2016 so far is proving to be a banner year for the isolationist, xenophobic and anti-immigration forces which are rallying against the inevitable changes brought about by globalization. Their rhetoric strikes a sympathetic chord with a substantial portion of an apprehensive population. In this they bear a striking resemblance to their spiritual forebearers of well over a century ago. In mid-nineteenth century America, “Know Nothing” party stalwarts ranted against a major influx of “filthy, slovenly” famine-starved Irish Catholic immigrants– Jack Kennedy and Ronald Reagan please take note. Later, during the Gilded Age, technological innovation equally caused great anxiety as it has today. On a recent trip to President Benjamin Harrison’s home in Indianapolis, I learned how an apprehensive president and first lady introduced electrical lighting into the White House a decade after Thomas Edison had first patented the incandescent light bulb. They kept the gas lighting working as well, however, out of fear of possible electrocution and blackouts.
And so, last month, English voters cast ballots for Brexit while in Australia voters recently brought anti-immigrant “One Nation” party political firebrand Pauline Hanson back to federal parliament for the first time in two decades as a senator, possibly damaging the nation’s reputation with Asian investors (http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/australianz/hansons-return-may-turn-off-asian-investors.) “Know Nothingism” is on the march again across the globe.
In the United States, the anti-globalization Tea Partiers took a major scalp in June when they brought down veteran Congressman and national security expert Randy Forbes by partially invoking anti-Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) isolationist rhetoric. Now the Tea Party has its collective sights on the biggest prize of all — seeking to unseat House Speaker Paul Ryan in the August 9th Wisconsin congressional primary. This of course would be no small feat. The last Speaker to lose an election was Speaker Thomas Foley who went down to defeat during the Republican wave election in 1994. Before that, one must go back to the acrimonious days of the American Civil War era when two Republican Speakers in a row went down to electoral defeat. There appears to be no case in which a sitting Speaker was rejected by voters of his or her own party in a primary. Still, Congressman Forbes reportedly had a war chest ten times the amount of Tea Party challenger Scott Taylor and he still lost. (http://www.thenewamerican.com/usnews/politics/item/23486-randy-forbes-defeated-in-primary-a-lesson-in-the-tpp)
Paul Ryan has been a strong advocate for free trade, including the TPP. Just last February he was touting TPP as having “great potential” while telling CBS News that there were “not enough votes” yet for it to pass Congress. (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/speaker-ryan-not-enough-votes-for-tpp-trade-deal/). In a 2015 Wall Street Journal op-ed he had gone even further, terming TPP a “historic” agreement, which “would mean greater access to a billion customers for American manufacturers, farmers, and ranchers.”
However, blue collar workers in his hometown of Janesville likely see things quite differently. The town’s General Motors (GM) assembly plant, which dated back to 1919 and reportedly employed a peak of 7,000 union workers in the 1970s, went idle in 2009 with its factory jobs reportedly being moved to Mexico. An agreement between GM and the United Auto Workers, announced last October, appeared to drive the nail in the coffin by confirming the permanent closure of the Janesville plant. (http://www.gazettextra.com/20151028/its_over_janesville_gm_plant_identified_in_uaw_contract_as_closing). With another Clinton-era free trade agreement, NAFTA, being seen as the chief culprit causing the loss of one of the largest sources of employment in Janesville, it is hard to see how Paul Ryan’s constituents would embrace his corporate Republican free trade ideas.
A reflection of this was indicated in a March 29th report by the Hill newspaper which noted that the name Paul Ryan evoked boos when presidential candidate Donald Trump mentioned him to a hometown crowd gathered just before the crucial Wisconsin presidential primary this spring. (http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/presidential-races/274614-paul-ryan-booed-at-hometown-trump-rally). Subsequently Tea Party icon Sarah Palin told CNN News in May that she will work to defeat Paul Ryan in the August primary because of his lukewarm support, at best, for candidate Trump. “I think Paul Ryan is soon to be ‘Cantored,’ as in Eric Cantor,” Palin said, referring to the former Republican House majority leader who was ousted in a shocking upset in 2014 when challenger Dave Brat ran to his right in a Virginia primary. (http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/08/politics/sarah-palin-paul-ryan-paul-nehlen-endorsement/) As Palin’s political statements have become as bombastic as a Tina Fey parody (it is increasingly difficult to distinguish the original from the copy) it remains to be seen how much help the former Alaska governor can bring to the campaign of Ryan primary opponent Paul Nehlen.
A further sign of potential trouble for the Speaker was a July 9th Breitbart Report on an opinion poll of 424 Republican primary voters conducted by P.M.I. which showed Ryan’s support plunging to 43 percent with Paul Nehlen still trailing at 32 percent. (http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2016/07/09/paul-ryan-plummets-to-43-percent-in-new-primary-poll/ ). Pollsters warn that any time an incumbent falls below the 50 percent support threshold this is a major red flag. Ryan had only recently been polling in the 70 percent range among primary voters. (http://www.charismanews.com/politics/primaries/58510-new-poll-paul-ryan-is-in-trouble).
One local voter, a former Ryan supporter, was quoted by Breitbart as stating that “he turned to the dark side. He’s totally subscribed to the New World Order.” Anti-TPP advocates also point out that Wisconsin has suffered a net loss of nearly 40,000 jobs in 2015 alone due to the U.S. trade deficit with TPP countries, according to the Economic Policy Institute. (http://www.epi.org/publication/trans-pacific-partnership-currency-manipulation-trade-and-jobs/) I am personally familiar with Paul Ryan’s Congressional District, having vacationed many summers as a child, like many Chicagoans, in such lake towns as Lake Geneva and Delavan, where primary challenger Paul Nehlen resides. It is a district made up of small, blue-collar cities like Racine, Kenosha and Janesville, as well as small towns, dairy farms and vacation resorts. (The affluent, globalist vacationers from Chicago and Milwaukee generally do not vote in the district.) It thus reflects the same kind of populace as found in the rural English countryside and in industrial English cities who provided the votes to propel Brexit to victory. The same concerns over open borders, influx of immigrants and free trade agreements as found there would also be prevalent in the green pastures and lake districts of southern Wisconsin. The area provides a ripe field for the rhetoric of a candidate like Paul Nehlen who declared at a recent political rally held just outside of Paul Ryan’s walled Janesville home: “tear down your wall if you won’t build one for the country.” (http://www.breitbart.com/big-government/2016/07/09/paul-nehlen-at-paul-ryans-mansion-tear-down-your-wall-if-you-wont-build-one-for-the-country/).
It remains to be seen if such rhetoric will resonant with Republican primary voters in southern Wisconsin. The implications for Asian investors, as in the case of the election of Pauline Hanson in Australia, as well as for the durability of President Obama’s “re-balance” to Asia, are quite clear. Will Wisconsin voters follow the example of Britain and Australia by sticking their collective ostrich heads in the sand in the face of the inevitability of globalization, diversity, and technological advancement? Even that bastion of liberal opinion, the New York Times, seemed to express doubts on the durability of Paul Ryan in an article titled: “Can Paul Ryan Still Sell the G.O.P. Agenda?” where it spoke of Speaker Ryan “essentially slouching toward Cleveland” (where he is to serve as the Republican Party convention chairman.) (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/13/us/politics/paul-ryan-republican-convention.html).
The boy from Janesville, who first rose via social security survivor benefits after his father passed away when he was a teenager, has attained phenomenal success as a vice presidential candidate and then Speaker of the House. At the young political age of just 46, he is said to harbor presidential ambitions for the future. Yet, Ryan failed to deliver the crucial state of Wisconsin for Romney in the 2012 presidential election and the Romney-Ryan ticket even ran three percentage points behind Ryan himself in his re-election in his own Congressional district. (http://www.jsonline.com/news/statepolitics/paul-ryans-very-mixed-election-day-in-wisconsin-3t7iit7-178024521.html). So the jury seems to still be out on his future White House aspirations.
No Speaker of the House has ever lost in a primary election and in the last century-and-a-half only a trio have gone down to electoral defeat. The odds all seem to be in Paul Ryan’s favor come August 9th. Yet this has proven to be a year for many political firsts. Speaker Ryan may wish to spend less time in the next few weeks on the national political stage in Cleveland and more time back home talking to his constituents if he is to avoid becoming the latest political surprise of 2016.