Archetypes of the Problem

One of the reasons for our current polarization is people like Scot Ross and Dan O’Donnell.

Folks like this have always been around, going back to the likes of Joe McCarthy and Huey Long up to the present with Donald Trump. They’re self-obsessed publicity seekers for whom controversy is like oxygen, so they find it to be in their self-interest to stir things up. They don’t just provide more heat then light; it would be okay with them if they burned the whole house down just so long as they got their 15 minutes of fame.

What’s changed since McCarthy and Long is the tools as the latest demagogue, Trump, proved so distastefully. I don’t think that it’s overstating the case to say that Trump could not have become president without Twitter.

Ross and O’Donnell are small players compared to that, but they amplify their voices through social media. O’Donnell is a Milwaukee conservative radio host, so he has that medium in addition. Ross’ platform used to be the shadowy left wing group One Wisconsin Now. (It’s shadowy because it refuses to say where its funding comes from.) While there, Ross figured out that being profane on social media got him the attention he wanted for himself and for his organization.

We’ve lived through another era of Huey Long style ranters. Let’s hope it’s over.

Ross left One Wisconsin a couple years ago, but he continues his social media harangues. A non-paying gig he picked up last fall was to be a citizen member of the state Ethics Commission. That’s an appointment that still has a lot of people scratching their heads. Then Senate minority leader Jen Shilling appointed Ross to that less than august body on her way out the door. She resigned shortly thereafter to take a job as a utility lobbyist.

But maybe Shilling was just trying to make a point about the ridiculous partisan nature of the Ethics Commission. It’s true that that body is a joke. It only exists because Republicans didn’t like the fact that its predecessor agency, the Government Accountability Board, was doing its job by going after then-Gov. Scott Walker for the close (and probably illegal) coordination between his campaign and third party groups. So, they abolished the GAB and replaced it with the Ethics Commission, made up of partisan appointees from each side of the aisle.

Still, appointing a street fighter like Ross to anything called an Ethics Commission was not exactly the move of a stateswoman. It’s a relatively minor thing, but it does muck up the legacy of Shilling, who I always found to be a good legislator and a decent human being. It’s possible that she threw this bone to Ross as a consolation prize for not running for the state senate in Madison, which he had said publicly that he was considering. That cleared the way for the much more dignified Kelda Roys who ultimately wound up replacing Sen. Fred Risser, the longest serving legislator in American history.

As a Madisonian and not much of a talk show listener in any event, I don’t know O’Donnell as well as Ross, but he looks to be your run-of-the-mill rightwing talk radio provocateur. He carried Donald Trump’s baggage for four years and then he contributed to the outrageous notion that the November election was somehow rigged and stolen. Give him an assist for the Capitol insurrection.

All of that is background to the latest sordid chapter. Apparently, these two go back and forth at each other for the entertainment of their audiences. A few weeks ago Ross did what Ross does. He wrote something obnoxious and over the top on social media calling for O’Donnell’s radio show sponsors to drop him. O’Donnell responded in true Captain Renault fashion (“I’m shocked! Shocked! To find there is gambling going on here!”) by complaining that Ross was somehow using his position on the Ethics Board against him. O’Donnell is a flame thrower complaining about it when flames are aimed in his direction.

To give you a sense of the elevated banter between these two, Ross tweeted that O’Donnell was a, “white nationalist genital wart.” O’Donnell responded by claiming that Ross’ comment was, “an egregious abuse of government power that strikes to the very heart of our rights as a free people,” No, Dan, Ross’ comment was tasteless, but I don’t think he has destroyed the First Amendment yet.

I suspect both these guys are getting what they wanted out of this. The story ended up in the Wisconsin State Journal, Bruce Murphy opined on it in Urban Milwaukee and, heck, I’m writing about it here. More oxygen for them. Don’t think I didn’t think twice about providing it.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think either Ross or O’Donnell should be “deplatformed.” The First Amendment is not absolute, but I believe that the guardrails should be far apart, giving us wide lanes to disagree and even be unpleasant to one another. As the line goes from one of my favorite (Dixie) Chicks songs, we should have “room to make the big mistakes.”

The answer isn’t to shut up people like this, but to ignore them. I don’t listen to O’Donnell’s show and I don’t follow Ross’ social media feeds. I only know about them because of what I read in other places and my life would be no poorer if I never heard anything about either of them again.

Joe Biden is trying to usher in a new era of civility. Who knows. Maybe common decency in public discourse will become all the rage. And then guys like these two will be sooo 2020.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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