Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why Right Wisconsin Was Killed

Its editor, stalwart Republican James Wigderson watched as readers and his party went off the rails.

By - May 15th, 2024 05:49 pm
James Wigderson. Photo courtesy of Wigderson.

James Wigderson. Photo courtesy of Wigderson.

Last month James Wigderson got his 15 minutes of national fame, in a New York Times story reporting that attorney Kenneth Chesebro, a key architect of Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election, had anonymously written emails to Wigderson. Chesebro was trying to convince the editor of the conservative website Right Wisconsin that there was widespread election fraud in this state.

Wigderson’s answer: “You can spare me this stuff. Thanks. Trump lost, I really don’t have time for conspiracy theories.”

And when Chesebro suggested Wigderson check out an election fraud hearing led by Wisconsin’s Republican Senator Ron Johnson, Wigderson replied, “I cannot roll my eyes that far.”

This was in early 2020, three years after Wigderson had taken over as owner and editor of Right Wisconsin, and he was increasingly getting complaints from readers about his non-MAGA style of conservative politics.

“It was like going electric at the folk festival,” Wigderson jokes, referring to the famous incident in 1965 where Bob Dylan was booed off the stage by audiences. “But there was more than one Pete Seeger ready to wield that ax.”

But while Dylan had changed his style, Wigderson hadn’t. “I still had the same political views. I hadn’t changed,” he noted in an interview with Urban Milwaukee. “But everyone else had.”

This was not some squishy neoconservative who found himself getting attacked by his readers. Wigderson is a Waukesha resident and life-long Republican who was editor of the conservative student paper at UW-Milwaukee and went on to write a column for more than a decade for the right-leaning Waukesha Freeman and the arch-conservative MacIver Institute. He then served as a full-time reporter for the right-wing Wisconsin Watchdog before becoming editor of Right Wisconsin, “Wisconsin’s one source for Conservative news and opinion.”

Now he is anathema to many MAGA Republicans and so opposed to Trump and the radically-changed Republican Party that he could find no way to continue running Right Wisconsin. What happened to Wigderson is part of national trend that has left a certain percentage of Republicans — anywhere from 10% to 20% of the party’s voters — as lonely outcasts from a party they once proudly backed.

For a while it looked like Wisconsin, often a maverick state, would resist the Trump wave. In 2016 Republican primary, Ted Cruz was backed by some of the state’s top GOP leaders, including U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, Gov. Scott Walker, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus and Congressman Glenn Grothman. Talk radio hosts like Charlie Sykes and Jay Weber slammed Trump on their programs. Cruz won Wisconsin’s Republican primary easily, with 48% of the vote, compared to 35% for Trump and 14% for John Kasich.

There was still conservative resistance to Trump in Wisconsin as of June 2017, when Wigderson took over as editor, and eventually as owner of the website Sykes had created. Right Wisconsin had an insider’s feel to it, with close connections to Republican elected officials and backing at one point from some wealthy conservative supporters.

And Wigderson had a strategic plan to avoid the MAGA swamp that was slowly spreading in the Badger State: “I tried to emphasize the ‘Wisconsin’ side of Right Wisconsin,” he notes. “If Trump is a nut in Illinois it’s none of my business. That approach seemed to be appreciated for a while.”

Right Wisconsin had about 10,000 readers getting its daily email of stories with Wigderson as the lead columnist and other contributors doing reporting and commentary. “I knew I was getting read at the state Capital and by members of the media,” he says.

But he was increasingly getting flak over seemingly simple issues — like what were the facts. “I would cite the New York Times as a source and I’d get emails saying you should never be quoting the Times or the Washington Post.”

“And I would email them back and say, you actually need to read the Times. You have to get out of your silo.”

His support for delaying Wisconsin’s spring 2020 election because of the COVID-19 outbreak probably didn’t help him with those readers. Wigderson’s April 2020 column argued that Republican legislators should heed Gov. Tony Evers call to delay the election, noting that “the recent Florida primary election has shown there is a legitimate public health issue of holding an election during a pandemic.”

And in September 2020 he really dropped a bomb, with a guest column for The Bulwark blasting the Waukesha County Republicans for inviting Michelle Malkin to be the lead speaker for their Lincoln Day Dinner, noting she was infamous for defending the white nationalist and antisemitic group, the Groypers. “She is also a defender of the ‘Proud Boys,’ the right’s violence-in-the-streets answer to Antifa,” Wigderson wrote.

He also chastised Republicans at the dinner for giving the mother of Kyle Rittenhouse a standing ovation: “The 17-year-old Rittenhouse is currently fighting extradition from Illinois after he allegedly killed two rioters in Kenosha, WI and wounded a third. His mother drove him to Kenosha from Antioch, IL, so he could join the local ‘militia’ group…Instead of a standing ovation, his mother should be condemned.”

By this time Wigderson was getting emails to Right Wisconsin saying “you should fire James Wigderson” or “Right Wisconsin would be great if you could just get rid of Wigderson.”

And he was beginning to find that Republican officials were not returning his phone calls. “Toward the end of 2020 I went from being on their speed dial to their ‘blocked’ list.”

But the breaking point came after the 2020 election. “You had [Wisconsin Republican Party Chair] Andrew Hitt on a conference call to county Republican chairs saying that the goal of the election recount was not to find more votes for Trump but to disqualify voters in Milwaukee and Madison,” Wigderson charges.

As more Republicans in Wisconsin began to push conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, and defending the January 6 Capitol riot, Wigderson began to feel “I couldn’t go on being a spokesperson for the right because there was nothing the right was doing I could support. I couldn’t give readers anything they wanted.”

He stopped publishing Right Wisconsin in July 2021, but waited until 2022 to shut down the website. “I could have made a lot of money if I had turned Right Wisconsin into a pro-Trump website. Because the audience was there.”

Today Wigderson no longer attends Republican events and writes a “twice-weekly newsletter on politics, culture, travel, art, and personal observations,” entitled Life Under Construction, that’s always an interesting read. Upon learning it was Chesebro who had written those anonymous emails, he wrote a wry column about that, noting “It’s like discovering that you’ve been getting gardening tips from the Unabomber.”

For most of the years Wigderson published Right Wisconsin, even as he was getting many complaints, “I would get emails saying ‘keep up the good work.’” It was probably 20% to 25% of readers he estimates.

“I would get Republican politicians writing to support what I wrote. But none of them wanted to go on the record.”

“That’s the tragedy. There were so many times that Trump could have been stopped if enough people had done the right thing.”

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

4 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Why Right Wisconsin Was Killed”

  1. JE Brown says:

    “I would get Republican politicians writing to support what I wrote. But none of them wanted to go on the record.”

    This is the “moderate” Republican of today. So afraid of the wrath of the former guy, aka the vision in orange, that they don’t have the guts to be public when they are actually sensible.

    James Wigderson acted honorably to tell his brethren like it is. The MAGAts have dishonored themselves forever, as Liz Cheney pointed out.

  2. KFG says:

    That last true Republican standing in Wisconsin.

  3. TosaGramps1315 says:

    Proof again, unfortunately, that if you aren’t a MAGA Republican, you aren’t Republican at all – at least to the indoctrinated that can’t seem to get their heads out of their own assets.

  4. Mingus says:

    The Republican Party has morphed into a political cult similar to those Christian religious cults that are prevalent in Korean. Loyalty to the “chosen one” is more important than self interest. Believing without questioning is more important than Democracy. .

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us