MILWAUKEE—For the first 18 minutes of her roughly 20-minute speech Friday night at a Milwaukee County Republican Party banquet, Sarah Palin earned zero applause for anything she said.
She was speaking at a packed candidates’ event at Milwaukee’s American Serb Hall, during which more than 750 attendees dined on fried fish and the dwindling hopes of Donald Trump’s Wisconsin operation. Palin was here as the official envoy of Trump, who presumably had better things to do. Both John Kasich and Ted Cruz showed up in person to deliver speeches and were introduced by former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and current Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, respectively. Milwaukee County GOP chairman David Karst introduced Palin, meanwhile, and made clear that he was doing so because the Trump campaign had requested he do so in a call the previous night.
The line that earned Palin applause after an uncomfortable 18 minutes was a plain-vanilla throwaway about how defeating Hillary Clinton should be the real goal of all Republicans. Palin otherwise tried to read a speech from notes but, in the spirit of her endorsee (and herself), left ample space for improvisation.
Her presentation “focused” on the issues of immigration, trade, and “foreign policy and military might.” She discussed how the “other” candidates were actually “inducing and seducing” immigrants to come illegally with promises of “gift baskets … teddy bears and soccer balls,” if you can believe it. On trade, she referred to nefarious “trade ideologues”—just so we’re clear, she meant those who don’t subscribe to Trump’s brand of mercantilism—who follow a “radical” policy of “trade surrender.” She mentioned that Ronald Reagan, a painting of whom adorned the dais, was a strict enforcer of trade agreements. “Maybe in the establishment,” she quipped, “maybe they’re going to start a new hashtag movement: #NeverReagan.”
Prior to the Hillary-is-bad applause line, the most, perhaps the only, audible reaction to Palin came during her section on foreign policy and military might. “Only Trump talks rationally, about listening to top brass as president, and hiring the best of the best to work alongside our commander-in-chief,” she said. Just as you did, reader, the back tables of the banquet hall laughed after the first four words of that sentence.
But hey: tough crowd. Palin, to be honest, spoke more coherently than Trump would have, and he probably would have received a reaction just as cold or worse than Palin did. That’s probably why he didn’t go.
Republicans in Milwaukee County and its suburbs are right now the beating heart of the #NeverTrump movement. These are movement conservatives who in no way find themselves seduced by the Trump show and savor the opportunity to deny him delegates in Tuesday’s Wisconsin primary. If Trump winds up getting denied a majority of delegates on the first convention ballot, Wisconsin will be remembered as the primary in which anti-Trump forces came together in the final stretch to stand athwart history and yell, “Stop Trump.” Wisconsin conservatives have been put through grave battles during Gov. Scott Walker’s tenure. They’ve won most of them, and they’ve emerged with an instinctive awareness for when and how to band together against a threat.
Walker himself spoke at the banquet to a hero’s welcome. His introducer, local conservative talk radio host Vicki McKenna, repeatedly and forcefully referred to him as “the single most substantive governor in the history of this state” to roaring applause. But Walker was there to introduce someone himself: his new endorsee, Cruz.
Cruz’s reception couldn’t have been any more different from Palin’s. The crowd responded with applause at the end of seemingly every line, even the same old jokes he’s been telling now, at every rally, for more than a year. Cruz related to his willing crowd the importance of Wisconsin’s primary as a test of anti-Trumpers’ competence. “Wisconsin is a battleground,” he said. “The entire country, its eyes are on the great state of Wisconsin. This state, the men and women here, you have a platform, you have a megaphone, where you’re speaking not just for the state but for the entire country.”
“Nominating Donald Trump is a train wreck,” Cruz said in his closing. “That’s actually not fair to train wrecks.” It was a decent line, a practiced line. Neither Palin nor Trump could ever pull off a line like that. Cruz didn’t exactly send starbursts ricocheting around the room last night, but he didn’t need to. He’d given the folks here something better: a common enemy.