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The Ongoing Insult of Wisconsin’s Endless Insurrection
At the heart of the lie of a stolen election is an insult. An insult to voters in cities like Milwaukee.
“Every Day Is Jan. 6 Now” reads the headline from the New York Times editorial board, and perhaps nowhere is that more accurate than here in the state of Wisconsin.
Nearly every day, there is a fresh reminder that the guiding belief behind the violent riot at the Capitol – the lie of a stolen presidential election – has been fully embraced by a Republican Party that spent all of 2021 working to pass laws that would restrict legal voting, and attacking the legitimacy of an election that has endlessly proven to be free, fair and secure.
The lie has been embraced so fully, and it has become so deeply embedded in what it means to be a Republican, post-2020, that the most recent Marquette University Law School Poll found that an overwhelming majority of the party’s voters in Wisconsin – a whopping 68%! – doubt the legitimacy of the election result. They believe the lie.
After a year of legal challenges, recounts, hearings, audits and attempts to change election laws, there appears to be no end in sight to Wisconsin Republicans’ ongoing subversion of democracy. It’s hard to see how this ends, and it’s nearly impossible to see a way where this ends well.
The most glaring example of this daily Jan. 6-ification of our politics is the ultra-partisan “investigation” being conducted by former State Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman, authorized and supported by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. It’s hard to even adequately characterize what’s happening with this undertaking. The bumbling incompetence revealed in the daily drip-drop of reporting on this increasingly expensive ongoing debacle obscures just how genuinely damaging its core mission continues to be, because the mission is the lie. We can’t overlook the fact that everything that’s happened with the Gableman probe is based on the same lie that led to the violent attack at the Capitol a year ago. This “Big Lie,” and the cavalcade of lies that continue to be built upon it, are deeply damaging to the foundational principles of our democracy.
We have already seen what this lie can lead to – an attack one federal judge called the most serious at the Capitol since the War of 1812. But the most telling moment of that day happened not as rioters rampaged the halls of the Capitol – making the transfer of power one that most certainly was not peaceful – but that night, as members of Congress cast votes on the certification of electoral votes and 147 Republican lawmakers voted to overturn the election, siding with the insurrectionists who had stormed the Capitol.
Among those voting to overturn were Wisconsin congressmen Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Tiffany, and it was their actions that night – shrugging off the horrifying events from hours earlier, unflinchingly forging ahead to back the lie of a stolen election – that set the tone for what the Republican Party would do in the year that followed.
Across the country last year, 440 new bills that would restrict voter access were introduced in 49 states. Wisconsin was among those, and if not for Tony Evers’ veto pen and the work of those fighting for democracy in Wisconsin, legislative Republicans would have been taking action to limit legal voting, using the lie as justification.
Robin Vos, the state’s most powerful legislative Republican, made Janel Brandtjen, a state representative who said the presidential election results should be overturned, the chair of the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections. He put Gableman in charge of an endless election probe. Even as fellow Republican and former election administrator Kathy Bernier, a state senator, ripped Gableman for damaging faith in democracy and called on the review to end, Vos shrugged it off. From the top down, at the state level, it’s a full party embrace of the lie.
And at the national level, perhaps no single member of Congress has done more to whitewash the events of Jan. 6 than Ron Johnson, Wisconsin’s senior Senator and the state’s top elected Republican, who has repeatedly downplayed the events of that day. Johnson has also proposed a legislative power grab of election management in the state that prompted an international democracy advocate to write in the Washington Post that “If this occurred in any of the countries where the United States provides aid, it would immediately be called out as a threat to democracy.”
The list of things said and done by Vos, Johnson and Wisconsin Republicans in the year since Jan. 6 are far too numerous to fit in any one column, which only goes to show just how central Wisconsin is to this larger discussion. This state has gained national recognition as the “front line” in the battle over the 2020 vote, and the effort to challenge the results here is “broader and more forceful than that in any other state.”
As we talk about these efforts, about Jan. 6, and about Donald Trump planning a coup and inciting a riot to overturn the election results, it’s important that we also acknowledge the individuals behind the results that meant victory for Joe Biden. When we’re talking about overturning the will of the people, let’s not overlook who those people are.
Because at the heart of the lie is an insult. An insult to everyone who voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 election. More than 1,630,000 Wisconsinites. It’s the suggestion that those votes, Democratic votes, are somehow illegitimate. That the people filling out those ballots are less deserving of the right to participate in this democracy. That it doesn’t belong to them. That is the insult of the daily Jan. 6 that is our politics in Wisconsin.
And while these insults have been directed at many Democratic strongholds in Wisconsin like Madison or Green Bay, so often, that insult is directed at the city of Milwaukee. Time and time again, Wisconsin Republicans have tried to say that our votes in Milwaukee don’t count.
The core of the lie is the delegitimization of the votes coming from the state’s largest, most diverse city. Each new action taken by Wisconsin Republicans to baselessly call into question the city’s votes or drum up conspiracies about results in Milwaukee is a gnawing, infuriating insult. It is unbelievably offensive, every time. Our votes count the same as anyone else’s in this state. The ongoing insinuation that Milwaukee’s votes don’t count is a constant insult to this wonderful and resilient city.
In 2018, after Democrats won a wave of elections including races for senator, governor, and attorney general, Vos said that “if you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority.” He and the Republicans in the legislature followed those comments by immediately proceeding to strip powers from the incoming Democrats during the lame-duck session – effectively delegitimizing the Democratic votes that were just cast. Post-2020, post Jan. 6, we’ve seen all of the efforts to take that even further.
With another election year upon us now in 2022, there is real fear that as the lie continues to grow and metastasize, Wisconsin Republicans could be positioning themselves to overturn the results of the popular vote in an upcoming election.
A Republican gubernatorial victory in 2022 could mean those bills restricting access to the ballot that Tony Evers vetoed could instead be signed into law, and that could just be the tip of the iceberg. A Republican-backed victory for a key State Supreme Court seat in 2023, when the balance will be at stake, could spell further trouble for upholding democratic principles. And in 2024, Republicans could have their ducks in a row to overturn the popular vote.
There’s a mountain of evidence to suggest that the state we should be most worried about attempting to overturn the results of a future election is Wisconsin. They haven’t been moving in this direction in the shadows. It’s all happening right out in the open.
Because the message they continue to deliver to Milwaukee is that our votes don’t count. At the core of the insurrection is a lie, and at the core of the lie is an ongoing insult. An insult to cities like Milwaukee.
For our democracy to heal, for our divided state to come together, these lies and these insults must come to an end.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes the award-winning column, The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.