While state Democrats were quick to denounce the attack on Sen. Carpenter, some progressive were more reticent about coming to the defense of the two statues. One prominent Madison progressive tweeted: “Had time to think/learn from others. Anger is justified, statues symbolic of Madison/Wisconsin’s progressive veneer come down. Protesters don’t need my approval but I think I understand better now.
“Whoever beat up Sen. Carpenter, tho? Not OK.”
Others were even more supportive of the attack on the statues. Nada Elmikashfi, a Democratic candidate for the state senate from the Madison area, tweeted out her support for the destruction, arguing that the “statue of Heg is a monument to a white savior and not a monument to black liberation.” She also applauded toppling Forward, telling the Associated Press: “The symbolism of Lady Forward and that word Forward has really been only for white Wisconsinites.”
This was not, of course, necessarily an opinion shared among progressives, but the loudest voices often set the agenda. Over the weekend, some activists actually escalated their campaign to remove a statue of (wait for it) Abraham Lincoln from the University of Wisconsin campus. The statue of the seated Lincoln atop UW’s Bascom Hill has been an iconic figure for more than a century.
But now, in the wake of the toppling of the statues of Heg and Lady Forward, the Black Student Union and the Student Inclusion Coalition are denouncing Lincoln “because of what they see as the former president’s anti-Indigenous and anti-Black history despite Lincoln’s legacy of ending slavery in the U.S.”
Nalah McWhorter, the president of the Wisconsin Black Student Union, explained: “Just because he was anti-slavery doesn’t mean he was pro-Black.” For Lincoln to be seated at the top of UW’s famed Bascom Hill, he said, is “a single-handed symbol of white supremacy.”
So far, the university is resisting calls to pull Lincoln down.
But the debate has been a welcome gift to the state’s GOP, which has been quick to accuse state Democrats, led by Gov. Tony Evers, of having a feeble response to the violence.
“While the Governor slept in his estate, the statehouse was under siege,” said state Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield). “We need a leader, not an apologist. Governor Evers and [Madison] Mayor Rhodes-Conway have enabled this destructive and violent behavior through consistent inaction and appeasement.”
Other GOP leaders have been quick to tie the current unrest to the fight over Act 10. “When I presided over the Senate during Act 10,” State Senate majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said, “we saw crowds of tens of thousands of protesters. Governor Walker utilized State Patrol, game wardens, and other local law enforcement officers to maintain peace.”
And Trump, of course, will try to take advantage of the unrest to portray Democrats as weak and unable to stand up against radical elements. Polls suggest wide support for the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, and Biden now leads in the polls by a wide margin. But the debate over the statues—rather than a larger discussion of racial justice—is a custom-made distraction for Trump and his backers in Wisconsin.
Trump has already made it clear that the issue of monuments will play a central role in his re-election campaign. On Friday, he issued an executive order to prioritize prosecution of anyone who damages federal monuments. Trump’s language in the order—referring to “rioters, arsonists, and left-wing extremists”—speaks to Trump’s broader desire to exploit any liberal equivocation and drive a wedge in between swing voters and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
Of course, given Biden’s record and his efforts to distance himself from the more bizarre demands of the protesters, Trump’s strategy of running against the protests may seem like a long shot.
But in Wisconsin, this may be the Republicans’ only play. And they know that it has worked before.