While there’s more than one kind of conservative Republican (traditionalist, transactionalist, or populist), it’s the populists who are the most numerous and most demanding. Over time, they’ve pushed other kinds of conservatives – even transactionalists who are behind-the-scenes manipulators – into subordinate positions. (See generally Whitewater’s Local Politics 2021.)
These rightwing populists have outlasted Trump, and although they pine for his return, they’ll go on without him. They’re reshaped a state party that only five years ago rejected the object of their devotion in the Wisconsin primary. The WISGOP is a conservative populist party.
A characteristic of these conservative populists is that they take but do not give, demand but do not offer. If a custom or habit suits them, they’ll insist it must always be followed; if they see no personal gain in the custom, no matter how long-standing, they’ll demand it be cast aside.
One sees this at the state level, as Henry Redman reports in Wisconsin Republicans using a ‘back door’ to extend the Scott Walker era. (Walker may once have been a rival of Trump, but like so many other Republicans, Walker and the WISGOP are now rightwing populists.) Redman writes that
In April, Evers appointed two new members to the NRB — seemingly giving his appointees control of the board that sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources, the state agency that controls controversial issues such as wolf hunting, PFAS regulation and other environmental rules.
Yet when the board met May 26, one of Evers’ appointees was barred from taking her seat because the board’s chair, Fred Prehn, refused to vacate his seat even though his term expired on May 1.
On Wednesday, Prehn implied he wouldn’t be giving up his seat any time soon when he talked about attending the next NRB meeting in June. And the NRB is also not the only state board or commission where Republicans hold power to prevent Evers from gaining a majority of his appointees installed.
This year, Evers’ nominees to the UW System Board of Regents gave him control of a board that, under Walker control, has been highly controversial. None of the nominees Evers has made to the board since he was sworn in has been confirmed by the senate. All of them are currently serving as de facto members.
Local officials, in Whitewater and elsewhere, face a choice: argue against this movement or accede to its ever-growing list of regressive demands. Futilely pretending this faction will go away is a mistake.
(While it’s true, as Jennifer Rubin observed years ago, that Trumpist communities are not as productive as ones committed to liberal democratic values, these conservative populists are energetic enough to push forward their political agenda, including at local councils and on school boards.)
April and May 2021 in Whitewater, for example, should have shown opponents that this rightist movement will loudly demand and take what it wants. Along the way, conservative transactionalists – tiny local versions of Mitch McConnell – will themselves parrot inane populist claims to achieve their business ends. (A third kind of conservative, the traditional conservatives, are perhaps happy simply to remain at the table.) These two months of quiet observation of the local political scene confirm the view that evasion or appeasement sends bad to worse.
It would be easier, of course, merely to narrate life in a small city, and in significant respects, local government’s poor past choices make narration unavoidable: there aren’t many good political options for government or public schools in Whitewater. Residents would be better off acknowledging The Limits of Local Politics.
And yet, and yet, if one does not step beyond narration, if there is no advocacy against perniciousness, then what is the use of advocacy?