Skip to content Skip to footer

Republicans Struggle to Get Story Straight After Trump Insults Milwaukee

Some commentators noted attacks on Milwaukee aren’t unusual, and are often accompanied by racist dog whistles.

Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump gives remarks to the press at the National Republican Senatorial Committee building on June 13, 2024, in Washington, D.C.

During a meeting on Thursday with House Republicans on Capitol Hill, Trump reportedly derided the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which is hosting the Republican National Convention (RNC) next month.

It is unusual for a presidential candidate to bad-mouth the city that is set to host his party’s nominating convention — more often than not, convention sites are chosen with the intent of winning Electoral College votes, and making such offensive remarks could backfire greatly. But this is not a typical election, and Donald Trump is not a typical presidential candidate.

Within the meeting, Trump defamed the city, stating that, “Milwaukee, where we are having our convention, is a horrible city.”

Republicans, including members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation, scrambled to attempt to spin Trump’s statement.

Wisconsin Republican Reps. Glenn Grothman, Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Tiffany suggested that Trump was talking about the election, with the first two stating that he was discussing the need for Republicans to do better overall “in urban centers around the country.” Tiffany, meanwhile, suggested that Trump was referring to election irregularities in the city during the 2020 election. (Such claims of irregularities or election fraud are not backed by evidence.)

Meanwhile, Rep. Derrick Van Orden, a Republican who represents the western portion of the state, asserted that Trump was referring to the city’s crime rate. Republican Rep. Bryan Steil, who represents the southeastern part of Wisconsin, initially claimed that Trump never uttered the words at all, but later stated that Trump was “talking about specific issues” in Milwaukee that also apply to the rest of the country.

Other prominent Republicans, including Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana), also implied that Trump never disparaged the RNC’s host city, telling Fox News’s Sean Hannity that he “didn’t hear” Trump say Milwaukee was horrible, even though he was “sitting right next to him.”

That assertion was contradicted by the Trump campaign, with spokesman Steven Cheung seemingly confirming that Trump did in fact call Milwaukee “horrible.” Cheung, who called the reaction to Trump’s words “total bullshit” on X, said that Trump was indeed talking about how he felt about crime and voter fraud in the city.

Crime has, in fact, declined in Milwaukee in recent years, similar to how rates have gone down across most of the U.S. since the peak of the pandemic. In fact, the crime rate in Milwaukee from January to April of this year was 50 percent lower compared to the same time period two years ago.

Attacks against the state’s largest city aren’t unusual — Milwaukee has often been used as a “punching bag” by right-wing lawmakers and conservative media in Wisconsin, whose complaints are frequently accompanied by racist dog whistles.

Former Gov. Scott Walker (R) was chief among those on the right who frequently expressed his disdain for the city in order to score political points with the state’s rural populations. “We don’t want Wisconsin to become Milwaukee,” he said in 2012 during his gubernatorial run, while at the same time running Willie-Horton-esque ads in the state against his opponent, who was then the Milwaukee’s mayor.

“Disdain like this from Republicans directed at Wisconsin’s largest, most diverse city is nothing new,” Wisconsin-based journalist Dan Shafer said on his news site, The Recombobulation Area, adding that “calling this city ‘horrible’ is right in line with how Republicans treat the city.”

Several individuals within Milwaukee and Wisconsin, and beyond, criticized Trump for his comments.

Peggy Williams-Smith, president and CEO of the tourism bureau Visit Milwaukee, defended the Cream City. “The Washington Post just named Milwaukee one of the best cities in the country in the summer. ‘Top Chef’ loved Milwaukee so much they filmed a season here,” Williams-Smith said.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson was more direct in his criticism of the ex-president.

“If Donald Trump wants to talk about things that he thinks are horrible — all of us lived through his presidency, so, right back at you, buddy,” Johnson said, adding that, “obviously Donald Trump is wrong about something yet again.”

Alex Cole, a progressive commentator on X, took note of the veiled racism behind Trump’s derision of Milwaukee.

“In 2020 Trump wanted to throw out votes in Milwaukee, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Detroit. Because all those cities are predominantly Black, and they didn’t vote for his racist ass,” Cole said, adding that that was why Trump called Milwaukee “horrible.”

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) also called out Trump’s comments, saying:

Milwaukee makes the greatest beer, brats and motorcycles in the world. It’s home to some of our most vibrant communities, hardest workers, and is part of what makes Wisconsin the best state in the nation. Donald Trump wouldn’t understand even if a jury told him so.

“If Donald Trump thinks Milwaukee is so horrible, then he shouldn’t come to our city,” said Garren Randolph, Wisconsin Democratic coordinated campaign manager.

President Joe Biden also weighed in on Trump’s comments.

“I happen to love Milwaukee,” Biden said, sharing an image of himself welcoming the Milwaukee Bucks to the White House after they won the NBA championship in 2021.

Current polls show a dead heat between Trump and Biden for the Badger state overall, with the latest statewide Marquette University Law School poll showing Trump ahead by just 2 percentage points among likely voters. That split is well within the poll’s 4.8-point margin of error, meaning the state is currently a toss-up.

Biden narrowly won the state in 2020, defeating Trump by a margin of around 20,000 votes, a split that represented just 0.6 percent of the overall vote. In Milwaukee County, Biden won by around a 40-point margin that year.

Countdown is on: We have 3 days to raise $31,000

Truthout has launched a necessary fundraising campaign to support our work. Can you support us right now?

Each day, our team is reporting deeply on complex political issues: revealing wrongdoing in our so-called justice system, tracking global attacks on human rights, unmasking the money behind right-wing movements, and more. Your tax-deductible donation at this time is critical, allowing us to do this core journalistic work.

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, Truthout relies heavily on individual donations at this time. Please give today if you can.