A Tale From Wisconsin

A parable about Trump, his people, and the virus.
March 29, 2020
Featured Image
(SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

The other day, I wrote that Trump’s next pivot would leave us more divided than ever, turning social distancing from an act of civic virtue and responsibility, into yet another signal of tribal identity.

We didn’t have to wait long, did we?

Amid shattering job losses, Trump continues to push for a quicker restart for the economy and his acolytes in the media are back to suggesting that the pandemic has been overhyped and that the lockdowns have been an over-reaction.

As pressure builds to follow Trump’s latest line, we’re already beginning to see a red/blue patchwork of responses, dividing states, communities, families, and businesses along political, rather than medical, lines.

This story out of my home state of Wisconsin illustrates the sort of thing that may be coming our way — and it deserves more attention.

Uline is a major distributor of packaging materials and industrial supplies, and one of the state’s biggest employers. The other day, the New York Times reported that the company “kept its work force going through the week, despite complaints from employees, including those crowded into its call centers, working side-by-side in cubicles.

“Nothing’s really changed,” one employee said. “It’s just nerve-racking.”

The story included this extraordinary detail:

Employees received an email Thursday from the Uihlein Family, owners of the $5.8 billion company and big donors to Republican causes, thanking them for their efforts and saying that the “White House called upon us twice with huge orders” this week.

The same day, a manager at one Uline call center sent a note to employees.

“If you, or family members, are under the weather with cold/allergies—or anything aside from Covid-19,” it read, “please do NOT tell your peers about the symptoms & your assumptions. By doing so, you are causing unnecessary panic in the office.” [emphasis added throughout]

As the article notes, the company is owned by two of Trump’s most lavish and loyal backers, Richard and Liz Uihlein, who also happen to be some of the country’s most influential donors to right-wing causes. 

When the Times profiled them in 2018, the paper called the Uihleins, “The Most Powerful Conservative Couple You’ve Never Heard Of,” and that was not an exaggeration. “The couple’s spending this election cycle puts them atop all Republican donors listed in federal filings so far,” the paper reported. At the time, the Uihleins were in the process of pumping $11 million into the failed candidacy of a first-time senate candidate in Wisconsin.

But their influence extended far beyond contributions to local political candidates.

Dan K. Eberhart, a Colorado drilling-services executive and major Republican donor, called them “the new Mercers.”

“There were all these articles: Who is going to fund the Bannon insurgency?” Mr. Eberhart added, referring to Stephen K. Bannon, the estranged Trump adviser who championed attacks on the Republican establishment.

“Bannon has blown up and is no longer a factor, but post facto, Uihlein is the answer.”

Uihlein has used his munificence to Trumpify much of the right.

Mr. Uihlein also gave more than $7 million to PACs affiliated with Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that supported conservatives in 13 recent races nationwide.

He has backed Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s governor, supporting his 2016 presidential bid before rallying behind Senator Ted Cruz’s. The Uihleins were among the top donors recruited by Reince Priebus, then the Republican National Committee chairman, to close ranks behind Mr. Trump. Mrs. Uihlein took on a prominent fund-raising role; Mr. Uihlein was at the White House the day the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey delivered his Senate testimony last year.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel notes that the Uihleins’s company has pushed back on the Times story about its handling of the pandemic, “saying it was doing all it could to provide supplies to hospitals and health care providers. It added that all nonessential employees were working from home.”

But the newspaper reports that “two Uline staffers contacted the Journal-Sentinel to say that just wasn’t true. Lots of employees in nonessential positions are being forced to go to work, they said.” One employee is quoted as saying, “We’re angry and scared, but no one cares.”

At the same time, Liz Uihlien has been quick to pick up the virus-is-overblown mantra (See Below) and has pushed legislators to keep the economy open.

So here is the obvious and deeply uncomfortable question: how much of Uline’s approach to the pandemic is driven by medical advice, and how much by a desire to send the right signal to an audience of one? How much is driven by science, as opposed to political loyalty?

And how many other examples of this sort of thing will we see as Trump declares victory and insists that the country re-open for business?

UPDATE:

Hat tip to Capitol Fax.com: on march 13, Liz Uihlein wrote an email to Illinois legislators complaining that “The Media is Overblowing Covid-19”:

From: Liz Uihlein
Date: March 13, 2020 at 12:22:09 PM CDT
Subject: The Media is Overblowing COVID-19

Dear Members of the Illinois Legislature:

There were 1,701 cases in the U.S. of which there were 41 deaths; whereas an overwhelming number of people have been infected with and died from the flu this season.

While you may think the government enforced closing of events, schools, etc. is helping prevent the spread of this infection, you are impacting local, state and national economies and adding unnecessary panic and fear in the American people.

What happens in 2 weeks? Are you willing to indefinitely close institutions? At what point do we go back to our normal lives? This has been a huge disruption.

Sincerely,

Liz Uihlein

President, Uline

 

On Saturday, the number of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. topped 2,000.

 

Charles Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.