Republican presidential candidate Joe Walsh is trying to fix the national nightmare he helped create.
Walsh is one of two nationally recognized politicians challenging President Donald Trump for the Republican nomination next year. He openly calls the president an idiot and a moron, but also acknowledges his own brand of crass politicking is partly to blame for Trump’s rise.
Elected to the U.S. House from Illinois in the 2010 tea party wave, Walsh served just one term and later was employed as a syndicated conservative radio host. He was known for making comments that are degrading to people of color and the LGBTQ community.
During a visit to Iowa last week, Walsh said that style was “ugly,” and he now apologizes for his role in building a conservative audience for hateful rhetoric.
“In many ways it’s been like a redemption tour. I’ve had to own up to what I’ve done that led to Trump. When I say things like I really helped create Trump, I mean it. It’s not an easy thing to say,” Walsh told me during an interview at a diner in Bettendorf.
Iowans can make up their own minds about whether Walsh’s remorse is sincere, but as a one-time federally elected Republican, his harsh critique of the party under Trump is hard to ignore.
According to Walsh, many of his former GOP colleagues in Congress agree with the common criticisms of Trump, but they won’t speak out because they fear the wrath of Trump loyalists in the electorate.
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Perhaps worse than cowardly politicians, though, is the fact that party elites are stifling the electoral process. Several state-level Republican parties have either called off their 2020 nominating contests or mandated that Trump’s name be the only one on the ballot. It’s a tactic a dictator would admire.
The Republican Party of Iowa, to its credit, plans to count votes and report the full results at next year’s caucuses.
Walsh and others are filing legal challenges against party stonewalling, but it’s not clear it will make much of a difference. While polls have shown at least a third of Republicans want a competitive nominating contest, Trump still enjoys an approval rating among Republicans of around 90 percent.
“The Republican Party right now is just broken because they’ve become a cult. So I want to try to see what I can do to help fix the Republican Party,” Walsh said.
On the issues, Walsh calls himself “a libertarian tea party conservative.” He gives Trump credit for a few things, but takes issue with many others.
Walsh said he would remove Trump’s unilateral tariffs on his first day as president, and instead work with the World Trade Organization to multilaterally crack down on bad actors like China.
He supports a balanced budget, but correctly says Trump was lying when he told voters in 2016 that the deficit could be eliminated in a single presidential term. He wants to “lead a discussion” on reforming the big drivers of the debt, such as Social Security and health care.
“I realized being (in Congress) like a day that the Republican Party had no real interest in cutting spending,” he said.
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Breaking with his radio show persona, Walsh now acknowledges that climate change is real and calls the denial of human responsibility “silly.”
Walsh wants more physical barriers at the U.S.-Mexico border, but also wants to increase legal immigration and rejects the racial overtones Trump employs on immigration issues.
“Trump has taken that legitimate issue that got him elected and he’s turned it into an ugly ‘brown skin congresswoman go back to where you came from’ kind of thing,” Walsh said.
Walsh thinks the Russia affair and Trump withholding aid from Ukraine are both impeachable offenses, but he doubts any Republican representative will vote to impeach.
During our meeting, he was visibly irritated recalling a recent Fox News segment where host Tucker Carlson said liberal American pundits “hate America” more than Russian President Vladimir Putin does.
Whether Trump is removed from office, loses then 2020 election or retires as a two-term president, Walsh warns Trumpism will not subside without a long fight.
“If Trump loses in November, he ain’t going away. I mean, he’s a jackass. He’s not going to go away, he’s going to start his own TV thing, he’s going to screw the Republican Party, he’s going to try to take all of his voters with him,” Walsh said.
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