This post has been updated with Walsh’s campaign announcement.
Former congressman Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) announced Sunday that he will challenge President Trump in the 2020 primaries.
It’s difficult to overstate how questionable this idea is for everybody involved.
The New York Times reported last week that Walsh was getting some high-profile encouragement from a leader of the “Never Trump” Republican movement, Bill Kristol:
Mr. Kristol has been a “Never Trump” Republican since Mr. Trump was elected in 2016 and has been working hard over the past year to recruit someone to run against him.
Mr. Kristol said Mr. Walsh’s comfort with the in-your-face format of conservative talk radio makes him a potentially more effective combatant against Mr. Trump than someone like William Weld, the genteel former governor of Massachusetts, whose own primary challenge to the president has gained little traction.
“He has a different appeal than Bill Weld,” Mr. Kristol said. “The fact that he was a Tea Party congressman who voted for Trump in 2016 gives him an ability to speak to Republican primary voters that ‘Never Trumpers’ like me don’t have.”
That’s certainly some optimistic spin.
Walsh doesn’t just have experience with conservative talk radio and supporting Trump; he inhabited the fever swamps of birtherism and anti-Muslim rhetoric and conspiracy theories as recently as a couple of years ago. The one-term congressman also tweeted the n-word on several occasions and carries significant personal baggage into his primary with Trump.
Last week, Peter J. Hasson pulled out a number of examples of Walsh’s tweets. They include the falsehood that former president Barack Obama is Muslim, employ the racist trope that he should “go back” to someplace other than the United States, and make frequent use of ethnic slurs:
And this is just the tweets. Walsh also has been a radio host in recent years; imagine what he has said there that we don’t have a ready-made transcript of. We already know he was briefly pulled off the air for (similar to above) using racial slurs while discussing racial slurs. Then there’s the matter of the child-support dispute that marred his failed 2012 reelection race, in which his ex-wife accused him of being a deadbeat dad and owing her $117,000. (They later reached a settlement.)
The Trump resistance has often been accused by Trump supporters (and others) of frivolously elevating pretty much any Republican who’s willing to take shots at the president. We’re seeing that argument most recently in the form of Anthony Scaramucci, the former 11-day White House communications director whose publicity hounding and recent 180 on Trump have earned him another 10 days in the spotlight.
But the most transparent manifestation of this tendency might be Walsh, whose tweets will frequently go viral when he bashes Trump. “Even a former tea party congressman is saying this!”
Perhaps nobody has gotten more mileage out of winning a single term in Congress. But even back then, Walsh was largely regarded as a fluke — someone who rode the 2010 wave into a seat he was never going to hold. His campaign was badly underfunded and disorganized, yet he emerged from a crowded primary field and found himself running in exactly the right year. Illinois Democrats redrew the districts before the 2012 election, and Walsh found himself without a winnable seat, though it would have been tough for him to hold his old district had it remained as it was. He has since parlayed that brief tenure and penchant for provocation into a career as a radio host.
In a New York Times op-ed this month, Walsh expressed regret for some of the above sentiments, saying, “We now see where this can lead.” People certainly evolve, and perhaps Walsh’s evolution is genuine. And he doesn’t pretend to be some kind of centrist; instead, he’s reportedly aiming to run at Trump from the right while making a moral case for his candidacy.
It’s an idea that makes sense in theory — as does Kristol’s strategic angle. But the Never Trump movement also needs to be wary of being used and attaching itself to people who undermine its goals. It’s not difficult to see Walsh doing just that.
Walsh enters a race that includes former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, who supports abortion rights and was the 2016 vice presidential nominee of the Libertarian party, and could soon include former congressman and South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, whose own personal baggage is the stuff of legend and who was ousted in a 2018 primary for criticizing Trump. It’s difficult to imagine a more motley crew of would-be Trump usurpers, but this is apparently what the Never Trump movement has to work with.
Walsh might be its biggest reach yet.