Scott Kevin Walker, fresh from a free-spending yet folksy campaign in which he carried his lunch in a brown paper bag and promised to create 250,000 jobs, delivered his first inaugural address as governor of Wisconsin on January 3, 2011. “I stand before you not as the governor of one party or another, or the governor of one part of the state or another,” he declared. “Today, I stand before you as the governor for all of the people in the state of Wisconsin.”
Days later, Walker traveled from Madison, the state capital, to Beloit, a working-class town battered by plant closings. But he wasn’t reaching out to laid-off workers or confirming his commitment to a city that hadn’t voted for him. He was meeting with Diane Hendricks, the billionaire who would become his most generous campaign donor. A political compatriot of the Koch brothers, Hendricks had a question for him: “Any chance we’ll ever get to be a completely red state, and work on these unions, and become a right-to-work [state]?” This was an explicitly political question about destroying unions, which generally back Democrats, as part of a strategy to turn the swing state of Wisconsin into a Republican bastion. Walker didn’t blink. “Yes…we’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget-adjustment bill,” the new governor confided. “The first step is, we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public-employee unions, because you use divide-and-conquer….”
Although this preacher’s son has developed a reputation for peddling many versions of the truth, Scott Walker never lies to billionaires who write campaign checks. Within weeks, he launched an assault on public-sector unions that provoked mass demonstrations and eventually led more than 900,000 Wisconsinites to petition for his removal. That battle, culminating with his victory in a recall election, helped to propel Walker onto the national stage as a conquering hero for Republicans, who have made him a front-runner for their party’s 2016 presidential nomination. But it also exposed the unblinking hypocrisy of Walker, the most politically savvy and comfortably cynical contender for the presidency since Richard Nixon.
When a video of the meeting with Hendricks surfaced just before the 2012 recall election, Walker knew he was in trouble. His answer was to deny everything, with the aw-shucks smile and knowing wink of a man who understands that in a new media age, it is possible to surf through a few days of bad publicity on a wave of echo-chamber spin and overwhelming campaign expenditures. He wasn’t talking about dividing and conquering Wisconsin for political purposes, Walker said; he was explaining (to a billionaire campaign donor) how to reduce the influence of “a handful of special interests.” As for enacting the anti-labor legislation he had promised Hendricks, Walker declared: “It’s not going to get to my desk. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure it isn’t there.”
Yet after he won the recall and was reelected in 2014, Walker signed a sweeping right-to-work law as an all-but-announced candidate for the 2016 GOP nod. He made no effort to argue that the circumstances had changed or that his views had evolved: His office simply announced that the governor was a longtime supporter of right-to-work measures, while Walker declared that signing the anti-union law sent “a powerful message across the country and across the world.”
Walker has kept his promise to Hendricks: He has divided and conquered. In a little over four years as governor, he has obliterated moderate Republicans and mainstream conservatism in a state where both once flourished. In their place has evolved a win-at-any-cost new politics built around Walker, who has ripped up election laws, governance, and personal relationships so thoroughly that Wisconsin’s largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, calls him “the most divisive Wisconsin politician in living memory”—in a state that was represented by Joe McCarthy in the Senate as recently as 1957. Walker has not turned Wisconsin “completely red,” but he has conquered foes in both parties and remade the political infrastructure to the point that he can now boast to compromise-averse Republicans: “If our reforms can work in a blue state like Wisconsin, they can work anywhere in America.” But which reforms? The changes that Walker trumpets on the campaign trail—assaults on public employees, public education, public services, and unions; the rejection of federal mandates; and the remaking of economic-development programs and tax schemes to distribute wealth upward—haven’t worked any better than the failed austerity schemes in Europe. Wisconsin trails far behind neighboring states like Minnesota and the rest of the nation when it comes to job creation and economic vitality. However, the “reforms” that matter most to Walker—those that enhance his personal power and electability—have been successful enough to make him a serious contender for the Republican nomination.
National polls as well as surveys from Iowa, the first caucus state, suggest that many sincere conservatives are excited by Walker, who presents himself as more reliably right-wing than establishment favorites like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and more electable than right-wing heartthrobs like Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Ted Cruz. Yet Representative Gwen Moore, a Milwaukee Democrat who beat Walker in a legislative race 25 years ago and eventually served in the state legislature with him, has a warning for wide-eyed Republican stalwarts: “Don’t trust him. He will stab you in the back.” Walker will “move to the left or the right…depending on who is bankrolling him,” she argues. There is plenty of evidence for this on issues as seemingly difficult to straddle as abortion rights, marriage equality, immigration policy, and Donald Trump trolling the 2016 campaign. But there’s more to this governor than the standard political practice of talking out of both sides of one’s mouth—or even following the dictates of one’s donors.
No one should imagine that a President Walker would appoint moderate Supreme Court justices, build bipartisan coalitions, or govern in any way that might offend GOP Super-PAC contributors. There is nothing bold or innovative about Walker, nothing unpredictable or (despite the title of his comically self-serving autobiography) unintimidated. He works methodically, checking every box necessary to secure and engage the party base. Yet across a quarter-century as a legislator, chief executive of Wisconsin’s largest county, and governor, he has shown little interest in expanding that base or “spreading the gospel” beyond true believers, and he relishes every opportunity to recount how angry he makes “the left.”
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The way to understand this governor begins with the recognition that, while he has always embraced Republicanism and conservatism, his primary focus is Walkerism—the advancement of Scott Walker. Don’t look for, say, a libertarian streak in this guy, or the old right’s dubiousness about military adventurism. Walker talks a good anti-government game, but he’s been on the government payroll for 22 of his 47 years. Downsizing government isn’t really his thing; rather, he has a penchant for using it to reward friends, punish enemies, and, above all, promote his political career. In this, suggests former White House counsel and Watergate conspirator John Dean, Walker is “a double high authoritarian governor, a conservative without conscience.” That makes the boyishly affable Walker less comparable to the Republican president he claims to revere, Ronald Reagan, and much more comparable to a Republican president he never mentions. In fact, Dean began arguing several years ago, Walker is “more Nixonian than even Richard Nixon himself (the authoritarian leader with whom I was, and am, so very familiar).”
Dean chooses his words in a careful, lawyerly fashion: He says not that Walker is like Nixon, but rather that he is “more Nixonian” than Nixon. The passion for politics may be similarly intense, but Nixon brought a seriousness and precision to the work of governing that Walker has never displayed. The determination to use power for political advantage may be the same, but Walker is far more focused than the 37th president ever was on making structural changes that lock in those advantages—for himself and for a party remade in his image. It’s not that Nixon wouldn’t have gone as far as Walker has gone—and is prepared to go—to do so. Instead, it’s that Walker is living in an era when Supreme Court rulings have cleared the way for multibillion-dollar campaigns and unaccountable “dark money” manipulations; an era when the old media have entered a death spiral and the new media have steered partisans into hardened information silos, making it difficult to challenge their fixed opinions; an era when both major parties attack government, even as they govern in the interests of crony capitalism.
Walker embraces the new money with gusto, breaking Wisconsin fundraising records; appearing at the Koch brothers’ summits; jetting to Las Vegas to woo Sheldon Adelson; and cashing almost $500,000 in checks from the late Bob Perry, funder of the “Swift Boat” assault on John Kerry in 2004.
Walker is also a detail-oriented tactician who is always, in all but name, his own campaign manager. Blur the distinctions between Karl Rove and George W. Bush, or James Carville and Bill Clinton, and you get Scott Walker, the strategist as candidate. His 2016 campaign is a role for which Walker has trained since he was posting handmade Reagan signs at age 12. As a College Republican, Walker ran for election as student-council president at Milwaukee’s Marquette University, losing a dirty-tricks-marred campaign that saw the student newspaper declare him “unfit” for the office. But high-school and college campaigns were just early way stations in a career that has seen Walker wage more than two dozen primary and general-election campaigns in 25 years— always with an eye toward the next-highest office.
These days, Walker downplays his obsession with campaigning, claiming an interest in “service” rather than politics and assuring the state’s voters that “I had no master plan.” But a veteran Republican who has known Walker for decades and still works with him scoffs at that line, asserting that “Scott had this all worked out by the time he was 20. Politics is all he ever wanted to do.” Indeed, Walker was so determined to get into the fray that he quit college 34 credits short of a degree in 1990. He now claims that he did so because he had landed a “quasi” full-time job as a Red Cross fundraiser—but within weeks of quitting Marquette, Walker was gathering signatures to challenge Gwen Moore for a seat in the state legislature. He knocked on 13,000 doors in Moore’s Milwaukee district, developing targeted literature and advertising and forming partnerships that would remain in place throughout his gubernatorial runs. After losing to Moore, Walker hopped over to a more conservative suburban district and won election in 1993. He was just 25, but the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel called him “an active Republican insider.”
Walker likes to present himself as mission-driven (“I really think there’s a reason why God put all these political thoughts in my head”), yet his approach to public service has always been robotically focused on the next campaign—as opposed to a grand vision. As a new legislator, he joined the right-wing, corporate-dominated American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), becoming a reliable champion of its “model legislation” for prison expansion, privatization, and union-busting. Walker remains so closely aligned with the group—he gave the keynote address at its annual meeting this summer—that the legislative tally in his campaign announcement (“[We] passed lawsuit reform and regulatory reform…. We enacted the Castle Doctrine [a homeowners’ version of ‘stand your ground’] and concealed carry…and we now require a photo ID to vote”) sounds like a list of ALEC’s greatest hits.
Walker’s relationship with ALEC illustrates his approach to governing: He likes to download and follow templates that are vetted by powerful campaign donors and lobbyists. When the conservative media started to question his foreign-policy credentials (especially after he answered a question about terrorist threats by declaring, “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world”), Walker scrambled to embrace the fiercely hawkish agenda of former vice president Dick Cheney. He now gets kudos from The Weekly Standard and National Review.
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Walker is a master at rewriting his own narrative. Fifteen years younger than Jeb Bush, Walker has always been adept at social media and at tapping the talk-radio and Fox News bases. The governor knows that the old media are dying, that newspapers and broadcast outlets are downsizing their political coverage, and that the reporters and editors who remain are so frightened about enraging their aging audience that they often pull their punches. Walker regularly refuses to answer questions—and gets away with it. When pressed, he simply creates a new story line: For example, when he took a beating during the 2012 campaign for falling dramatically short on his promise to create 250,000 jobs, Walker produced a set of absurdly favorable figures that he declared to be “the final job numbers.” They weren’t, and the fact-checking site PolitiFact rated the stunt as a “pants-on-fire” lie—but not before much of the state’s media had uncritically trumpeted his claim.
Of the almost 150 fact-checks on Walker’s assertions by PolitiFact, nearly half—49 percent—have been rated “false,” “mostly false,” or “pants-on-fire” lies. Even when his pants are on fire, Walker doesn’t blink. He merely opines that he is “the most scrutinized politician in America” and claims absolution. Then he does another round of right-wing talk-radio interviews; floods reporters and the public with favorable e-mails, Facebook posts, and tweets; and airs another salvo of television ads.
When several of Walker’s top aides were convicted of criminal misconduct after an investigation revealed that they’d been engaged in illegal campaigning using a wireless routing system set up just a few feet from Walker’s desk in his days as the Milwaukee County executive (an office he held from 2002 to ’10), the tech-savvy micromanager insisted that he knew nothing about it. “Walker’s amorality is conspicuous,” John Dean says. “It is found in his history of ethics violations and the record of his lying. He’s slick: fast-talking, confident, and dishonest.”
The key word here is “confident.” Walker understands the media and modern campaigning better than most reporters and strategists, and far better than most candidates. With his base ensconced firmly in its right-wing communications silos, and with limitless campaign money to address wavering swing voters, Walker has weathered every political storm in Wisconsin.
Now he’s betting that he can weather them as a presidential candidate. But that won’t be easy: National media outlets have already noted his striking inconsistency on issues like abortion rights and immigration. His opposition, particularly the incendiary Trump and the permanent Bush campaign, will hardly roll over as Wisconsin Republicans have. And, of course, Walker doesn’t dominate the GOP’s national political process the way he has in his home state through most of his gubernatorial tenure. That’s important because, at the heart of his success—at the heart of Walkerism—is the recognition that structure matters more than policy. If you write the rules in your favor, there’s no need for compromise or cooperation; a governor—or a president—can do as he chooses, even if his policies are unappealing and dysfunctional.
When Walker announced his presidential bid, his biggest applause line recalled the mangling of Wisconsin’s historically open and easy voting procedures. Since 2011, he has signed legislation requiring state-sanctioned photo ID for voters, as well as limiting early voting and changing election dates. He has also gutted the power of the elected state treasurer and secretary of state to provide even minimal checks and balances against him. Walker and his allies have gerrymandered the legislature so thoroughly that beating GOP candidates is virtually impossible. In 2012, President Obama won re-election handily in Wisconsin, Democrat Tammy Baldwin was elected to the Senate, and Democratic candidates for the State Assembly garnered 174,000 more votes than Republicans—yet the GOP retained a whopping 60-39 majority in the state chamber.
Walker’s allies have also poured money into election campaigns for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, where a conservative majority has steadily upheld the governor’s most controversial moves—including those weakening the political hand of the state’s once-powerful labor unions. Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, a stickler for judicial independence, refused to dance to Walker’s tune, so his legislative allies crafted a constitutional amendment rewriting the rules for choosing the chief justice; his corporate allies funded a campaign to enact it; and Abrahamson was removed from her powerful office in April. Two months later, when the court shut down an inquiry into alleged wrongdoing during the governor’s recall election—and, in so doing, effectively trashed the state’s remaining campaign-finance laws—Justice Abrahamson warned that the decision would usher in an era of “anything goes” politics. That was just fine by Walker, who immediately moved to shut down the state agency that enforced election and ethics rules.
This is the record that Scott Walker will not discuss on the 2016 campaign trail, where he is positioning himself as the party’s most palatable conservative. And, of course, he’s still a long way from becoming the Republican nominee: He has stumbled some and will stumble even more. But Walker is the most disciplined and determined contender for the nomination. His lovingly nurtured donor network guarantees that he will enjoy virtually unlimited funding, and he has more high-stakes political experience than any contender who is not named Bush or Clinton. He is ahead in Iowa, and Rush Limbaugh has advised the faithful that “Scott Walker is the blueprint for the Republican Party if they are serious about beating the left.” Like Limbaugh, Walker sees politics as an unbridled, take-no-prisoners competition for sheer power.
Scott Walker has spent a lifetime preparing for this presidential campaign, and everything about his record says that he will do whatever it takes to win. If he were to secure the nomination and win the presidency—and arrive in Washington with a GOP-controlled Congress—he would no longer be restructuring the politics of a medium-size state to his advantage; he would be restructuring the federal government and the nation’s future. The prospect excites Limbaugh, just as it terrifies the Wisconsinites who have battled Walker the longest and hardest. If this man is elected president, we will be done with elections as we know them. We will enter a new age of winner-take-all politics, where ruthlessly ambitious tacticians assemble billionaire donors, cultivate an echo-chamber media, shove aside idealists, reimagine parties as reflections of themselves, and remake government as a vessel to be filled by the highest bidder. Perhaps we’ve already passed the tipping point, and Scott Walker’s candidacy simply confirms the crisis he exemplifies. Or perhaps it’s the fight against Walkerism that will finally awaken us.