by Prof Don DeBats
Today, April 5, is a critical date in the race toward the Republican Party nomination for the party’s presidential candidate. Wisconsin’s primary elections hold the key to the future of today’s national party and the state’s three Republican legacies.
Both the Democrats and the Republicans hold their primary election on April 5, but the Republican result is by far the more important. Hillary Clinton will probably not win the Democratic contest in the Badger State but Bernie Sanders remains a long-shot for the Democratic nomination and a Wisconsin win will do him little long-term good.
On the Republican side, however, Wisconsin represents the last good chance for the moderate Republican establishment, finally mobilized by the prevailing danger of a demagogue as their party’s presidential candidate leading to the loss in November of not only the White House, but the House of Representatives and conceivably the US Senate too, to exert influence over the presidential race and its own fate. It is do or die time to derail the candidacy of Donald Trump.
Wisconsin has a mixed record in this regard. A small, largely agricultural state and a poor state with a declining industrial base, its citizens take great pride in not only its fine state University system but its legacy as the home of progressive Republican movements. It has a claim to the birth place of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party in the 1850’s and the Progressive movement within that party half a century later.
Wisconsin’s more recent Republican legacy is reflected in a highly controversial Governor Scott Walker and a somewhat more moderate Republican Paul Ryan who, with at least public reluctance, accepted the Party’s draft to become Speaker of the House of Representatives, an extremely powerful position.
The state’s far darker history is summoned up by Senator Joe McCarthy, a Wisconsin native whose birthday is still celebrated at his graveside in his home town of Appleton and who was a Trump-like demagogue in his own time in the 1950s. He achieved his fame through the misuse of political power to destroy the lives of individuals whom he persecuted as agents of an international communist conspiracy to take over the United States government. Arthur Miller captured his threat in his famous play, The Crucible. He was a clear and present danger toward whom the Republican establishment, then as now with Trump, was initially indifferent, diffident, and happy to exploit. He was every bit as dangerously irrational then as Donald Trump is today.
The vote today will affirm one of these three Wisconsin Republican legacies: progressive change, dogged conservatism, or demagogic enabler.
If Trump triumphs in Wisconsin the chance of denying him the Republican Party nomination is greatly reduced: he would win up to 42 additional delegates in the race for 1237 by the opening of the Republican National Convention on July 18 in Cleveland, Ohio. Far more importantly, however, a winning Trump in Wisconsin could thumb his nose at the Republican moderate establishment as ineffectual and effete force and he could well coast to becoming a modern Joe McCarthy not as a junior Senator from Wisconsin but the presidential candidate of the national Republican Party.