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The Problem With Joe Walsh

The enemy of my enemy can be a friend. That doesn’t mean he should run for president.
September 3, 2019
The Problem With Joe Walsh

I really don’t want to write this. Bill Kristol is a colleague, and I like Joe Walsh. 

So let’s get this out of the way right away:  “Joe Walsh for President” is a terrible idea. 

As a cynic, I know cynicism pretty well and this is cynicism with a double helix twist: embracing the DNA of Trumpism to fight Donald Trump. 

To be sure, trolling at this scale is tempting. But the answer to Trumpism isn’t embracing Trumpism without Trump. “Everything but the crazy,” is hardly a compelling slogan.

It is easy to be distracted by Trump’s character – his erratic narcissism, chronic lying, and childish bullying. But he also represents a pre-existing dysfunction in our politics and culture and a deeper cancer in conservative politics. And Joe Walsh is a poster child for what went wrong. 

On August 14, 2017, Joe Walsh had a special guest on his radio show. 

“I‘m excited right now,” Walsh declared after a lengthy discussion of the violence in Charlottesville, “because I am joined on the phone by a guy that I want everyone listening to me to get behind. His name his Paul Nehlen. He’s running against Paul Ryan in the Republican primary in 2018…”

In fairness to Walsh, Nehlen had not yet gone full Nazi, but by August 2017, Nehlen was very much a known quantity. In 2016, he had challenged Speaker Paul Ryan, and managed to get 15 percent of the vote in the GOP primary. 

During that campaign, he had suggested deporting all Muslims. (Walsh has since apologized for his own extensive record of anti-Muslim tweets and comments.) In my book, How the Right Lost Its Mind, I devoted a section to a section to Nehlen, called “The Bigots Among Us.”

But along with Breitbart and other luminaries of the Trumpian right, Walsh had backed Nehlen in 2016, and was enthusiastically supporting his return engagement. 

“Paul, what always drove me crazy was this notion that everybody always had … was that Paul Ryan was some conservative,” Walsh said, noting that Ryan “opposed almost everything Trump wants” 

Nehlen agreed: “The only wall Paul Ryan is building is the wall between us an America First agenda. That’s the only wall he is building.”

“That’s a great way to put it, Paul,” Walsh responded. “He’s not supporting the president’s agenda at all.” 

The date here is important. 

August 14, 2017, is not some point in the distant past; it is just over two years ago. It was eight months into Trump’s presidency. And it was the week after the “Unite the Right” protest and violence in Charlottesville.

Two days before Nehlen’s appearance on Walsh’s show, the Washington Examiner had reported

Nehlen retweeted an image of the rally’s organizers posted after the event that was captioned, “Huge success in Charlottesville. Tomorrow will be even better. #UniteTheRight.” He also retweeted a picture of the demonstration posted by alt-right organizer Jason Kessler captioned, “Incredible moment for white people who’ve had it up to here & aren’t going to take it anymore. Tomorrow we #UnitetheRight #Charlottesville.”

Days earlier, Nehlen had also embraced the fringe conspiracy theory known as “pizza gate.”

But on August  14, Walsh closed his show with a call to action: “Everybody listening to me right now. Support this guy, Paul Nehlen. Go to his website. … This should be the race of the year next year. Give him some money, give him support. … Keep doing what you are doing.”

Walsh had devoted most of that day’s show to the event in Charlottesville. He was critical of President Trump for not having condemned the hate groups immediately. 

But Charlottesville was not a breaking point for Walsh. Indeed, he embraced Trump’s insistence that “both sides” were to blame… at length. 

This is the problem with Joe Walsh. Or one of them. His judgment is terrible and a lot of this is quite recent. In the absence of Trump, we would recognize a lot of it as flatly disqualifying. 

In January 2018, he was not only defending Trump’s comment about “shithole” countries, but upped the ante: 

That was, interestingly enough, the same month he tweeted out: 


There is a case to be made for a Walsh candidacy. Kristol argues that as “a Tea Party congressman who voted for Trump in 2016,” he has “an ability to speak to Republican primary voters that ‘Never Trumpers’ like me don’t have.” 

Noah Rothman is more skeptical, but notes that “that Trump has invited a Republican primary opponent, even if it is a weak one.” He argues that both Walsh and former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford “are uniquely positioned to exacerbate the right’s lingering frustrations with the president.” 

But embracing Walsh swaps long-term principle for short term (and largely illusory) tactical gain. 

As Jonah Goldberg says, “the prize we should keep our eyes on isn’t defeating Trump; it’s keeping conservatism from succumbing to Trumpism after he’s gone.”

The inconsistency burns. Goldberg writes:

Because you can’t say, “I’m standing on principle in my opposition to a bigoted troll and con man as the leader of my party and my country and that’s why I am supporting a less successful bigoted troll and con man for president.” Walsh isn’t a conservative alternative to Trump; he’s an alternative version of Trump. And his candidacy only makes sense if you take the “binary choice” and “Flight 93” logic of 2016 and cast Trump in the role of Hillary.

Walsh says he regrets much of his Trumpian past, including racist tweets, conspiracy theories, and advocacy of crackpot politics.  “In Mr. Trump, I see the worst and ugliest iteration of views I expressed for the better part of a decade,” he admitted in his New York Times op-ed. 

His apologies have been earnest and sincere-sounding. “I pushed the envelope. I’m provocative. I have a history of getting in people’s faces, like Obama…I regret all of that,” he said on a recent podcast interview. 

Walsh also deserves credit for both his conversion and a courage that is vanishingly rare in conservative media.  He is intelligent, colorful, articulate, and engaging, and has already performed a valuable public service by exposing the incoherent sycophancy of some of Trump’s media water-carriers. 

And, of course, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But I also can’t help reflect that this is how we got here. 

Conservatives looked the other way, struck alliances, made accommodations because, well, we were all on the same side, right? 

Yes, politics is about addition, and we can use all the help we can get, and politics often makes strange bedfellows (pick your cliché of choice). I get all that. I also agree that we can’t get hung up on questions of ideological purity and should welcome defectors.

But the enemy of my enemy temptation is also how conservatives found themselves in bed with guys like Charlie Kirk, Steve Bannon, Sheriff Clarke, and all the misfit toys and grifters on the right… because the alliances seemed to make so much sense at the time.

I know it is unfair to lump Walsh into that group, because he is willing to apologize. But the point is that we know where this all can lead if we put principle behind short term trolling. 

Joe Walsh as an ally? A comrade in arms? A newly minted voice of sanity? Absolutely.

Joe Walsh for president? That’s nuts. 

Back in 2016, Ben Howe noted all the times we looked away or simply rolled our eyes when one of our “allies” suggested that Obama was from Kenya or that liberals wanted to impose sharia law on the country:

People would say outlandish things and I would find myself nodding my head and awkwardly walking away, not calling them out for their silliness.

After all, there were more pressing matters.

I chose peace over principle. I chose to go along with those I disagreed with on core matters because I believed we were jointly fighting for other things that were more important.  I ignored my gut and my moral compass.

The result is that, almost to a man, every single person I cringed at or thought twice about, is now a supporter and cheerleader of Donald Trump.

Sometimes it feels as if we’ve learned absolutely nothing.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.