WASHINGTON — Former Tea Party Congressman turned right-wing radio host Joe Walsh voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and credits himself with helping put him in office. Now, he’s running against the president for the GOP nomination.
“I apologize because I helped put an unfit con man in the White House,” Walsh, 57, told VICE News.
In 2010, the Illinois Republican — a failed actor and twice-failed congressional candidate — rode the Tea Party wave into the House of Representatives, upsetting a three-term incumbent Democrat and stunning the Republican political establishment.
The once-moderate Walsh (in previous iterations, he was both pro-choice and pro-gun control) recast himself as a fire-breathing, big government–hating, welfare state–destroying conservative, warning that President Barack Obama was an existential threat to the republic — and possibly a Muslim fifth columnist. Walsh's campaign was chaotic, his victory quixotic, and his tenure brief.
By 2012, he returned from D.C. with a surplus of anger at supposedly "treasonous" Democrats but also disdain for his supine Republican colleagues. Walsh joined the crowded field of conservative talk-radio hosts. “I was alienated from the party when I got elected. John Boehner and the party didn't exactly love people like me,” he said. “I mean, the Republican Party sucked before Trump.”
But Walsh flipped on Trump. The spittle-flecked partisan who accused Obama of treason now accuses Trump of the same, all while acknowledging it was his brand of rhetoric that created the poisoned political environment in which Trump flourished. Walsh says his conservatism hasn’t changed, but his radio audience’s did. (His national radio show was cancelled earlier this week).
Trump’s “not a Tea Party guy,” he says, but Tea Party voters have dutifully fallen in line behind him.
“On my radio show, the spending bills, everything he's signed, everything he's done that my listeners would be screaming about if Obama had done? They don't say shit,” he said.
While the ideological focus of the Tea Party was limited government and ballooning deficits, the MAGA types gleefully shifted to populism and xenophobia. But Walsh, 57, thinks the collapse of Republican principles long preceded Trump.
“Really after about a year or two [after 2010], we knew we were up against the Republican Party. So the Tea Party really dissipated earlier. We all wanted to repeal Obamacare that first year then... fuck, everybody dropped it.”
But what of those Republicans who sold themselves as men of unbending ideological conviction?
“[Rep. Jim Jordan] was like a mentor to me, talking about Obamacare and debt and spending. Every time Obama did anything about spending, we all called a press conference! Jordan was leading the way. Jim doesn't say anything now. I love that guy. I guess that's why it's really disappointing. [Trump] wants to be a goddamn king, a dictator. But what was it, ‘Obama with his pen and his phone?’ We all went ballistic. Jordan and the rest of us. Now they don't say a word. It's really disappointing.”
Walsh has little chance of wresting the nomination from Trump, but he says that’s not the point. “Trump’s unfit. So somebody step up and say publicly that he's unfit.”
This segment originally aired August 29, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.