Column: Bullies in charge: The ‘reopen’ crowd loves beating up on women

May 20, 2020 5:27 am

President Donald J. Trump, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019, at the InterContinental New York Barclay in New York City. | Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead via Flickr Public Domain

Wisconsin has been re-opened for business. Forcibly reopened, it turns out, by Republican legislative leaders and four state Supreme Court justices.

In a messy decision filled with incendiary language and spurious claims, the court overturned Gov. Tony Evers stay-home by “torturing the plain language” of a state statute, as Justice Rebecca Dallet put it in her ringing dissent, in order to give the Legislature more political power. 

The chaotic reopening of the state — with some counties issuing their own stay-at-home orders and then rescinding them, citing confusion about the law — is crazy and sad. It is also part of a deliberate Republican political strategy.

The morning after the Supreme Court decision threw Wisconsin into chaos, President Donald Trump tweeted:

Evers, asked about the tweet at a press conference, responded with a typically low-key observation: “We were following his lead on this. So apparently, he doesn’t think much of the criteria and metrics that he set out.”

No, he doesn’t. Trump is a bully. He couldn’t care less about being reasonable or consistent. In fact, he’d rather keep everyone off balance with his fickle aggression — the better to intimidate.

Public safety and common sense be damned. The Republicans are catering to the worst impulses of the GOP base. This appeal to the amygdala has more to do with what is happening to our state, and our country, than any reasoned theory of public policy or the law.

And nothing fires up the base quite like juicy, threatening, personal attacks on women. Hence the vitriol directed at Andrea Palm, Evers’ quiet, business-like health department secretary.

Like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has been targeted by militia types carrying semi-automatic rifles into the state capitol, Palm has attracted vehement attacks that seem particularly deranged given her thankless and exhausting job managing a public health crisis.

And it’s not just the protesters at reopen rallies. In Ohio, Republican state Sen. Andrew Brenner compared health department director Amy Acton to a Nazi. Acton is Jewish. 

One of the most unsettling aspects of pandemic politics is the way mainstream Republican politicians and conservative Supreme Court justices have adopted the language of violent right-wing militias. 

The justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, echoing charges lodged by the GOP leaders of the Legislature, make Palm out to be a tyrant, a dictator, who seeks to imprison innocent citizens for failing to follow her directives on how to sneeze.

The hyperbolic language of the justices’ opinions is uncomfortably similar to the Michigan militiamen who showed up at the capitol to confront Whitmer with a Barbie doll hanging from a noose and “Heil Whitmer” signs.

State Sen. Tom Tiffany, who won a special election on Tuesday for the open seat in the bright-red 7th congressional district, put out a press release the day after last week’s Supreme Court decision, demanding that Palm resign. Calling her Evers’ “hired gun,” Tiffany said Palm will “leave with Wisconsin’s corpse” if she remains in office.  “A native New Yorker, ally of Hillary Clinton’s and a Washington, D.C., insider, Ms. Palm understands very little of our Midwestern values,” Tiffany declared, “or how her decisions have devastated our way of life.” 

The Republicans want to run against Hillary again. But any woman leader will do. The image of a woman in government as an overbearing tyrant usurping power who needs to be taken down a peg has a deep resonance for the angry white male voters they hope will put them over the top. 

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the party that chanted, “Lock her up!” at the Republican National Convention in 2016 has seized on violent misogyny as a campaign theme for 2020.

In Michigan, at one recent rally, crowds chanted “Lock her up!” referring to Whitmer. One protest sign said “Tyrant Bitch.” 

“There’s definitely a gendered element to the rightwing attacks here, and this didn’t start with the COVID-19 response,” says Susan J. Demas, a veteran Michigan journalist and editor of the Michigan Advance. “The GOP Senate majority leader [Mike Shirkey] last year called Whitmer ‘batshit crazy’ during the budget fight, and used to call her (weirdly) ‘my governor.’”

It’s a hell of a situation we find ourselves in, ruled by bullies in the White House and the legislature in both states. None of them have the faintest interest in governing.

They just want to hold power, which is part of what makes their attack on Palm so outrageous. She has been keeping her head down and trying to manage a complex public-health response to a pandemic.

As Evers said in her defense, “What does concern me about that level of rhetoric is that we tend to forget about the extraordinary work that’s being done in the state of Wisconsin and frankly our country to get rid of this virus.”

“We have thousands of people in our state that are frontline workers that are doing just a hell of a job,” he added. 

The same could not be said for Trump, Tiffany, Wisconsin legislative leaders or the hopelessly captive state Supreme Court.

Powerlust and ambition are nothing new in politics. But the Republicans are playing with fire. In Wisconsin, they may have just set themselves, and the whole state, ablaze.

This column originally ran in the Advance‘s sister publication, the Wisconsin Examiner. Read the column here.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration.