Donald Trump’s rise to the front of the GOP field may seem like an overnight phenomenon, but you can directly trace his appeal back to events in Wisconsin in 2011.
Shortly after taking office, Scott Walker caused a political earthquake in Wisconsin. Using union-busting legislation as his vehicle to national prominence in GOP circles, he introduced something into Wisconsin’s culture that did not match the values of our state: fear. People became fearful of their friends and neighbors who happened to be public servants. They were fearful that others were getting something they were not. Phrases like "haves and have-nots" (the "haves" being teachers and nurses, of course) and "divide and conquer" defined his governing style.
The protests in Wisconsin caused a spark around the world. Not long after that historic winter and spring in Madison, the Occupy movement began in New York and spread around the country. Divisions were drawn, and economic injustices were brought into the light of day. Social media was able to highlight just how much of our economy was dominated by the 1 percent. Fast forward a few years and the Black Lives Matter movement had a similar rise after pointing out the alarming racial disparities in our society.
Rather than use this as a moment to find common ground and unite as a country, the Republicans looked at it as a jumping-off point to bring fear and paranoia to a fever pitch. Views that didn’t fall in line with their values were portrayed as un-American. The federal government was shut down in one of the most blatantly obstructionist political maneuvers of our time. Scott Walker wouldn’t even say whether or not he believed President Obama to be a Christian.
Cue 2016. The Republican primary field was bigger than ever before. Because of this, the rhetoric was ratcheted up to make candidates stand out. In his short, 71-day run for the presidency, Scott Walker compared public employees in Wisconsin to ISIS terrorists. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have sparred over who is more strongly against immigration.
Towering above them all, Donald Trump is now poised to take the Republican nomination. With his inflammatory language and dangerous policies, pundits and the Republican establishment insist that his star will fade and cooler heads will prevail.
Scott Walker and other candidates who were publicly opposed to Trump are now singing a different tune. Walker recently called Trump’s candidacy "remarkable" and stated he would support him if he were to become the nominee. To the establishment of the Republican Party, I can only say that this is the bed you have made — it is time to lie in it.
The divisions that were set into motion years ago are now coming to fruition. The subtle, dog-whistle signals that used to guide the far right wing are now manifesting themselves as policies that would build a wall spanning our southern border and a vow to stop any Muslim from entering our country. If a political party’s leaders teach this, their supporters will hold these same views.
I am proud to be part of the Democratic Party. Our leaders seek policies that support our communities, celebrate diversity, and invest in our state and nation. We want to unite people rather than divide. Democrats know that our country cannot reach its potential unless we all do better together.
I believe that Scott Walker’s approval ratings today, hovering around 38 percent, are a foreshadowing of Donald Trump’s eventual political downfall. Hatred has a shelf life. It becomes stale and unappealing. If you divide too much, you end up with nothing. We, as Americans, deserve more than that.
Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, is a member of the Wisconsin Assembly.
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