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Wednesday, December 12 , 2018, 12:02 am | Fair 45º


Jamie Stiehm: Madison and Washington on the Country’s Birthday

Waking up under the Wisconsin sun on July 3 is a treat, knowing the Madison village dance and fireworks over Lake Mendota are not far behind. The Fourth of July is the best day of the year.

But June was dark in Washington, where I live, the nadir of President Donald Trump’s ill-tempered presidency. Family separations at the border. The U.S. Supreme Court showing itself a Republican cudgel. The high court ruling against reproductive rights and unions — and for Trump’s Muslim travel ban. And in June’s last days, Justice Anthony Kennedy bowed out, bestowing another seat on Trump to fill.

I can’t shake that shadow in this patch of Americana, with my grandmother’s quilts and my grandfather’s red door, flag flying. Usually blue, Wisconsin surprised the nation — and itself — by going red for Trump in the 2016 presidential election.

The truth is, I’m not over that yet. I took it personally. Et tu, Wisconsin? Brutus was the senator Julius Caesar cherished most.

Let me explain. I love that Wisconsin is where the Progressive Party was founded a century ago. I love the “Wisconsin Idea.” The only state with an idea — I know, right? Its optimistic idea is that public education seeks to reach across all parts for the common good.

I love that Camp Randall, the Big Ten football stadium, was a Civil War camp. Those Confederate prisoners begged their sweethearts to send them chicory to make coffee. You can still see blue chicory wildflowers in summer. I love the Abraham Lincoln statue by Bascom Hall, the man from the state next door. His Republican Party was born in Wisconsin.

Just now, a grand Madison Reunion was held at the University of Wisconsin, on Lake Mendota, for alumni to honor the 1968 anti-Vietnam War movement on campus. The nation’s anti-war resistance started right here, “Mad City.” Berkeley followed suit.

The mayor of Madison today, Paul Soglin, was a student leader. A native of Madison, best-selling author David Maraniss, came of age in that generation. He wrote They Marched into Sunlight about those Madison years, riots and all. He told PBS that if the movement didn’t have all the answers, “They asked the right questions.”

That was my counterculture girlhood, along with swimming and skating on the lake. Raised on anti-war rallies when I was young, I see them now as my political baptism by the banks of Lake Mendota.

To a child, the bad news was simple: The government was lying to us about the war. The good news: We the people were standing up to it.

Hard as it is to look back, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton didn’t come here once to call or campaign after winning the 2016 primary. The Upper Midwest became Trump country.

Yet the shadow goes both ways. Wisconsin foreshadowed the rise of Trump. Electing Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2010 was a major turning point.

This is a populist state, a force with two faces. Joseph McCarthy happened here. The senator from Wisconsin caused untold grief with his raving accusations and “investigations” into communism among elites in Hollywood and Washington. You know the drill.

Walker scuttled President Barack Obama’s federal funding for a high-speed rail between Madison and Milwaukee. He proved hostile to public unions, environmental laws for one of the leading dairy states with beautiful landscapes and the University of Wisconsin itself.

Walker, like Trump, is not one to meet in the middle from the hard right, facing ferocious opposition. They each thrive when people feel fury or despair Wisconsin invented collective bargaining, but Walker could care less. Neither he nor House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., from Janesville, attended the University of Wisconsin. Ryan thinks Ayn Rand is pretty great. But he couldn’t prevent a GM factory plunging this hometown into distress.

Trump and Walker are anti-intellectuals. How they finesse Harley-Davidson, Milwaukee’s pride, losing jobs because of Trump’s tariffs, remains to be seen.

A new book, by Dan Kaufman, has just come out: The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics.

I plan to read it when I get back to Washington. Happy 242nd, America.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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