There could be few greater ironies in contemporary American politics than that of the Republican Party—which never misses a chance to decry socialism—holding its 2024 national convention in the only major American city to elect three Socialist Party mayors.
But we live in an age of irony, and last week, a GOP site selection committee named Milwaukee as the preferred host city for the national convention that could well nominate Donald Trump for a new term as president.
Before he instigated a coup attempt that resulted in the January 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol, Trump tried to save his presidency by claiming he could prevent a socialist takeover of the United States.
“Biden has made a corrupt bargain in exchange for his party’s nomination,” declared the Republican president in the desperate last weeks of his 2020 campaign. “He has handed control to the socialists and Marxists and left-wing extremists like his vice-presidential candidate.” He made the argument so central to his bid that the watchdog site PolitiFact had to point out that Trump’s claims were totally false and that Biden was, in fact, “a moderate Democrat, not a socialist.” But that didn’t prevent Trump from arguing to the very end of the 2020 campaign—during which Republicans ripped Democrats for holding their own convention in what Republicans dubbed the “socialistic” city of Milwaukee—“Socialism is the mainstream of the Biden campaign and it’s not the mainstream of America. Remember I said, we will never have a socialist country.”
Welcome to Milwaukee, Comrade Trump.
The most populous city in the battleground state of Wisconsin has a long history as a laboratory of democratic socialism. Milwaukee does not elect as many socialists as it once did, but its reputation has remained. It even earned mention in the movie Wayne’s World, in which rocker Alice Cooper explained, “I think one of the most interesting aspects of Milwaukee is the fact that it’s the only major American city to have ever elected three Socialist mayors.”
Republicans were more than happy to talk about Milwaukee’s socialist history four years ago, when Democrats announced that they would hold their 2020 national convention in the city, as I reported at the time. “No city in America has stronger ties to socialism than Milwaukee. And with the rise of Bernie Sanders and the embrace of socialism by its newest leaders, the American left has come full circle,” warned Mark Jefferson, who was then the executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party. “It’s only fitting the Democrats would come to Milwaukee.” Wisconsin’s Republican US Senator, Ron Johnson, said the Milwaukee convention would provide a “firsthand look” at “the risk of Democrat socialistic tendencies.”
Johnson gets a lot wrong. But he was right to suggest that a visit to Milwaukee can provide insight into the impact of officials with “socialistic tendencies” on municipal governance.
There’s a good deal of agreement, among experts on American cities and grassroots Milwaukeeans, that socialism worked quite well under the trio of Socialist Party mayors whose leadership from 1910 to 1960 shaped the city as it is now known. Indeed, the longest-serving of those mayors, Daniel Hoan, was widely hailed during his 24-year tenure as one of the nation’s greatest municipal figures. Time magazine identified Hoan in a 1936 cover story (“Marxist Mayor”) as “one of the nation’s ablest public servants, and, under him, Milwaukee has become perhaps the best-governed city in the U.S.”
Hoan, who served from 1916 to 1940 as the second of Milwaukee’s Socialist Party mayors, was a proud radical whose class-based politics was so pronounced that he once rejected a chance to meet with the visiting King Albert of Belgium with the fierce declaration, “I stand for the man who works. To hell with kings.” The mayor was recognized for his “good working knowledge of Marxist economics.” He was also a brilliant financial manager, whose steadfast refusal to let the city get indebted to big banks during the Great Depression helped Milwaukee to avoid a measure of the misery, suffering, and poverty that buffeted the nation from 1929 into the 1930s. During that period, Hoan’s “sewer socialism” earned praise from President Franklin Roosevelt, and recognition for landmark achievements on issues ranging from improving public health to battling the Ku Klux Klan.
Hoan took on the Klan at a time when politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties were compromising with the violent racists who sought to extend their reach from the South to Northern cities. If the group’s organizers brought its racism and anti-Semitism to Milwaukee, the mayor declared in 1921, the would find the city “the hottest place this side of hell for the Ku Klux Klan.”
Hoan’s approach to governing would eventually earn him recognition as one of the ten finest municipal leaders in American history. As I noted when the Democrats decided to hold their 2020 convention in Milwaukee,
Hoan’s integrity, along with his managerial skills, would eventually earn him recognition as one of the 10 finest municipal leaders in American history. In his groundbreaking 1999 assessment of municipal governance in cities across the country, “The American Mayor,” Melvin Holli wrote: “Although this self-identified socialist had difficulty pushing progressive legislation through a nonpartisan city council, he experimented with the municipal marketing of food, backed city-built housing, and was a fervent but unsuccessful champion of municipal ownership of the street railways and the electric utility. His pragmatic ‘gas and water socialism’ met with more success in improving public health and in providing public markets, city harbor improvements, and purging graft from Milwaukee politics.”
Socialist Mayors Emil Seidel (1910–12) and Frank Zeidler (1948–60) served before and after Hoan. The city’s voters also elected dozens of Socialists to the city council, the school board, the county board, and law enforcement positions such as city attorney and county sheriff. Milwaukee sent so many Socialists to the legislature that the party formed the second-largest caucuses in both the state Assembly and the state Senate in the 1920s. During that same period, the city was represented in the US House of Representatives by the longest-serving Socialist Party member of Congress.
Seidel would run for the vice presidency on the Socialist Party ticket led by Eugene Victor Debs, which in 1912 won 6 percent of the vote nationally—the party’s best-ever national result. In 1976, Zeidler was the Socialist candidate for president, winning his highest vote total in Milwaukee County.
“Socialism as we attempted to practice it here believes that people working together for a common good can produce a greater benefit both for society and for the individual than can a society in which everyone is shrewdly seeking their own self-interest,” Zeidler told me in the mid-1990s, when we spent an afternoon at the party headquarters in downtown Milwaukee.
By then, Zeidler was an iconic figure in the community, where a towering city administrative building was named the Frank Zeidler Municipal Building and Milwaukee’s strong ties to socialism inspired more pride than fear. Zeidler saw this as a form of political evolution that might even come to influence Republicans.
“There is always a charge that socialism does not fit human nature. We’ve encountered that for a long time. Maybe that’s true,” he explained. “But can’t people be educated? Can’t people learn to cooperate with each other? Surely that must be our goal, because the alternative is redolent with war and poverty and all the ills of the world.”
So, are Republicans evolving? There’s not much evidence of that. Wisconsin is a state that Trump and his partisans still deny they lost in 2020. The GOP is determined to make a stand in there in 2024, and holding its national convention in the largest city sends a message about the seriousness of the party’s commitment—even if doing so exposes the rank hypocrisy of its past criticism of Milwaukee’s socialistic tendencies.