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Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

Paul Ryan for Fanlund column

Top Republican officials from Wisconsin — including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan — are being very careful not to rile President Trump's always-angry core backers.


If Barack Obama were still president, the press release from the Republican Party of Wisconsin would have read something like this:

“The president’s outrageous proposal to place tariffs on imported steel and aluminum would be a disaster for Wisconsin, putting many hardworking people out of jobs and moving the entire nation backwards.

“It’s exactly the kind of far-left protectionism you would expect from an ultra-liberal who lacks the common sense that comes with private-sector experience. His trade war would increase prices for Wisconsin families and kill many more jobs here than any tariffs would protect.”

Except, of course, it is Donald Trump leading this tariff charge. Fellow Republicans Paul Ryan, Scott Walker and Ron Johnson seem so afraid of crossing Trump’s loyalists that their collective pushback is weak tea, something like: “Gosh, Mr. President, we sure hope you’ll reconsider.”

Or as a spokesman for Ryan, the House speaker, put it in a news release prior to Trump's decision Thursday to go ahead with (slightly modified) tariffs: “The speaker is hoping the president will consider the unintended consequences of this idea and look at other approaches before moving forward.” 

Walker and Johnson have also been soft with their rhetoric, even though the head of the European Union specifically threatened to impose new taxes on Harley-Davidson motorcycles manufactured in Wisconsin.

Obama would be incapable of an idea so colossally misguided, of course.

Still, it’s amusing to watch the right wing squirm. In this election year, Republicans really yearn to focus on the fiction that their tax overhaul helps ordinary Americans even though it massively favors the wealthy, explodes the debt and trickles a few bucks to the working class. Even then, middle-class tax cuts will expire; corporate rate cuts will not.

On tariffs, Republicans like Ryan and others apparently know better than to aggressively criticize Trump so as not to offend his base within the GOP that seems perpetually angry.

One can just imagine the New York Times or Washington Post sending a reporter to the heart of Trump country and quoting someone pretty much like this: “Well, my family might have to pay higher prices and it may cost jobs around here, but Trump is draining the swamp and making America great again. He’s sticking it to the Washington establishment and pissing off all the people we despise. So we love it!”

Here in Wisconsin, we have been talking about the “politics of resentment” for all of this decade. The state GOP has masterfully nurtured that resentment, demonizing knowledge workers and people of color in the state’s largest two cities.

While that resentment has helped politicians like Ryan, Walker and Johnson, it may now be beyond their control. That’s because the politics of resentment seem to have devolved into the politics of loathing.

The fact is that Trump’s truest believers despise the rest of us, and they apparently would rather lose themselves than see others — moderates, liberals, knowledge workers, people of color, anyone not part of their populist tribe — ever win.

Far-fetched? The political science term for it is “negative partisanship,” the notion that anger toward political foes, not loyalty to one’s own candidates, is the top motivator.

Thomas B. Edsall, in a smart New York Times op-ed steeped in academic research, summarizes: “Hostility to the opposition party and its candidates has now reached a level where loathing motivates voters more than loyalty.”

Edsall quotes a study by two Stanford political scientists that concluded that while voting against a political enemy rather than voting for a candidate had increased since 2000, it exploded in 2016, when both major presidential candidates were viewed more negatively than positively.

And here is how it connects to love of Trump: Even when he proposes something that would hurt them personally, his supporters remain loyal. Edsall explained: “Perhaps the most important consequence of the current power of political anger is that there has been a marked decline in accountability of public officials to the electorate.”

The Stanford professors touched a similar theme: “When citizens’ support for a candidate stems primarily from their strong dislike for the opposing candidate, (their party’s candidates) are less subject to the logic of accountability.”

They wrote that voters’ “psychic satisfaction comes more from defeating and humiliating the out-group, and less from any performance or policy benefits that might accrue from the victory of the in-party. For this group of voters, candidates have every incentive to inflame partisan negativity, further entrenching affective polarization.”

Or, as Edsall put it: “It lessens pressure on the winner to be accountable to his or her supporters, effectively freeing winners to thumb their noses at many of the voters who put them in office.”

So, while many of us remain mystified that Trump can act outrageously and not alienate his staunchest base, that’s apparently much of the reason.

Oh, and let me pre-emptively reject the suggestion that blame for this crisis is shared across the political spectrum, that there exists some sort of equal and roughly parallel negative partisanship on the left.

To be sure, many progressives loathe this president, but Trump is the tragic culmination of the past three decades in which the toxic culture of conservative talk radio, television and the internet has replaced an old-school shared information norm, one dominated by commonly accepted facts reported by professional journalists. What on the left is anything like that?

Back during the campaign, Trump famously boasted of the unwavering loyalty shown him by backers: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”

About that, he’s apparently right.

The best hope, I suppose, is that this blowtorch of “negative partisanship” turns back toward Trump this fall thanks to millions of women, young people, people of color and fair-minded people generally. In this scenario, Trump would be the “negative partisanship” catalyst for a game-changing turnout.

Yes, I’d acknowledge it would be nice if, at some point, we begin to talk about reconstructing a spirit of national unity and reconciliation.

But, in a pinch, first things first. If Trump-loathing is what it takes to produce a turnout tidal wave, bring it on.

Call it a tactic for our times.

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