With well over twenty candidates vying for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, the Republican side appears downright quaint. Joe Walsh wants to change that. The former one-term congressman, radio host, and inveterate Twitter personality is seriously considering a primary challenge to incumbent Donald Trump. Walsh has said he’ll make a final decision by Labor Day, with an announcement as early as this weekend.
Walsh, elected to represent Illinois in the Tea Party wave of 2010, would challenge him from the Right, making the case that Trump has too many unfulfilled promises to deserve reelection. But more than that, Walsh wants to smooth out the edges to Trump, which he says are toxic electorally and ethically. “The fact is, Mr. Trump is a racial arsonist who encourages bigotry and xenophobia to rouse his base and advance his electoral prospects. In this, he inspires imitators,” wrote Walsh in a New York Times op-ed last week, testing the waters of his candidacy.
Walsh told Politico that he doesn’t think this would be a suicide mission. “There’s a drumbeat from a lot of people out there for somebody who wants to take this on,” he said, confident that he could get financial support from dissatisfied Republicans. Donald Trump’s approval rating among Republicans is currently over eighty percent, and major donors Charles Koch and Robert Mercer, who opposed Trump’s nomination in 2016, have made their peace with the party leader.
“A lot of what he’s saying is that Trump doesn’t have support from within the Republican Party, and I think the obvious answer is that he does. And I think criticizing Trump as being a conman, and immoral, and a bad example for children, I think that criticism has already been factored into Trump supporters’ equation,” explained Geoffrey Kabaservice, director of political studies at the Niskanen Center. “A lot of them understand that he’s not the nicest guy out there, but they feel like he’s fighting for their interest and they’re going to support him to the hilt.”
However, despite his play for decency, Joe Walsh is far from fitting the “nice guy” mold himself. The potential candidate has years of controversies, insensitive statements, and loose language at his back.
Walsh has a history of using the n-word on Twitter, typically complaining about his inability to use it on air or making false equivalencies between its use and the terms “redneck” or “cracker.”
After the twin mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Walsh was very critical of Trump’s response. “Today, our biggest domestic terror threat is white American men radicalized by white supremacy. Conservatives must be honest enough to acknowledge this,” tweeted Walsh. But in 2017, regarding the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, Walsh said “I’m sick and tired of the Sandy Hook parents. They’re partisan & political. They can be attacked just like anyone else.” When someone took issue with his language, Walsh continued. “Oh grow up. These Sandy Hook parents are anti-gun partisans. We have every right to criticize them. Deal with it.”
In his op-ed Walsh accused the president of inciting violence with his language. But Walsh has also tested how far partisan language can go. “On November 9th, if Trump loses, I’m grabbing my musket. You in?” he asked his audience before the 2016 election. Earlier that year, after the shooting of police officers in Dallas, Walsh said, “This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you.” The latter tweet was removed by Twitter for violating its terms of service.
Interestingly, one thing Walsh does agree with the president on is his response to the violence in Charlottesville in 2017. “Why we’re pissed & what Trump got right: TWO hateful ideologies converged in Charlottesville. The media denounces one, ignores the other,” he said. Walsh even attacked the “DC GOP” he’s now trying to court because “they stabbed Trump after Charlottesville.”
There are problems of message consistency as well. In June 2018 Walsh said, “The media is NOT the enemy of the American people. Anyone saying that ought to be ashamed of themselves,” rebuking the president’s preferred turn of phrase as dangerous and un-American. But in October 2016 Walsh told the media, “You are the enemy.”
“What if the guy sent to Washington to ‘drain the swamp’ turns out to be the most corrupt person to ever inhabit the White House?” asked Walsh in May. But his own corruption may follow his campaign. In 2011, during his only term in the House, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) named Walsh among the most corrupt members of Congress. Alleging that he was “a deadbeat dad,” the organization pointed to court documents showing that at the time Walsh owed over $100,000 in unpaid child support.
Since his announcement in 2015, Donald Trump has been dogged by his promotion of birtherism in 2011 and 2012, the accusation that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. But even more recently, Joe Walsh lent credence to the conspiracy that Obama was a secret Muslim. “The truth: as practiced by most Muslims, Islam is not a religion. These Muslims are at war w us. Barack Obama, a Muslim, is on their side,” Walsh said in 2015. As late as summer 2017, Walsh was making the same accusation, including a defense of Trump. “Cracks me up that after 8 yrs of a Muslim, Socialist, community organizer in the White House, people are worried about Trump. Hilarious.” Just last year, Walsh continued to defend the position. “I have a right to call Obama a Muslim . . . That’s America.”
A deep-seeded fear of Islam appears to motivate a lot of Walsh’s political positions. Claiming that “Muslims . . . have destroyed Europe,” Walsh wants to explicitly stifle all Muslim immigration to the United States. Walsh has been supportive of President Trump’s travel ban, praised his cuts to the number of refugees admitted, and wants to give preference to Christian refugees over Muslim ones during selection.
“There won’t be peace in that part of the world until Muslims want peace, until they recognize Israel’s right to exist, and until they join the modern world,” Walsh said. This is why the former congressman favors a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, Syria, and the region-at-large.
A part of the region Walsh doesn’t want to disengage from is Israel. He even used his devotion to Israel as his motivation for hating Obama. “I don’t believe Obama is a Muslim. And I continue to apologize for having ever said that. I constantly let my disgust with his policy toward Israel get the better of me,” he said last week. Walsh supports Trump’s moving of the U.S. embassy towards Jerusalem and has been even more critical of Israel critic Rep. Ilhan Omar than the commander-in-chief.
One of the biggest policy differences between Trump and Walsh is on Russian-American relations. Calling Trump “unpatriotic,” after agreeing to meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in 2018, Walsh said “we know whose side he’s on.” Walsh theorized that “Putin must have something on Trump,” engaging in the same rampart conspiracy that has plagued the country for three years.
It was Trump’s diplomatic outreach that permanently ostracized the rightwing radio host. “That’s it. That should be the final straw. It is for me.”
“While Walsh’s Trump conversion appears to me to be sincere, he is poorly suited to make the argument that Never Trump is about the president's temperament, vulgarity and overall fitness for office,” said James Antle, editor of The American Conservative.
Joe Walsh has acknowledged as much. “To be sure, I’ve had my share of controversy. On more than one occasion, I questioned Mr. Obama’s truthfulness about his religion. At times, I expressed hate for my political opponents. We now see where this can lead. There’s no place in our politics for personal attacks like that, and I regret making them,” he wrote in his op-ed.
“I think he seems to be sincere in his criticisms of Trump. I don’t think it comes across as just being a thing he’s doing for his own self-interest. I think he genuinely does think Trump is dangerous and maybe even a threat to the continued viability of the Republican Party,” Kabaservice said.
Joe Walsh isn’t the only candidate seeking to challenge Trump. To his left is William Weld, who announced his campaign for the Republican nomination in February. Weld is the former governor of Massachusetts (1991–1997) and was the vice-presidential nominee for the Libertarian Party in 2016. Weld broke a pledge with the Libertarian Party by announcing his candidacy as a Republican.
“If Walsh runs, he’ll do more harm to William Weld than to Trump. There just aren’t a lot of Never Trump votes to go around. What’s interesting is that Walsh and Weld both originally come from the pro-abortion, anti-second amendment, left of the GOP, but both have tried rebranding: Weld as a libertarian, Walsh as a Tea Party bandwaggoner,” said Daniel McCarthy, editor of Modern Age. McCarthy is referring to Walsh’s original run for Congress in 1996, where he referred to himself as a moderate Republican.