From Trumpism to Trump Challenger: Joe Walsh on His 2020 Run
Joe Walsh never seemed to like Bill Kristol.
The radio show host/onetime congressman has called the former editor-in-chief of the defunct Weekly Standard a “twit.” He also said that the godfather of Twitter neoconservatism had become “irrelevant.” As if that weren’t enough, he accused Kristol of “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” told him to “just stay in Israel,” and urged him to “take one of those Weekly Standard cruises off into the sunset.”
Nonetheless, the pair enjoyed breakfast in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday morning. And after that most important meal of the day, Walsh caught up with RealClearPolitics to explain why everything is different.
The main thing that’s changed: Walsh is a GOP presidential candidate now and Kristol is his cheerleader.
“I didn’t love Trump. I didn’t even like him, but I voted for him because so many of Trump’s voters were my voters and so many of Trump’s voters are my listeners. I come from Trump world,” said Walsh.
“Bill and I obviously disagreed on Trump, and I went after him early on — I went after a lot of people on Twitter early on — but here we are,” he continued. “We come from different places, but now we are in the same place, just vehemently opposing this president.”
The single-term Illinois congressman finds himself apologizing for his past support of the president and apologizing for his own populist excesses while now urging the right to follow his example and turn away from the current occupant of the Oval Office.
His White House run began in the New York Times where he diagnosed a different kind of Trump derangement syndrome and prescribed a solution to it: a primary challenge.
“I believe that most Republicans, privately, agree with what I am saying publicly,” he reiterated to RCP. There is a silent majority out there, one that thinks “this guy is unfit to be president,” who say, “I am sick and tired of his idiotic tweets; I am sick and tired of him waking up every morning insulting people; I am sick and tired of him going after Fox News and CNN; I am sick and tired of all his bulls--- and drama.”
His goal, then, is to bring “those people out of the closet,” to do nothing less than reverse the populist tide of 2016, to return the congregation on the right to proper conservative orthodoxy in 2020.
He knows that won’t be easy.
Poll after poll shows Trump enjoying an approval rating well above 80% with GOP voters, and history says primary challengers don’t do much other than sink the electoral hopes of incumbents. But while plenty have written Walsh off as a hopeless dreamer, at least one person finds him irksome, if not entirely threatening.
Around dinnertime Tuesday evening, Trump tweeted to say that Walsh was “a one-time BAD Congressman from Illinois who lost in his second term by a landslide, then failed in radio.”
Walsh, whose campaign makes much of the fact that he was blocked by Trump on Twitter, said it is more “bulls---,” a favorite expression that he uses about half-a-dozen times throughout the interview to signal an exhaustion he hopes Republicans share about this presidency.
He has gotten a stomach full. He supported Trump, yes. But he supported him to oppose Hillary Clinton, and if she had won, he promised at the time that he was going to go “grab my musket.”
His allegiance to Trump was frayed all along, he insists, and while he tried the good-Trump/bad-Trump routine on his radio show, alternatively supporting and then criticizing, it all came to an end when the president sat with Russia’s president in Helsinki last year.
“It became really clear that almost every time he opened his mouth, he lied,” Walsh explained before adding that “I can’t have a president lying to me. Period.” But that 2018 summit between the two nation’s leaders was “the final straw when he said ‘I believe Putin and not my own people.’ That was an act of incredible disloyalty, and I said this guy is almost un-American.”
That infamous moment occurred last summer. So why was Walsh still sharing pro-Trump memes as late as October 2018?
“I don’t know my Twitter feed,” he explained, noting that he probably shared similar content on social media as recently as a couple months ago. “Even though he lost me, I made up my mind I wouldn’t support him, but I would still support good policy.”
This policy/rhetoric dichotomy is an important one for Walsh. Just like he says he supported conservative policy despite all the drama that came with this presidency, he hopes voters will support him and his policies regardless of his own inflammatory language.
Walsh has apologized for some of those tweets, saying he sees the worst excesses of his own populism manifested in Trump. He stands by other tweets, however, saying they require proper context:
“I love talking about this stuff because I probably have 40,000 tweets out there since I started tweeting six years ago. There are probably a couple hundred tweets where you’d go, ‘Joe, what the hell were you thinking?’ All I can do, because I have put so much out there and I have been very provocative and blunt, is respond to the 200 or so you put in front of me.”
So, for instance...
Why did Walsh write out the N-word? It was during a controversy over an NFL team, and he says he used the slur to point out how the name of the Washington Redskins was not racist by comparison.
Why did Walsh say that “blacks are lazy, and the Irish are drunks”? It was during a debate with then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, and while he doesn’t believe either sentiment, he says he expressed them to demonstrate the importance of protecting speech, even when it’s unpopular.
Why did say Walsh argue that Trump was right “that most Muslims believe in Sharia Law”? It was during the Republican primary, and Walsh says he got over his skis rhetorically. He insists he opposes Islamism as a political philosophy, not individuals who follow the Islamic faith.
Walsh takes polite umbrage with the idea that a vote for him would be a vote for a Republican with an only moderately toned-down Internet persona.
“You’re trying to compare a guy who is morally unfit to be president to a guy who is provocative with his tweets?” he responds. “How is that different from a serial liar, a psychopath, a malignant narcissist, a cruel bigot, somebody who lies every time he opens his mouth, somebody who tweets at people just to insult people, someone who did not and will not defend us against Russia meddling in our elections?”
All the same, his tweets do require a lot of explanation. And this doesn’t bode well for Walsh if the political axiom holds that when a candidate is explaining, a candidate is losing. Here though, a career in talk radio might help. After all, this is not the first evolution Walsh has had to explain.
As the Chicago Jewish Star noted during his first (and unsuccessful) congressional campaign, he was a liberal on gun control, affirmative action, and abortion rights — a stark difference from the fire-breathing conservative he became when the Tea Party sent him to Congress more than a decade later.
Perhaps more worrisome for the upstart candidate is the fact that a Walsh presidential campaign doesn’t exist without Trump and Trumpism. When asked about his message apart from the president, he laughs.
“It is a great question and the only reason I’m laughing -- I’m not laughing at your question -- it’s just kind of weird. I’m doing this because I think he is a clear and present danger. It is a referendum on him.”
His pitch is that most Republicans share his conservative beliefs. His hope is that Republicans are tired of the machinations of the current president.
“Trump is just a conman. He really doesn’t believe in anything,” he said, condensing his platform. “You have gotten some good policy from him, but you have also gotten all of this BS, and all of this drama, and all of this cruelty, and all of these lies and that is going to continue for four years,”
“With me,” he continued, “you would get a good, decent conservative who would give you good, decent conservative policy.”
The shelf-life of insurgent candidates can be limited, especially those backed more recently by Bill Kristol. But Walsh is convinced that if the Republican electorate is provided with a realistic viable alternative, the mood of voters would change: “I hope to be that. I certainly am not that right now, but I hope to be.”
None of this is a stunt, he insists -- Walsh wants the Republican nomination. “I have been an announced candidate for three days and I feel like I have been in a 112-round heavyweight boxing match,” he said, likening his candidacy to “walking around naked” so that everyone can “go after me.”
“There is no way in God’s green Earth I would put myself through this -- there is no way I would do this -- unless I was doing this to win.”
And if he doesn’t wrestle back control of the Grand Old Party, “then who knows? I think there is certainly room for a viable third-party challenge next year.”