 campaign, and the wider revival of a social-democratic strain which is firmly rooted in the labor movement and goes back to the New Deal, or even earlier.

You hadn’t seen that kind of mass labor action in the United States in decades. It was so shocking. And even though it was defeated, it resonated and continues to resonate. Although in Wisconsin itself the situation is very bleak as far as any kind of turnaround because the Republicans have so thoroughly gerrymandered the state legislature. There’s no hope, in the near future at least, to restore the labor rights that were taken away.

Luke Savage

Wisconsin’s union membership has declined significantly. But your piece notes a number of other quite significant corollaries to Walker’s successful attack on public sector unions, notably in education. Can you talk about that a bit?

Dan Kaufman

For one thing people are now less interested in becoming teachers. It was always a venerated position and profession in Wisconsin. That’s what the cultural and social/economic tradition of the state was pre-Walker: the public sector was very appreciated, admired. I think it goes back in some ways to the Scandinavian immigrants who settled in large numbers in the state in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. They had a strong and deep faith in public institutions.

Walker undermined the public sector: not just in terms of wages and benefits, but in terms of the dignity of the jobs that comprise it. Collective bargaining rights are human rights; they elevate workers and give them a voice. I think the loss of those things was as important if not more so than the material losses, because a strong public sector is an equalizing force in society at large.

Of course, I’m not saying that there weren’t deep issues with racism and a lot of other problems in Wisconsin before Act 10. But there was also a kind of social cohesion that has been completely lost — maybe not completely, but it’s been damaged very deeply.

Walker was candid about his divide and conquer strategy — he said as much in a remarkable video that he gave to a billionaire donor that was captured by a documentary filmmaker named Brad Lichtenstein. That strategy succeeded.

Unfortunately in America, the trade union movement has sometimes been too narrowly focused. And some of the private sector union members didn’t see themselves as connected to the attack on the public employees, so they supported Walker and bought into the narrative that public employees were a privileged class and so forth.

At least one of the building trades, who are traditionally among the most conservative unions, even endorsed Walker after Act 10. The leader of that union thought that it would get them protection from a right to work law. But of course, Walker eventually signed a right to work law. In the protests against Act 10, there were a hundred thousand people. In the protests against right to work, there were about fifteen thousand people. There was such a demoralization and such a fragmentation of labor after the passage of the initial law.

It was the kind of atomization that you see in the United States on a larger scale. One of the themes of my piece was that labor is one of the few forces that can bring about cohesion. It’s one of the few places where you see cross-racial solidarity. At many union meetings I’ve been to I’ve seen people of different races calling each other brother and sister and really meaning it.

The American labor movement has left a remarkable legacy, which is not taught or respected much in the United States. One of the things that was hard for a lot of people in Wisconsin was that the state had been a somewhat anomalous place in that there was more appreciation for that tradition. Then Act 10 came out of nowhere.

But when you look at it closely, you can see the seeds of it going way back — whether it’s from Jimmy Carter attacking the size of the federal workforce and appointing Paul Volcker to be chairman of the Fed, or at the state level where Walker’s predecessor, Wisconsin Democratic governor Jim Doyle, embraced the neoliberal logic of Reagan and others by boasting about his cuts to state employees. Key figures in both parties decided that the public sphere had little or no value, then competed to be the politician who could cut it mostly deeply. And you wound up with a decades-long war of attrition against the public sphere.

Luke Savage

There’s one quite obvious way that Scott Walker’s governorship laid the groundwork for Donald Trump, inasmuch as it weakened Democratic constituencies in the state and helped him win key electoral votes in 2016. Your argument, though, is that this is also the case in a much broader, small “d” democratic sense. Outside the directly electoral or partisan dynamics, how was Scott Walker’s Wisconsin a harbinger for Donald Trump’s America?

Dan Kaufman

There are a couple of ways. For one, I think it’s often underappreciated how much Walker ran as a kind of right-wing populist. He definitely had nicer manners than Trump, but there were these faux-populist gestures like Walker bringing a brown bag lunch to work everyday and riding a Harley around the state. All that stuff helped cloak this other agenda that was billionaire-funded.

Relatedly, I think a lot of people give Trump’s brand of right-wing populism too much credit. I was at an ALEC meeting in 2016 in Indianapolis, and Mike Pence was the keynote speaker. He was there to reassure the people in attendance that Trump was one of them, despite his supposed apostasies on Social Security and Medicare, and his professed concern for the industrial Midwest, his anti-NAFTA rhetoric, etc.

When you look at it closely, Trump didn’t actually do things that much differently. It was a lot of show in certain areas, but you had people like Steve Mnuchin really running things in a very conventional style of Wall Street Republican politics. Walker’s own pseudo-populism was similar.

Former governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker, 2015. (Michael Vadon / Wikimedia Commons)

Another parallel is that Walker employed a strategy of stoking resentment similar to Trump’s. There was a racial subtext to a degree, because public employees tend to be disproportionately people of color, though that wasn’t the only factor. But Walker’s divide and conquer strategy — Trump just took that and ran with it. That was actually the original working title of my book because I think it sums up the whole last decade perfectly, the Trumpian politics that Walker pioneered. Walker showed how successful it could be in a state like Wisconsin, of all places.

Now the state’s union density rate is roughly the same as Alabama’s, where there’s been tremendous, sometimes violent hostility to labor for a long time. Since the New Deal, Wisconsin had been very labor-friendly, but Walker was able to transform it. He was able to show that this kind of politics could win in a place like Wisconsin.

And of course, Trump then won the state in 2016. And Michigan — the birthplace of the UAW — passed a right to work law after Act 10 succeeded in Wisconsin. Trump won Michigan too. When Obama distanced himself from the Act 10 protests, it showed that there was an open season on labor. Besides a tweet or two, and a few tepid comments from the White House, Obama didn’t do anything to intervene. It was simply not germane to him.

That’s the other side of what happened. Democrats wonder why Trump won: well, it was the chickens coming home to roost, in a way. There was an opening for these kinds of virulent anti-labor attacks. The result is what you get when you don’t defend something.

Sanders did exceptionally well in Wisconsin in the 2016 primary. Many people in rural areas — even some Republicans — supported him. Part of that is rooted in economic distress. You can go to a rural town in western Wisconsin, and in some ways, it’s not all that different from a deindustrialized rust belt town or city, because agriculture has been so corporatized. (There’s an interesting agricultural economist from Missouri named John Ikerd who talks about the economic colonization of rural America, by which he means almost all of the money produced by the land and the people on it does not benefit rural communities themselves; it flows outward.)

Add to that, how rural people sometimes get written off as culturally backward; there can be tremendous condescension toward them, of which they are aware. In 2016, Trump staged five huge rallies in Wisconsin, whereas Hillary Clinton did not go to Wisconsin even once during the general election campaign. So Trump pulled out a narrow victory. And Biden only won by very few votes, about twenty thousand, almost the exact inverse of Trump’s victory.

Unless there’s a more foundational political shift within the Democratic Party, I think Wisconsin will continue to be fertile ground for right-wing populism.