A look at this controversial former Illinois Congressman’s attempt at presidential nomination
When he was elected to Congress, he showed up in Washington and refused to play by their rules. He was on a mission to hold the government accountable and speak for the people who elected him… but now he’s left Washington and he’s punching back. He’s Joe Walsh. And this is the Joe Walsh Program.
Played against the background music of a hard rock anthem, this is what you hear when you tune into the Joe Walsh show. Well, it’s what you would have heard. The show has been disbanded since its eponymous host is now in the running for president of the United States.
The one-term congressman of Illinois’ 8th district, who was elected in 2010 riding in on the Tea Party wave, announced his intention to combat President Trump in the 2020 Republican primary last month. He’s joined by former Congressman Mark Sanford and Governor Bill Weld, who have also placed their bids for the nomination.
“I do believe this election is a referendum on Trump. He is a horrible human being. We have a horrible human being in the White House,” said Walsh in an interview with 14 East.
Walsh may be up against a president whose approval rating has averaged at just 40 percent, according to Gallup polling, during his term, but that doesn’t mean Walsh’s praises are being sung for challenging him. His tenure as a congressman was riddled with controversy. Walsh frequently espoused rhetoric in the vein of Trump’s, like trafficking in the conspiracy theory that former President Obama is a Muslim and tweeting the N-word.
However, Walsh insists that he is not an iteration of “Trumpism,” rather, that it’s the opposite, “With Trump, it’s just all personal, hateful politics. I’d argue he’s the worst iteration of all of us,” said Walsh.
The treasurer of DePaul College Democrats, Kyle Asta, lived in the 8th District when Walsh was the representative. While scrolling online, he saw the headline that Walsh was running, “Oh god,” he thought to himself, “Why him?”
Nearly a decade ago, Asta saw Walsh’s actions bring a shame unto the community. “I don’t think they realized at the time, how embarrassing he would become to the district and all of the statements he would make the controversies he would create for no reason,” said Asta. “My parents voted for him and then realized what a mistake that was.”
Responding to this, Walsh said, “There were plenty of people in that district who didn’t agree with my beliefs and that’s fine… again, were there times in my outspokenness where I went over the line and got personal? Yes. And all I can do is apologize for some of those. But look, the voters from that district they sent me to Washington. I worked for them and I always made myself available to them.”
Walsh previously supported candidate Trump, and voted for him in the election. He even tweeted that he would “grab his musket” if Trump lost. He has now publicly apologized for trailblazing a path for Trump.
Associate professor of political science at DePaul, Ben Epstein, has expertise in American politics, political communication and media. Epstein isn’t sure that Walsh’s apology tour will ultimately serve him well.
“Joe Walsh has comparable media background, [to Trump] comparable brash, racist, really controversial statements but is now willing to admit that some things have gone too far, but I’m not sure that a majority of Republican voters are persuaded by that,” said Epstein. “The one thing that distinguishes himself and Trump is that he is now willing to recognize and apologize for some of those past statements. Some of them he’s not apologizing for. But what Trump has done that has been his political superpower is that he has no shame. While that is something to legitimately criticize, it is something that has served Trump really well.”
Walsh though, disagreed with this assertion. “I think it’s a weakness not to apologize. I think more and more people, more and more Americans are realizing that, look, we’re all to blame, all of us, for putting Donald Trump in the White House,” said Walsh. “I think they are tired of the fact that he’s mean and he’s cruel and he never, ever does apologize for anything he does or says.”
President Trump has steadily held an approval rating from Republicans in the high 80s, making challenging him for those voters, well, a challenge. The difficulty was increased when, as of late, it’s been reported that four states that lean Republican have decided not to hold primary contests.
Epstein believes that the Repulican Party has become the party of Trump, and that the president will no doubt be their nominee in the general election, but that it will be important to see what kind of pressure Walsh can put on the campaign.
“He does not pose an actual threat to the president, politically, in the primary. He doesn’t have a chance but he’s challenging President Trump from the right and he would be the first,” said Epstein. “I do think that important and could potentially get people talking in the party who might be concerned with Trump.”
Walsh agrees with this assertion and believes that his campaign will be a watershed moment that will give permission for his contemporaries to openly renounce Trump, something many have been too timid to do thus far.
“Unfortunately Donald Trump has co-opted the party. I do still believe that most Republicans believe in the principles I believe in. They’re just afraid to speak out in the age of Trump. I hope my campaign gives them a platform from which to speak out,” said Walsh.
Is there a path to the nomination for Walsh?
Being the party of Trump has proven a challenge for many GOP lawmakers. It was speculated that Paul Ryan stepped down from his post as Speaker of the House rather than confront President Trump. Now twelve Republican legislators have announced they will not seek reelection in 2020, as reported by NPR.
Even so, the pool of candidates in the Republican primary is wider than just Walsh and Trump. What distinguishes Walsh from the other two Republicans who have thrown their hat in the ring to take on Trump is that he’s attacking from the ideological right, while still making the cornerstone of his campaign his psychological fitness over the president.
“I’ll talk about issues during the campaign, but to me this is all about Trump. It’s all about somebody who lies almost every time he opens his mouth. It’s all about somebody who is cruel. It’s all about somebody who puts his own interests ahead of the country’s interests all the time,” said Walsh. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe that Donald Trump was unfit and the country just couldn’t handle four more years of him.”
Speaking about his opponents on September 9, before departing on Marine One, Trump said of Walsh, “…another one got thrown out after one term in Congress and he lost in a landslide…”
In 2012, Walsh lost his seat to, now senator, Tammy Duckworth. On the trail, he said the Iraq veteran, who lost her leg in battle, was not a true hero. The loss also came after district lines had recently been redrawn. Walsh saw the move as politically-motivated gerrymandering, but Asta has a different take. “It was almost a backlash when they redrew the district to more Democrat-leaning territory. Oh boy, people did not like him a lot,” said Asta.
Epstein finds it indicative of the current political climate that someone with a past like Walsh’s could still tout himself as the level-headed alternative to Trump. “The fact that people would consider Joe Walsh to be particularly mature in how he handles himself, says where we are,” said Epstein. “Bill Weld is more of a grown up if you’re going to talk about being a more reasonable, but he’s also not flashy, he’s not exciting, he’s not someone who is generating much interest.”
Asta saw Walsh’s Tea Party rise during his formative years, and he cites it as being part of the reason he shifted toward liberal ideology after growing up in a conservative household. “I’ve seen enough of what the GOP has done. It’s been a slow, rightward drift that’s been accelerated in recent years,” said Asta.
This past weekend during a television appearance Walsh said he thinks the Republican Party should acknowledge the legitimacy of climate change. Still, Walsh’s politics may remain staunchly conservative. He’s against tariffs and taxes, anti-abortion, pro-pipelines, and says he “recoils” at political correctness.
To Asta though, Walsh isn’t any better than the current president, “He thinks he can do Trump things without all of the controversy surrounding Trump, like the Russia investigation. He said controversial things in office but he didn’t do the controversial things like having his personal life all tied up in business dealings and corrupt things he was doing,” said Asta.
Epstein questions what the Republican Party will look like in the eventual post-Trump era. He says they will no longer be known for being fiscally responsible, and they certainly haven’t become more progressive. But in the meantime, the certain retribution that anyone in the party faces for standing up to him is too intimidating for many legislators.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of members of Congress that don’t support the way he holds himself or the comments that he makes or some of his leadership traits. But they have almost been uniformly silent or actively supporting him,” said Epstein.
Walsh understands why the party has been silent surrounding many of Trump’s actions, but he doesn’t condone it. “I have very little sympathy for my former colleagues who feel like I do about Trump and they don’t say anything,” said Walsh. “You’ve got to do what’s right and it makes me sad that so many Republicans are afraid to say publicly what they believe privately.”
The Controversial Line Walsh Walks
To Epstein, the fact that Walsh isn’t in office right now and doesn’t have a constituency to answer to means he has less to lose. “He’s already a controversial figure. He already has people who don’t like how he talks,” said Epstein. “We know that other conservatives in media oppose Trump or criticize him and we know there is talk internally within the Republican Party but Joe Walsh can talk about that openly.”
After the rollout of his campaign, the distributor of his radio show, Salem Radio Network, announced that the national version of the program would be canceled.
“I’m not pro-Trump so I understand that they probably wanted me to leave for a while,” Walsh said.
The company later cited the Federal Communications Commission Equal Time Rule, a regulation on candidates for political office, as part of their reasoning for taking the show from the airwaves.
Even if he hadn’t lost his bid for reelection in 2012, Walsh said he still wouldn’t be in Congress.
“I was never going to serve more than six years in Congress. I think it’s important that members don’t serve for a lifetime.” Walsh disagrees that his lack of public office at the moment makes campaigning easier for him. He also insists that even if he were a congressman today, he’d still be running for president.
Walsh has been criticized, for putting himself in the running, by people on both sides of the aisle. In response, he’s made his campaign slogan “Be Brave.”
“The fear of backlash, it was even tougher in my world, in the conservative media world, I gave up a nationally syndicated radio show,” said Walsh. “In many ways that was more difficult than just giving up a seat in Congress.”
However Epstein isn’t sure that Walsh is making as profound of a sacrifice.
“Joe Walsh is inevitably going to be increasing his profile during this run,” said Epsetin, “He will definitely be able to sell more books and he will definitely be able to get more contracts after this is done, so I think that it will realistically lean more in that direction than President Joe Walsh in 2021.”
With the low chance that Walsh will come out victorious and clinch the nomination, the real importance of his candidacy will perhaps be if opposition from the right can weaken the president’s support from his base, or from the conservative sphere.
“I do think that he wants to win he does want to make Republicans challenge the idea that Trump is right, but I also think that he has to be realistic and know that he doesn’t have a chance,” said Epstein.
With the full force of the Rebublican apparatus behind the president, a Walsh win is a longshot. In an interview on Monday, Walsh described the Republican Party as a “cult.” His campaign may amount to a litmus test for how far a conservative politician can get when they reject the new conservative establishment. It may be a testament to whether or not those voters can be dissuaded from an allegiance to President Trump.
Of his ultimate mission, Walsh says, “I’m in the business of trying to change hearts and minds.”