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When Paul Ryan bounds the stage at the RNC this week, chances are pretty good that he will be touting his small town Wisconsin roots.
His home town of Janesville, population 64,000, isn’t that small of a town, when it comes to this state, which has towns of 400 or 500 people.
Janesville it used to be an industrial center, a place where workers at the GM factory churned out 1,000 SUVs a day. But that was a long time ago, or so it seems. Back then, Ryan requested government money for projects, such as public transportation and water treatment plants. Back then, during the George W. Bush era, Ryan was “miserable,” he says, as he voted over and over again to support his party’s ever-growing government deficits, wars, and bureaucracies.
Now, though, Janesville is living in misery. It has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, alongside other cities like Racine and Kenosha in Ryan’s First Congressional District. Foreclosures have tripled since 2000.
“They don’t make things here,” John Beckford, a Ryan supporter and the head of Forward Janesville, a pro-business economic-development group, told The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. Janesville, Beckford explained, is reinventing itself as a distribution hub for major companies, since it is close to major cities, including Chicago.
We are also going to hear a lot about Chicago at the RNC. Chicago and its Chicago Dems are the foil to the Republican small town brand.
Wisconsinite Reince Priebus is the head of the RNC, a job he got after running millionaire Ron Johnson’s successful Senate campaign. After ousting Feingold, Priebus was rewarded with top GOP job.
I saw Priebus (and Paul Ryan and Scott Walker, the trifecta of Wisconsin’s right wing) at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), this past February. CPAC is the premiere rightwing get together and Wisconsin was featured front and center every night.
Priebus was bragging his small town roots. “I’m just a guy from small town Wisconsin,” he told the crowd. He noted that he and Walker and Ryan all come from the same general area. The branding had begun.
Unlike most people from small town Wisconsin, though, Ryan has a five million dollar trust.
The other crucial element to the small town brand is small business. At the RNC we’ll be hearing a lot about the small business owners. The Republicans, and especially Ryan, love to talk about small businesses.
At a talk to businesspeople in Milwaukee this spring, Ryan mentioned that most jobs in Wisconsin come from small businesses, and that most small businesses file tax as individuals. (Therefore, Bush era tax breaks for the wealthy should continue.)
Ryan reverence for small businesses fits alongside his denunciations of “crony capitalism.”
How can a politician who rakes in money from the insurance and banking sectors denounce the Big Five insurance companies, like I saw Ryan do in his Milwaukee talk?
“Small business is the face if the Right today because its pugnacious, anti-big business message catches the bitter national mood,” writes Thomas Frank in his latest book, Pity the Billionaire. “What the Right actually does is deliver the same favors to the same people as always.”
Ryan, as a rightwing populist, takes up the small business crusade because it’s such a key part of America’s myths about itself.
Government regulation, he’s likely to say, is getting in the way of small businesses. He won’t say government deregulation of the banks, which he voted for, was a major cause of our economic woes.
At the RNC, expect to see small town America being used to advance our country’s most powerful businesses.
If you liked this story by Elizabeth DiNovella, the Culture Editor of The Progressive magazine, check out her story "On the Road to Damascus with Alex Cockburn."
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