Crunch Time in Wisconsin

This past Friday afternoon I arrived at the address advertised for a “grassroots rally” for Republican governor Scott Walker, who is facing a recall election today against Milwaukee’s Democratic mayor Tom Barrett. I was greeted at the gate by two Waukesha County sheriff’s cars, from within which one of the officers asked me why I was there.

The setting was plant of Quad/Graphics, the second largest printing company in the country, in the village of Sussex, pop. 10,045, and the cops were guarding the governor on a factory “walkthrough”-just about the only home-stretch campaigning Walker was doing. It co-starred South Carolina governor and proud and admitted union-buster Nikki Haley, who called Walker, whose law crushing Wisconsin’s public service unions is the reason state activists managed to raise over a million signatures to recall him, a model for all governors to follow. Walker, in blue-collared work shirt, repeated the lie that has become his closing argument: that the federal’ Bureau of Labor Statistics had “verified” his administration’s “corrected” numbers showing that, contrary to earlier reports of job losses, Wisconsin under Walker “has added over 30,000 jobs.”

Not much of a grassroots rally. And a curious place to make even a fake job-growth sale. Quad/Graphics’s contribution to America’s industrial economy in the last several years has been to buy up printing factories around the country to close them – in order, as the company has explained, to “maximize profitability, improve credit profiles, and adapt to an increasingly dynamic and challenging endmarket environment.” In other words, they kill jobs for a living.

Upon further thought, perhaps that’s not so curious. Relentlessly anti-union, infamous in Wisconsin for its cult-like workplace culture (I remember it from when my class was taken on a field trip there as a boy), Quad/Graphics is just the place if you need a captive audience of factory workers to display on the news enthusiastically cheering their governor. They look exactly like union members are supposed to look. But if they actually had a union to protect them they wouldn’t have had to look enthusiastic – upon fear of losing their jobs.

This was also a perfect audience to cheer the Walker campaign’s other closing big lie: that Barrett was responsible covering up his city’s descent into a Mad Max-style cauldron of criminal anarchy. “We don’t want Wisconsin to become like Milwaukee,” the governor dog-whistled in rural Sussex (African-American population: 0.75 percent) of the nearby city where nearly seventy percent of the state’s black population lives.

Then, a sunny drive west on I-94, a radio interview with friendly Mayor Barrett – and for the second time that weekend, I heard a public radio host explain apologetically that producers had reached out to both candidates, but that the Walker campaign said no or did not respond. Walker’s press operation is run by a woman named Ciara Matthews, who in 2007 wrote and then deleted a blog post reading “I would really love to punch Hillary Clinton in the face,” and whose previous job was keeping media from lunatic Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle (the one who told a group of Mexican-American students “you look a little more Asian to me” and suggested “”Second Amendment remedies” in a conversation about how to “take Harry Reid out”).

A truck stop. A pleasant woman’s voice over an AM radio station: “… the corrected numbers show large job job gains … the reforms made job creators more confident …. Wisconsin is getting back to work …” The ad’s sponsor is the “WMC Foundation,” as in Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business organization, who have scored the neat trick of simultaneously blanketing the state with misleading pro-Walker ads and mainlining into the media an ostensibly objective survey in which its membership overwhelmingly affirms that thanks to Walker’s “reforms” they’ll be hiring more … soon.
Wisconsinites meanwhile pulled out their phones and saw texts reading, “Tom Barrett is a Union Puppet who will give Union Thugs everything they want. Call & ask why 414-271-8050.” That’s Barrett campaign headquarters – whose switchboard was promptly shut down by the deluge of calls.

Welcome to Scott Walker’s Wisconsin – and, if Wisconsin fails to do the right thing today, Scott Walker’s America: dirty tricks and intricately nested corporate-sponsored lies, states competing with one another to out-Dixie Dixie, glittering simulations of democracy on TV commercials paid for by cruel lying billionaires, passed on verbatim by reporters too lazy to care.

Then I reached my destination, Madison’s Labor Temple, and saw another Wisconsin on full display – a lucky thing or I would have just about jumped into Lake Mendota.

I saw police officers there, too – relaxing in the sun getting ready to enjoy a Friday get-out-the-vote concert put on by the independent group We Are Wisconsin and starring Jackson Browne, Mike McColgan of the Dropkick Murpheys, Tim McIlrath of Rise Against, rapper Brother Ali, and mighty Tom Morello, who put it all together and MC’ed. These officers wore T-shirts reading “COPS FOR LABOR.” There were little old ladies, too, sporting “PROUD TO BE A UNION THUG” T-shirts. There were young people, and middle aged people, and people of color, yuppies and blue-collars – just like the congregations of 100,000 and more who descended upon Madison’s state capitol day after frigid day the moment Governor Walker introduced his union-busting bill. That, back in February of 2011, Tom Morello told me backstage before the show, was the first thing he noticed about the Madison Uprising: “not just the usual suspects of young anarchists and old hippies, but, you know, firefighters, policemen, Green Bay Packers, longshoremen.”

“And vets, and farmers,” Jackson Browne chimed in. “It almost sort of presaged Occupy.”

He’s right. In fact, Madison would have been the biggest political story of 2011 if there were any sense in our political press; instead, newspapers were busy giving front-page attention to Tea Party rallies drawing crowds in the hundreds or even less.

Morello, with the blessing of his nine-months-pregnant wife, raced to Madison immediately upon seeing the images just like the ones he’d been watching from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, “and an hour away from where I grew up in Libertyville, Illinois.” Jackson Browne followed the story obsessively. I asked him how it connects with his activist interests, which go back decades. “It actually fits right in with everything else I’ve ever done. It comes under the heading of community. Strengthening our prosperity based on what people really need in their lives …. The civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the environment-all of it shines a light on corporate America’s rise to try to control, to try to make personal fortunes off the backs of regular people.”

And now here it was happening again.

“When I came in on the plane at down, at around 5:30 this morning, I thought, ‘It’s a beautiful, beautiful place.'” Browne went on. “And you say, ‘What does it take to make those beautiful communities? Well, you have to have teachers, you have to have firemen, you have to have cops, you have to have an infrastructure. And what they’re continually doing is letting this thing fall apart-“

Morello: “all in the name of short-term gain.”

Browne: “And a large percent of the $35 million being spent by these billionaires is to try to convince working class people that the billionaires are on their side!”

I spotted the extraordinary rapper who leverages his racial ambiguity  – ethnically caucasian, aurally African American, whose medical condition of albinism gave him striking white skin and piercing blue eyes – to invest his lyrics on the imperative of solidarity an intensity that transcends clich. “Maybe we can bring over Brother Ali here,” I say.

And Jackson Browne lights up even more. “Brother Ali is fantastic,” he says, practically worshipfully.

Ali, who is staggeringly well informed on current events, reflects on Walker as “the prototype that groups like ALEC” – the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Washington-based right-wing group that writes legislation like Scott Walker’s anti-union bill to push through state legislators across the nation in the name of “Wisconsin values” and “Michigan values” and “Nevada values” and the like – “are putting in place. They’re saying, ‘Can we be this brash? Can we be this quick with what our agenda is? So we’re here to say: ‘don’t mess around.'”

Excitable Tom Morello, the words rushing out: “I think they’ve been very surprised. I mean, the hubris: that there’s nothing that can stand in the way of their money.”

Browne, practically on top of him: “They’ve got a culture of impunity. They believe in impunity! The Bush administration was the same thing: ‘Oh, that’s illegal? Well, let’s see you stop us then.'”

A little one crawls into the rapper’s lap; “What’s your friend, Ali?”
“That’s my daughter, Soul. S-O-U-L.”
“That I can see! Are you having fun?”

Soul nods, but I’m having fun too: “I wasn’t asking you. I was asking these guys. You having fun?”

Browne: “Yeah! This is fun! It’s very exciting! It’s really like paddling into a big wave to hang out with Tom Morello and see him organizing various disparate musical influences”-at which, as if on cue, Tim McIlrath sits down to join the conversation: the twenty-something punk rocker, this weathered baby-boomer sage, this rapper, the sui generis Morello, all staggered by this solidarity they get to be part of, as historic as anything they’d ever seen. Mike McColgan is across the room, in another animated conversation, so I caught up with him later by phone. He took a mid-career hiatus to work as a fireman in Boston, and revels in the story of how Tom Barrett’s running mate, Mahlon Mitchell, the head of the firefighters union, reacted when the governor took him into a back room to explain that Act Ten would exempt his union and also the policeman’s union: he said “Hell no.” And then the cops said the same. “I’ve never seen police officers being part of the labor movement in a city or state that out front. This just kind of typifies how amazing this whole grassroots movement is. Everybody’s in. It’s all encompassing. It’s an amazing movement.”

Back in the green room, Tom Morello explains what the 1% does when faced with something like that. “What they’re trying to do is silence us. This is what this is all about …. But they’ve been surprised at every turnout. They didn’t know there was going to be 100,000 people in the streets. They didn’t know there was going to be a million signatures for the recall. They didn’t know that despite the fact that they’re outspending the Democrats twelve to one they can’t get above fifty percent.! You know, with all the lies, and the smoke and the mirrors, they can’t get above 50 percent. Becuse theres’ something in the people here – same as the people in Cairo, same as the people in Greece, same as the students in Chile and Quebec – that’s just saying, ‘We’ve had enough!”

“Now, can we harness that for a social justice movement here in Madison, in Wisconsin, in the country, in the world, that’s going to improve people’s lives and hold those criminals accountable? I don’t know. But in an hour and a half onstage, we’re going to paint a little picture of what that world would look like.”

And then the congregation took the stage, where they did. “Who is that guy?” an old lady asks me when Tim McIlrath starts singing union songs. I say he’s from a punk rock band called Rise Against. “Punk rock? My gosh! It’s good!” Uncannily, another old woman asks me the same thing when Brother Ali takes the stage: “I’m not a rap fan but I like it!” (So does Jackson Browne, who turned intently to Ali after our interview to ask him exctly how freestyling worked.)

The next morning I drive to a microscopic town next to Racine, where a giant open field was a stop on the bus tour in which Americans for Prosperity, the fake grassroots group that fronts for the Koch Brothers, was shipping supporters from, among other places, Illinois, to these here rallies around the state. Not, they claim, to support the Walker campaign – that would violate election law – which they had nothing to do with, but just in the interest of “educating folks in the importance of the reforms.”

It wasn’t hard to come up with a crowd count: I just counted them. The three hundred or so (though National Review counts differently than me) white people – and one black, who stood precisely in the center of the front row and wore an AFP staff T-shirt – heard an AFP staffer hosannah “economic freedom, limited government, and lower taxes.” And that “even Barack Obama’s Bureau of Labor Statistics” said “we’ve created jobs in Wisconsin.” Then he introduced as an “honorary Wisconsinite,” the head of Americans for Prosperity – Wisconsin, Tim Phillips – a Southerner who made a joke about frigid weather. Apparently reverse carpet-bagging is a signal feature of this “grassroots” movement.

Then a third speaker, but I had already wandered off , bored by the conspicuous lack of energy, past a sign reading “Republican’s Are Makers Democrats Are Takers” [sic, of course], and tables featuring free DVDs on both the glories of Scott Walker and the United Nation’s plan to enslave the United States, in the direction of a a second, entirely separate, stage across the field put up by the Racine Tea Party. A few minutes later, the rest of the crowd followed me there. For, yes, an entirely separate rally, which had nothing to do with the nonpartisan one two hundred yards away that had just ended. There they heard Walker’s running mate Rebecca Kleefisch rant about the “big union bosses from out of state,” and how the unions were just like Goliath, and her boss was exactly like David.

Me, I fingered my slick Americans for Prosperity – Wisconsin flier, which I later noticed contained the most revealing typo in the history of politics. “The forces of BIG GOVERNMENT would like nothing more than for you to DO NOTHING,” it warned, but promised, “We are gathering citizens together from across Michigan to make phone calls, knock on doors and educate their friends, family and neighbors.”

The tag line? “Join forces with Americans for Prosperity to defend the Wisconsin Way and fight back against the failed policies of Barack Obama.” Michigan Way, Wisconsin Way: what’s the diff? It’s the Koch Brothers’ Way all the way, and if Wisconsin doesn’t vote right today, it’s where we all are heading.

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He writes a weekly column for