Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
June 10, 2015

Scott Walker and the GOP's Biker Pose

Having recently visited Madison while Gov. Walker drew headlines for putting the U. of Wisconsin’s tenure system on the legislative chopping block, it was impossible not to detect a palpable distaste for the man among the good folks who live and work near the capitol building. Locals understand that the Governor is jockeying for a presidential run, and it’s no secret that Walker’s loyalties now lie beyond the borders of his home state. He is betting, of course, that attacking tenured professors will win him national attention and curry favor among conservative members of the GOP base. If this photograph from Republican Senator Joni Ernst’s “Roast and Ride” event in Iowa offers any indication, that bet is paying off.

Looking through photographs from Roast and Ride—where top-tier GOP presidential hopefuls stand on a trailer-in-front-of-a-barn and display their down-home American bona fides for Iowa Republicans—I am especially intrigued by Walker’s decision to separate himself out from the field by ditching the suit and going all in with the men in black. A mythos of the rebel, bad boy biker runs deep in American culture, and so these photographs offer up some hard evidence that Mad Max is now an entrenched part of conservative aesthetics in the US. Even though biker gangs pop up every now and then as a social menace, as they did did in a big way last month, suburban weekend motorcycle enthusiasm has long symbolic ties to the steely individualist who rides alone:

Or almost alone. Because in Walker’s case, this goofy getup really shows how hard it is to rebel and represent at the same time. In terms of image politics for 2016, these biker photographs comment on how conservatism has to negotiate opposition between individualism and tribalism—between the maverick’s freedom and the gang’s demands. And now that Tea-Party politics are in the GOP’s rear view mirror, Walker’s road gear further testifies to an ongoing search among conservatives for cultural traction and a new handle on popular sentiment. Libertarianism makes for a cool attitude, but can it foster the kind of group cohesion that wins national elections? A biker aesthetic, I think, is a clever way to visually resolve that paradox between rebellion and conformity, and this time around Walker can proceed with wry confidence knowing that the whole Republican leather thing has already been field tested.

Still, any candidate who tries to perform membership from the outside faces the risk of being called out for posing. Considering his track record of not seeming to care what the locals think, Walker’s best response may be to just shrug it off like no big deal. The jacket and fingerless gloves say enough, don’t they?

— Philip Perdue

(photos: Scott Olson/Getty Images North America. caption 1, 3: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker greets guests before participating in a Roast and Ride event hosted by freshman Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) on June 6, 2015 near Des Moines, Iowa. Ernst is hoping the event, which featured a motorcycle tour, a pig roast, and speeches from several 2016 presidential hopefuls, becomes an Iowa Republican tradition. caption 2: Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker rides in a Roast and Ride event hosted by freshman Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) on June 6, 2015 near Boone, Iowa. Ernst is hoping the event, which featured a motorcycle tour, a pig roast, and speeches from several 2016 presidential hopefuls, becomes an Iowa Republican tradition).

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