They called it the “cheesehead revolution.” In 2012, the future of conservatism seemed to be Wisconsin. Fresh from beating back a recall, Scott Walker was the toast of the Republican Party. Paul Ryan was the vice presidential candidate turning GOP ideas into budgets. Reince Priebus chaired the Republican National Committee. “What Texas was to the Republican Party in the 1990s is what Wisconsin is becoming now,” gushed a GOP spokesman.
Six years on, the cheesehead revolution is well and truly over. Ryan announced plans to exit his position as speaker well before his party lost control of the House. Walker ran, but was capsized by the blue wave. Together, they have joined Priebus in private life.
It is all too tempting to diagnose the end of the cheesehead revolution as a victim of Trumpism. It is also wrong. The reality is more interesting. Priebus, Walker and Ryan saw Trump for who he was, but embraced him regardless. They continue to do so. At the end of the day, there was perhaps more overlap between their views and Trump than any would care to admit.
As chair of the RNC, Priebus had to manage Trump’s unruly rise through the nomination process. He saw firsthand, and sometimes pushed back against, Trump’s tantrums. Priebus nevertheless gave up his position to become Trump’s short-lived chief of staff. In return, he was humiliated. Trump told other staff to ignore Priebus and called him “a little rat. He just scurries around.” Despite being fired, Priebus evinces undying loyalty, saying, “I still love the guy.”
Scott Walker dropped out of the 2016 presidential race, urging other candidates to do the same in order to “clear the field” to stop Trump. It didn’t work. One might have suspected that Walker, a minister’s son, might continue to hold private reservations about Trump but was constrained by his office. Those suspicions were put to rest as Walker started his life as a private citizen by pledging to help Trump be re-elected as his Wisconsin campaign chair. Having seen Trump govern for two years, Walker is committed to keeping him in office until 2024.
Paul Ryan was slow to endorse Trump. He called out Trump for making “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” But as speaker, Trump and Ryan worked together. Just weeks after saying that it “makes no sense” to shut down the federal government over the border wall, Ryan made his final meaningful decision as speaker to set the shutdown in motion, refusing to bring to a vote a Senate budget that would have passed because it lacked funding for Trump’s wall.
In all cases, the leaders of the cheesehead revolution served Trump’s wishes, and were careful to avoid criticism even when Trump no longer had power over them. Ryan’s farewell address bemoaned a “broken politics” and U.S. isolationism, but studiously avoided naming the president.
Even if the cheesehead revolution was more spin than reality, its demise is telling. The truth is there was a lot of Trumpism in the cheesehead revolution. The fierce partisan division evoked by attacking public employees. A series of Ryan budget blueprints that preached fiscal discipline but prioritized tax cuts. The willingness to impose work requirements as a condition of welfare. Government support for corporations like Foxconn. Such policies preceded Trump and became the basis for his co-optation of his former critics.
In retrospect, the initial resistance of Priebus, Walker and Ryan to Trump seems to have been about style rather than substance. Trump’s unabashed vulgarity clashed with their studied Midwestern earnestness. Once they saw that Trump’s style was key to his success — and by extension defeating the Democrats they demonized — their reservations melted away. The cheesehead revolution was not a missed opportunity for conservatism. Instead, its epitaph should read that they knew better, but embraced a deeply flawed leader anyway.
Donald P. Moynihan is the McCourt chair at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. He was professor of public affairs at UW-Madison from 2005-18. Twitter @donmoyn.
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