Opinion: A Wisconsin business leader and his reluctant divorce from the Republican Party

Gun Rights

Richard A. Gallun
 |  Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

I was born during the Great Depression to a Milwaukee family that had owned a tannery for nearly a century. My family was well off and Republican. They hated FDR, whom they considered a socialist. Starting when I was in grade school, my parents instilled in me the belief that, when the masses found that they were a majority, they would “vote themselves a living,” doing so with our money.

I followed in my parents’ conservative footsteps. As a teenager, I defended the causes espoused by the John Birch Society — opposition to communism, wealth redistribution and government interference in the economy.  Later, I supported Sen. Joe McCarthy in his crusade to root out “commies.” Even with McCarthy, the Republicans were still the defenders of liberty and the rule of law. 

As I reached voting age in the late 1950s, I saw the Republicans as not only the keepers of these ideals but also as defenders of the environment and fiscal responsibility. They invoked their historic leader, Abraham Lincoln, to give them cover as leaders in the cause of racial justice. This stuff was pretty attractive as a political perspective and it seemed to reflect history as I knew it.

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Later elections turned to pocketbook issues. Ordinary Americans struggled with the burdens of inflation, high-interest rates and unemployment. Republican stances on economic issues — anti-unionism and opposition to public welfare — pitted them against the poor. Eventually, they realized that to grab the votes of the less-well-off they needed a better weapon than ”trickle-down economics.”   

Republicans found their solution in the “Dixiecrats,” loyal Democrats who despised the racial policies of both parties. To get the Dixiecrat vote, Republicans only had to sacrifice a few values — like racial equity, the right to privacy and separation of church and state. And while their strategic revision represented a departure from historical values, the party got its money’s worth. This alliance rendered changes in the electoral map that gave the Republicans every election they were to win thereafter. The Southern strategy was a grand slam.

During his two terms, President Ronald Reagan followed the Republican script admirably, but he endorsed the sacrifice of a couple of causes that were beginning to fall under siege when he first came into office — gun safety and protection of the environment. From a standing start in 1980, the Republicans had fallen totally into the hands of the National Rifle Association by the time of the Columbine shooting in 1999.

As far as the environment was concerned, Republicans had possessed a good record going back to Teddy Roosevelt, and more recently, President Richard Nixon had established the Environmental Protection Agency. But despite these credentials, starting with Reagan, and especially after 2000, the Republicans always sided with business over the environment.

George H. W. Bush executed the job of president with clarity of Republican values, overseeing the fall of the Soviet Union and building an unchallengeable coalition for the first Gulf War. But he violated his promise of “no new taxes,” when taxes were required for fiscal integrity. He was evicted for the “sin ” of balancing the budget.

As a candidate, Georg W. Bush abandoned his father’s fidelity to financial discipline right out of the box. He went on to cut taxes twice and to leave the next administration with a deep operating deficit. What was more important, he led us into a needless war. By the time he left office, the Republicans had sacrificed two more values — fiscal integrity and opposition to foreign adventurism.

My falling away from the Republicans was largely a function of the complete abandonment of their traditional values.

After President Donald Trump won, I thought Republicans would reject him as they observed his foolish and often criminal acts. But they never did, and the wise soon left the party. The acquiescence of the Senate to Trump’s corruption makes all the Republican senators still holding office as guilty as the president himself. They had the authority to stop him but chose not to.

Having replaced honesty and integrity with hypocrisy, the Republicans have only one remaining value, that of staying in power.

I am not asking you to become a Democrat, as I have done. I am asking you to think hard about candidates in this particular election and whether the Republican Party as it is currently configured — and particularly its candidate for president — truly represents the party and values you signed on for.

Richard A. Gallun is a longtime Wisconsin businessman who has served as a fundraiser for many charitable causes. He was also Wisconsin campaign finance chairman for Ronald Reagan’s first run for president in 1976, finance chairman for Senator Bob Kasten, R-Wis., from 1979-87, and finance chairman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin 1989-91.

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