Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Joe Walsh Challenge

Published in The New York Times on August 28, 2019


Joe Walsh, a one-term Congressman from Illinois who became a fiery right-wing radio host, announced on Sunday that he would challenge President Trump for the Republican nomination. The former Tea Party favorite declared Mr. Trump “completely unfit” to be president, before adding that “everyone” in the Republican Party knows it.

If so, Republicans have a strange way of showing it. Mr. Walsh has become the target of attacks from a party base and conservative media complex that is enraptured with the president.

Late on Monday night I received an email from a strongly pro-Trump political pundit with whom I am periodically in touch. Our differences over Mr. Trump are quite deep, but we’ve managed to share our differing perspectives in a reasonably respectful manner.

He started his email by quoting Mr. Walsh, who during a television interview said, “I wouldn’t call myself a racist but I would say” that “I’ve said racist things on Twitter.” Then he wrote this:

Good Lord, Pete.

I have a colleague who claims Walsh has instantly become the face of the Never Trump movement (much to his delight) and that his fellow Never Trumpers will never write a word of condemnation of Walsh, thereby proving their disingenuous position. Will we be seeing words of wisdom from Mr. Wehner? Asking for a friend.

As one of the earliest of the Republican never Trumpers, I am happy to rise to the challenge.

I will get to Mr. Walsh and his racist rants in a moment, but first I will admit that my initial reaction to this email was bemusement at the question posed to me. Mr. Trump’s most vocal supporters are now demanding that Mr. Trump’s most vocal critics do what they will not, which is to publicly recoil against a politician — in this case, Mr. Walsh — who appeals to the worst instincts and ugliest sentiments in America.

Their argument seems to be that decency requires the president’s relatively few conservative critics to call out Mr. Walsh for saying detestable things while Mr. Trump’s right-wing supporters cheerfully defend him under any and all circumstances, regardless of the fact that the president’s rhetoric is pathologically dishonestdehumanizingcruelcruderacist and misogynistic. There’s a word for what Trump supporters are doing here: hypocrisy.

As for the charge of being disingenuous, that is exactly the word to describe those who once railed about the deficit but are now utterly indifferent to it because it is their man who is running up record levels of debt, who once championed free trade but are now defending a president who says “trade wars are good, and easy to win” and who were thrilled when President Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” but are now cheerleading for a president who swoons for the overlord of one of the most brutal governments in the world.

Whataboutism is a game anyone can play, but there’s something more important going on here. A large number of Mr. Trump’s supporters are either blind to their double standard or at least not embarrassed by it. Pointing out facts that challenge their ideological and political assumptions is like shooting BBs against a brick wall.

In this case, Joe Walsh is precisely the kind of figure who was praised on the right during the pre-Trump era. He was the archetype of the angry, hotheaded, insulting, anti-establishment Tea Party figure they were drawn to. It will make them look foolish if they hammer Mr. Walsh for those very characteristics now that he is challenging their “chosen one.” Foolish, but not surprising.

As for Mr. Walsh: To me he embodies much that has gone wrong in American politics, just like the man he is challenging. The democratic virtues we desperately need to reclaim in American public life — moderation and compromise rightly understood, civility, forbearance — are antithetical to Mr. Walsh. So is any apparent self-awareness of the fact that at best we are in possession of partial truths.

Even more troubling is that the rhetoric Mr. Walsh has long deployed is racist, bigoted, vicious, threatening and dishonest. A man of pulsating rage, he seems to have viewed first his public office and then his radio program as a forum to vent, to perform, to hurt, to wound.

I understand why some conservative critics of Mr. Trump are promoting Mr. Walsh’s candidacy; they see him as a means to inflict injury on the president, including as a way to psychologically “trigger” him. But rallying around Mr. Walsh, even if only for the purposes of weakening and disorienting Mr. Trump, strikes me as unwise, particularly with a far more responsible person like the former Massachusetts governor William Weld already in the race.

Mr. Walsh is about as imperfect a vessel as you can imagine for challenging Mr. Trump in a primary campaign, since he was in many ways a proto-Trump. What kind of inhumane person mocks the parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre because they sue gun manufacturers, which is what Mr. Walsh did in 2017? He tweeted, “I’m sick & tired of the Sandy Hook parents. They’re partisan & political. They can be attacked just like anyone else.” In another tweet, he added, “Sandy Hook Parents: Your 15 minutes is up.”

At certain times, embracing the ethic that the enemy of my enemy is my friend can be justifiable, but it is always morally fraught. And what exactly might Mr. Walsh’s appeal to Trump voters be? If they want to support a provocateur who makes racially incendiary comments, they already have their man in the Oval Office.

One thing Mr. Walsh does have that the president does not is the ability to apologize. Whether one believes his apology is sincere or an affectation, the product of genuine remorse or opportunism, an exchange on Monday between Mr. Walsh and MSNBC’s John Heilemann is worth watching: Mr. Walsh speaks candidly about how his differences with various people over policies led him to say things that were, as he put it, “horrible.”

In that sense, Mr. Walsh is a cautionary tale. We live in a time of acute bitterness and acrimony, where people’s first (and second and third) impulse is to brutalize, insult, embarrass and demean those who hold different views. The purpose of language, as they see it, isn’t to clarify or enlighten or reason together. It is to inflict the maximum pain possible on other human beings.

Joe Walsh has done that over the course of his political career. So has Donald Trump. They are cut from the same rancid cloth. That they personify the Republican Party today is still, for some of us at least, a source of shock and shame.

Peter Wehner (@Peter_Wehner) a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the previous three Republican administrations and is a contributing opinion writer, as well as the author of “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.”

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