A Wisconsin pastor on the conservative path forward

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Just before the Wisconsin primary, Tom Chantry, a Reformed Baptist pastor, wrote a thorough and fun-to-read account of Wisconsin political history and culture, aimed at his mostly non-Wisconsin readership. Reading it again, three weeks after the primary, and reading his follow-up pieces, I see that it isn't just solid political journalism, but some useful insights into the conservative path forward, drawing lessons from the success of Gov. Scott Walker and his allies in the Legislature at getting elected and reforming government in a conservative mold in a state with a history of far-left progressivism.

In the first article, Chantry explains how Wisconsin's liberals and conservatives are different from their national counterparts, and he provides a good summary of the rise of Scott Walker and the battles of the last six years. Especially interesting: What makes Wisconsin talk radio different from everywhere else.

In the 1980s a media revolution was touched off with the establishment of the Rush Limbaugh program, which was picked up in Milwaukee within a few months of its inception. Conservatism having been driven completely out of television and print news, radio became its home. Conservatives found that they were given a voice by Limbaugh and others who followed.

But after the last year it has become evident that the "conservative" radio hosts have only given conservatism a voice; they have not actually been that voice. Truth be told, they said so all along. Limbaugh gloats that he does not create conservatism, he merely reflects and amplifies it. That's another way of saying that national talk radio is not conservative at all, but populist. As long as populism involved patriotism, values, fiscal responsibility, and smaller government, the hosts appeared conservative, but with the emergence of the Donald, populism has pulled the so-called "conservative" media into the gutter....

Quite frankly, it would never have been possible to do in Wisconsin what Limbaugh did on the national stage. Most conservatives were hiding (politely) in their homes, trying not to offend their neighbors. There was little true conservatism to reflect or amplify. For conservative media to be established here, it took a determined, opinionated loudmouth. [Mark] Belling was that loudmouth.

It's hard not to listen to Belling if you live in Milwaukee. Other media is dying. The local newspaper is now printed on a postcard (or so it seems). If anything of substance happens in the state, Belling is often the guy who knows the whole background, the principle players, and the implications. His show is aggressive in a way that Limbaugh's never was. Belling doesn't care to give his listeners a voice. He wants them to become conservatives, now! Amazingly, it has worked. He has carved out a space for himself, and he's transformed Wisconsin media in the meantime.

Chantry lists a number of other conservative local talk show hosts in Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay and concludes:

What ties these voices together is their conscientious advance of conservatism over the last few decades in Wisconsin, a state which, remember, was very, very Blue. The conservatism they advance is principled and philosophically disciplined, not mere gut-reaction conservatism. With the exception of Belling (and sometimes McKenna) it is delivered in the voice of Midwestern courtesy, but it is serious, militant conservatism nonetheless. It has begun to make a mark.

Chantry provides a detailed but fast-paced overview of Scott Walker's rise and the Left's descent into gibbering madness in response. Regarding Walker:

There are four types of governor in America: conservative governors in conservative states, liberal governors in liberal states, moderate governors in various states, and Scott Walker. I cannot think of any analogy to his governorship: he has governed as a consistent (some would say far-right) conservative in the ancient home of American Progressivism, and he's won.

Corrupt and incompetent Democrat officials opened the door for Walker to win election, and he used the opportunity to govern effectively and efficiently, which allowed him to rise to the governor's mansion.

Here's part 2: The GOP race in the last week before the primary, in which he discusses the talk radio buzzsaw that Trump complacently strolled right into:

Two differences from the national scene are worthy of note. First, Wisconsin simply has no passive conservative media. Limbaugh and Hannity would have flopped if they had started on this stage, for reasons I described yesterday. Wisconsin's conservative media is another breed, and they are heavily invested in keeping Trump's non-conservative movement from invading the state's Republican party.

But second, and equally important, Trump didn't seem to know anything about this. It is no surprise to any of us; the hosts have been railing against Trump for weeks now. When I heard that Sykes would be interviewing Trump, I thought, "He really is mad!" He wasn't mad, though, just ignorant. His campaign isn't apparently doing much state-by-state research, and Trump walked into the Wisconsin talk radio buzz-saw unprepared.

And Chantry discusses Trump's ill-advised attack on Scott Walker in retaliation for Walker's endorsement of Cruz:

Now Walker remains exhibit A for Wisconsin courtesy. He did not say that Trump is a blow-hard, a clown, an aging lecher, a corrupt insider, and an entire fraud. When asked if his endorsement was intended as an anti-Trump statement, he continued to talk about Cruz. It didn't matter; everyone knows what Walker is likely to think of Trump.

Trump himself, who apparently has never discussed Walker with anyone but his New York elite liberal buddies, apparently doesn't think that matters. Apparently his genius campaign staff never told him that Walker has an 80% approval rating among the Republicans whose votes he is trying to win, because Trump immediately decided to attack him....

Then came the Wednesday morning rally in Janesville, where he convinced his minions to boo favorite son Paul Ryan. This was also the rally in which the young woman among the far-left Trump protesters was assaulted and pepper-sprayed by Trump supporters. If only she and others like her had realized that inside the event, Trump was repeating all their favored attacks on Walker!

That afternoon Mark Belling promptly cancelled a vacation, stormed into his studio, sent his guest-host home, and went to war against Trump. If you ever thought Belling is a crass jerk, you should have heard Wednesday's show! (He actually called Trump a "butthead" on the air.) Belling is, however, influential, and he has been hammering away on Trump, insisting that the insurgent candidacy threatens to undo all the conservative advances of the last few years in this state.

And part 3: The Wisconsin results.

Voters would do well to recall the maxim that all that glitters is not gold. Miners who get excited over the glitter of iron pyrite are identified by the mineral's common name: fools' gold. It is not what it first appears. Experts, though, whether gold miners or jewelers, are not fooled. The reason is their familiarity with the real thing. If you know what gold really looks like, pyrite isn't much of a substitute.

And honestly, that is the basic reason for Trump's collapse in Wisconsin. Wisconsin has its angry conservatives, but if they've been paying any attention at all, they've seen the real deal. It is easy to focus on Scott Walker; the truth is that the Wisconsin Republican party has been disciplined and conservative in the last six years. Assemblymen and senators passed Act 10; there have been many courageous acts along the way. Our conservatives have been pure, 24-carat gold.

In spite of serving in his second term as governor, Walker is a true outsider. He seems genuinely unconcerned with what his colleagues and the media think of him. Wisconsin conservative politicians are not play-acting; they have consistently articulated conservative principles. "Reform" is not an empty battle-cry in this state; we have watched one reform after another enacted. Next to serious conservatism, the Donald Trump dog-and-pony show is rather sad.

Donald Trump has come this far by reflecting and amplifying the anger of the electorate.... But anger itself is not a policy. Years ago Republicans laughed at Bill Clinton for "feeling our pain." We wanted to know what exactly he was going to do about our pain. But now, when Trump feels our anger, how do we respond?

One of the most striking elements of the Trump phenomenon is the utter absence of prescription. Trump supporters love to call talk radio and yell about their grievances. When they call Limbaugh or Hannity, the host responds, "Yes, I sense how angry you are." Gee, thanks, Dr. Phil! But when the same [sup]porters called the actual conservative hosts in Wisconsin, something else entirely happened. The callers were asked what they wanted to see done about the anger, or what they thought Trump would change. The exchanges that followed were embarrassing to hear.

The callers were quick to say repeatedly how bad politicians are, and how much they've taken advantage of the country, but they couldn't think of anything to do about it....They have no actual interest in Trump's alleged policies (I say "alleged" because I don't believe he is a complete idiot, either), but instead are drawn to his tone.

This appeal is, however, rather limited in a state where policy prescriptions have born real fruit. Walker and the Republican leadership in Wisconsin have never appeared angry. (All the anger has been on the left. I say again, Trump's fury and that of his supporters looks radical and leftist to us.) Instead, they have actually done things. They have addressed the root of conservative anger rather than stoking the flame. This is a conservatism that leads somewhere, not a populism that leaves us panting when our tantrum is over. Once you've had the one, you've little desire for the other.

American politics has been reduced to mere symbolism.... The right in our country complains incessantly that the left only cares about symbolism and feelings, not substance and results. But in the wake of the Trump phenomenon, we have to ask how much of the right is also dominated by its feelings.

(As an aside, I have been one observer unsurprised by Trump's success among "evangelicals." Evangelicalism is not a movement concerned with truth and righteousness, but with how one feels. Trump's candidacy is pretty much identical to an evangelical worship service: light on substance, playing fast and loose with truth, but very emotionally satisfying. How was anyone surprised by his early successes? Trump is an evangelical!)

What is needed - not only by conservatism but by the country - is principled but practical leadership. Emotive conservatism, whether it is the "compassionate conservatism" of Bush or the angry populism of Trump, leads nowhere. We need less emphasis on our angst and more on policy; less on style and more on substance.

And to that end, I would suggest the number one change needed in the conservative movement: we need a radical revolution in conservative media. The era of Limbaugh and Hannity needs to end. I, for one, will not listen to either any more - not even in passing. We've had decades of reflection and amplification of our feelings, and where has it gotten us? Our federal government is more leftist than ever, the conservative electorate is angrier than ever, and now the therapeutic hosts are holding our hand sympathetically while we go about trying to nominate a B-list celebrity clown for the most powerful office in the world.

I can tell you from inside Wisconsin, it doesn't have to be this way. Conservative politicians don't need to be symbols of our anger, and conservative media doesn't need to be an empty sounding board. We can change this.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on April 25, 2016 8:56 PM.

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