vision 2020

Joe Walsh on Racism, Regret, and Why He’s Primarying Donald Trump

Joe Walsh after his election to Congress in 2010. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag

If you’ve never heard of Joe Walsh, well, that’s about the only thing he has in common with many of the people who are currently running for president — that, and the fact that now he’s running, too.

Walsh is a smooth-talking conservative known as much for his unfastened persona on Twitter and on the radio as he is for the single term he served as the tea-party congressman from Illinois.

Last Sunday, he announced his campaign for the Republican nomination — joining a sparse primary field on the right that includes just one other barely known entity: Bill Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts with hair the radioactive color of yellow Gatorade who, in 2016, ran as veep on the Libertarian ticket with Gary Johnson.

Since his announcement, Walsh has taken up semi-permanent residence in the psyches of professional take-havers and in our nation’s television studios, where he’s been selling the confounding story of his recent transformation from obedient Trump voter to never-Trumper. And he has set up a contrast with the president: He apologized for the dumb, offensive, and racist things he’s said in the past.

It’s not clear how much of an appetite Republican voters, 80 percent of whom approve of Trump, have for such contrast. But Walsh is making a bet that the president is more vulnerable than the surveys suggest. Whether that’s the case, politics is showbiz, baby, and the telegenic Walsh — who looks like a cross of Will Ferrell, Rahm Emanuel, and a loyal beagle — is giving the cable networks and click-mongers a bit of the precious, precious drama that they (well, we) need to survive. Throughout this past week, I spoke to Walsh at length about the presidential campaign, racism, how he explains his most fucked-up statements, and what happens if he accidentally gets himself elected president. Our conversations have been condensed for clarity.

Can you can you walk me through how you arrived at your decision to run?

Because the guy’s a madman. The guy is completely unfit and unhinged. He lies every time he opens his mouth. When he got elected, Olivia, look: I voted for him. I didn’t love him. I didn’t like him. He wasn’t Hillary.

When he first got elected, I tried doing the good-Trump-bad-Trump thing every day. But that didn’t last that long, because I realized pretty quickly that he just lies all the time, and then he finally lost me at Helsinki, when he stood in front of the world and said, “I’m with Putin and not my own people.” From that moment on, a little over a year ago, it’s just been downhill.

I’m stunned and disappointed that a bigger Republican isn’t challenging him. I waited for months, and I thought somebody would get in. I wrote a piece in the New York Times three weeks ago, and that piece was a plea. I would tweet and say stuff on my radio show with every idiotic thing he did, Come on guys, somebody — and it just wasn’t happening, and some people came to me, and I started to look into it the last month or so.

Can you tell me about the people who came to you? 

No surprise: Bill Kristol and I had a conversation a couple of months ago. Bill, obviously, has been trying to find someone to take him on, because he feels the same way I have, and that conversation led to a bunch of other conversations.

So how do you justify voting for Trump over Hillary? I understand you don’t like Hillary, a lot of conservatives feel very strongly about her, but it’s not as if we didn’t know who Trump was, right? It’s not like he was only revealed to be an asshole within the last year.

You know what’s funny, Olivia, and I don’t want to sound naïve: I didn’t know he was this big of an ass. I didn’t know he was this unfit. I just always figured he was a goof. Not a very smart guy. But he’d at least hire some good people and maybe a few good things might happen. But I didn’t know that, financially, the guy was an absolute disaster, that he’d lost more money than anybody in the country. In a way, we didn’t really know that much about him, except he was a playboy who’s never had to work for anything in his life.

“We” — what do you mean?

Those of us who voted for Trump. In a weird way, as high profile as he was, there was a lot that we didn’t know about him. And so it was a fairly easy vote, because I’m not gonna vote for Hillary. You know who I am, politically, I’m a disruptive guy. I figured maybe he’ll shake both political parties up because, to me, both political parties are worthless. It became clear that it wasn’t just disruptive. It’s dishonesty, conspiracy, and everything else.

What’s your impression of the Democratic field right now?

Aside from me running, I don’t want Trump to win. So I hope that there’s a Democrat that can get elected. Joe Biden seems to be a safe pick — he looks kind of old and shaky to me. Elizabeth Warren, who I don’t like politically, seems to be the best, most energetic, sincere, committed candidate. I think she might not be able to beat Trump. I wish there was a stronger candidate. But you know what? Maybe it doesn’t matter. I think dislike of Trump is so profound — I mean, Republicans got their butts whipped in 2018!

So then why not just support one of the Democratic candidates?

You’re asking that question as if I wasn’t going to run.

Assuming that your goal is to make sure that Trump doesn’t get elected — is that a fair assessment of your goal? 

Well, my goal is to beat him. As difficult as you and I know that is going to be, I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t at least have that as my primary goal. Aside from that, to me, 2020 is bad versus wrong. Trump’s bad for America. I think generally the Democrats’ ideas are wrong for America. If I wasn’t going to run, I’m not voting for Trump either way. Would I vote for a Democrat? Maybe.

If the Republican Party enabled Trump to get elected and the Republican Party has allowed him to continue to be a fucking idiot for the last two and a half years, is there not something fundamentally wrong with the current Republican Party?

Yes — amen.

So then why do you want to preserve it?

To get it back to what it was a long, long time ago, before I ran for office. At least the party that energetically fought for freedom and limited government. The party sucks so bad. But we live in a two-party country. And that may change soon, who knows. But we need a viable, passionate limited-government party in this country, because the Democrats are gangbusters about what they believe.

You think that? I think a lot of people on the left would disagree with that assessment of the Democratic Party.

I think they’re wrong. I think they’re understandably gun-shy. None of the Democrats thought Trump would win, and so now they’re doing the reverse thing. They’re like, “Oh my God, we suck, we’re not gonna beat Trump.” Cool it, guys! I think the Democratic Party right now is in strong shape.

You’ve historically been at odds with the Republican Party, so why are you even a Republican? Why not be an independent?

Maybe that’s where I’m going. Maybe this is my last effort to try to do what I can to move and influence the Republican Party in this two-party world we live in, and maybe it won’t work, and maybe post-Trump, all hell’s gonna break loose anyway.

I assume, going into this, it wasn’t a surprise to you that people would be digging into your past.

Oh, God, no. I always figured that if I did this, what would people go after Joe Walsh for? It’s stuff I’ve said. I’ve probably sent out 50,000 tweets in the last six years. I’ve been on the radio for how many hours in the last six years. I always figured it would be stuff I’ve said, and I’ve said some stupid stuff. I’ve said some offensive stuff. I’ve said some insulting stuff, some ugly stuff. When you’re as outspoken as I am, you’re gonna step in it. I’ve always tried to explain and own my tweets and apologize when it’s necessary.

I saw you on CNN the other night, and you said, “We’re all a little racist.” Can you expand on that?

What I was trying to say is, “No, I don’t think I’m a racist.” I know I’m not a racist. I think if we’re all honest, we’re all a little bit racist. I think if we’re all honest, almost all of us, over the course of our lives, have said some stupid things and made some racist remarks, offensive remarks, and certainly, Olivia, people like me, who have been in the public eye and very outspoken and pushed the boundaries on these issues — I’m sure there are times when I’ve said things that people can interpret as racist. I’m just trying to be honest. I think because I’m in the public eye, I have to be held accountable for what I’ve said. But I think we’re all capable of it, most of us, even if it’s not purposeful. I just think people need to be honest about that. If that makes sense.

Uh, sort of. If you were saying that we all have our implicit biases because of our worldview and the way we were raised and our race and gender, maybe everyone has a bit of intolerance on some level?

We’re all so eager and quick to pounce when somebody says something that can even remotely be considered racist, and so people get afraid to say things, and we’re all quick to judge, and I think we live in glass houses, because a lot of the people who throw stones — I just think if we’re honest. I shouldn’t say we all are. But I think many of us have stepped in it on occasion and said things that we’ve regretted that could be interpreted as racist. I’m certainly out there and saying things more than the average bear. I guess all I’m trying to do is be honest and apologize for things I’ve said that can be interpreted as racist.

But I’ve had conversations with people who are overtly racist about the N-word. And my feelings about the N-word, or any term like that, is that either that word is something that is in your vocabulary and it’s something you might accidentally say, or it is not in your vocabulary. And if it’s not in your vernacular, then you don’t just utter it. I feel the same way about any explicitly racist or intolerant comment. Either that’s in your brain or it’s not in your brain. And I don’t think it’s a matter, most of the time, of misspeaking, if that makes sense —

It does make sense. And trying to be as honest as I can: Because I’m so outspoken, and I push the envelope on a lot of issues, and I have pushed the envelope on race because I have strong interest on the issue of race, I always have, I’m sure that I’ve said things that people would interpret as being racist, because I say things that most people won’t say to push a discussion on the issue of racism.

Would you say that you’ve ever held racist beliefs?

I would say no. I mean, honestly, looking at myself, I don’t believe I’m racist. No.

When it comes to what you’ve said about Islam: How do you feel about Islam today?

Of the 60,000 tweets I’ve sent out — I found out exactly, it’s 60,000 tweets — the issue of Islam is an issue I’ve spoken out a lot about. I have always tried to be careful — I have not always succeeded — in distinguishing between Islam and Islamism. I believe Islamism is a bad, evil ideology. I don’t believe Islam is. So if you went through everything I said about Islam and Islamism, I’m generally harshly criticizing Islamism. There have been times where I’ve screwed up and conflated Islam and Islamism and said things about Islam in general that I would apologize for.

Can you help me understand the distinction you’re trying to make?

Islamism is an ideology that believes Islam should conquer the world and people who are not Islam need to convert or whatever. It is more of, when we talk about Sharia law, you don’t separate religion and the state. It’s Islam in its most radical, political form. Islamism is, I’m sorry.

Okay … But in terms of people of Muslim faith. How do you feel, generally, about people of Muslim faith?

The same way I feel about people, generally, of the Christian faith or the Jewish faith. It doesn’t matter to me. If you’re a God-fearing, peace-loving, whatever kind of a person, I don’t care what color or faith you are. If you are of a radical ideology, no matter what your religion or faith is, and you are not tolerant of other faiths. Most Islamists are not tolerant of other faith — well then, yeah, I’d have a problem with that.

Would it not be, I don’t know, more productive to talk about radical terrorist ideology being promoted under the guise of the Muslim faith? Because most people of Muslim faith look at radical terrorists and say, “They don’t represent my faith.” Just the way that most Christians look at any white Christian shooter and say, “That person’s not a Christian, and they don’t represent my faith.”

When you speak to most peaceful Muslims, the average, peaceful, normal, moderate, freedom-loving Muslim, they’ll tell you about the Islamists. That is where the radical Islamic ideology, the terrorism and all of that, comes from. I don’t think the average American is aware of the difference between Islam and Islamism.

I grew up in a post-9/11 world. The right was very successful in fearmongering about Muslims, broadly, and not making any distinctions between terrorists and people of Muslim faith — regardless of what George W. Bush’s rhetoric was in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. 

Totally agree. Totally agree.

But we’re talking about billions of people. It’s a lot of fucking people. And most of them are definitely not terrorists. 

You’re right. It’s unfortunate. That’s really too bad. And I suppose I’ve been guilty of this as well because I’ve been so outspoken about it. Way too many Americans have assumed that all Muslims are bad and that’s wrong and that’s horrible.

Did you ever have similar assumptions?

No! Never, never! Only because I’m not some uneducated dope on this issue. Like with the issue of race, it’s an issue I care about, so it’s an issue I study, and it’s an issue that, when I talk about it or tweet about it, I try to make a real fine distinction between Muslims in general and the radical element of Islam, Islamists and the terrorists and all the rest.

But looking at the tweets that you’ve sent about it, in my mind it’s like, I don’t see any similar statements from you using any kind of similar language talking about radical Christian terrorists in America. So it seems like a dog whistle to people who hold racist beliefs on the right, whether or not you say that you do yourself. 

No, and what’s not fair, Olivia, is you’re probably looking at a few of the more egregious tweets where I’ve admitted that I mistakenly stepped over the line and confused my intention of directing my tweet at Islamists and not Muslims.

There seems to be a pattern of you “stepping over the line” when it comes to Muslims, but I don’t see a similar pattern of you stepping over the line when it comes to Christian extremists or extremists of other faiths, and that’s why it’s hard for me to accept the idea that you were not trying to be outrageous and sound a dog whistle to racists on the right.

I’d respond in two ways: If you went through all my tweets, you’re gonna find 50 times as many tweets where I went after Islamic terrorists and I went after Islamists. I mean, maybe a hundred times more. You may find a handful of tweets where I screwed up and I said Muslims instead of radical terrorists. That’s one. But the second issue is, let’s be real, when I went to Congress, eight, nine years ago, the threat domestically — Eric Holder said this! — the threat domestically was young, Muslim American men becoming radicalized and coming back here to commit acts of terror. Fast forward nine years: Christopher Wray said three weeks ago that the threat that keeps him up is these radical white-supremacist acts of terror. I’ve been really strong this last year calling out white-supremacy terror.

If you look at the terror committed on American soil since 9/11, it’s statistically overwhelming that it has been committed more by white nationalists than by foreign actors. 

I’d dispute you on that [Note: I am right]. It’s one of the few things I agreed with Eric Holder on. He identified that as our main domestic threat as recently as eight, nine years ago. I will acknowledge that we’ve done a pretty decent job against it here domestically and now we have to do the same job against white supremacy.

What do you say to people who remain skeptical of you, who hear your apologies or hear you clarifying and say, “I don’t believe him?”

There’s nothing I can do except continue to own, explain, and apologize as genuinely as I can, and people will either believe or not believe. If the apology is genuine — and I’m just speaking for myself: It is — we either forgive or don’t forgive, and I hope that we have not become so polarized today that people on both sides aren’t willing to forgive. If people on both sides aren’t willing to forgive, then we’re gonna be divided forever.

When you’re talking about the racist beliefs you think people hold on some level, whether or not they admit it, would you allow that any of those beliefs, on any level, conscious or subconscious, motivated you to be so hypercritical of Barack Obama?

Actually, no. And this has always been an issue that bothered me, Olivia. I despise Barack Obama’s politics, and Barack Obama’s politics and Joe Walsh’s politics were a hundred and 80 degrees apart. What always bothered me, what many people on our side back then felt, was like if you did attack Barack Obama’s policies, a lot of us felt that too easily people were then accused of racism because you attacked or criticized the nation’s first black president. I can speak for myself: Every criticism I had of Barack Obama was based on his policies, period.

When I look at 2016, it’s pretty clear to me that a lot of what motivated people to vote for Donald Trump was a racist backlash to Barack Obama. Do you think that’s a fair characterization?

No. You and I will agree on a lot, but only because I’ve had the experience of talking to these people for six years —

So have I. I talk to Trump supporters every day. And I don’t think that they are awful people. I don’t think that every Trump voter is “deplorable,” but I think it’s pretty clear that when you look at that election, and who was motivated, that there was a racist backlash.

I never felt that way when it came to Trump voters that a vote for Trump was a backlash against Obama’s race. Obviously, I didn’t feel that way. I never felt that way about 94 percent of Trump voters that I’ve spoken to over the years. It was a backlash against Obama. It was a backlash against his policies. I just never picked up the race angle to it. That’s just always struck me as so unfair. I understand there are racists who support Trump, but I think the vast majority, no.

Are you open to the idea that maybe your own implicit bias, because of who you are and your worldview, blinds you to some of that? Because I admit I don’t see the world the same way that a woman of color sees the world, because I don’t experience the world the same way that a woman of color experiences the world. So there are things that I can learn from listening to people of color talk about their experience that, if I’m just walking through the world on my own, I’d never be aware of. And I realize that I’m blinded to a lot about how the world works because of that, because I’m a white woman from the East Coast. 

Well, yeah, that is endemic in all of us. We are who we are, and we are from where we’re from. You said it better than I did, so if I can take it back, I’ll take it back: We’re all biased. We’re not all racist. We’re all biased. We all discriminate. We all have our prejudices. I guess that’s a better way to put it. But you’re not dummy and I’m not dummy. And I can sit here with you for 30 minutes and tell you why I opposed Barack Obama, and it had nothing to do with the color of that man’s skin. I never felt that way.

What do you think motivates you, psychologically, to be “provocative?” 

I wanna make a difference. Like, I wanna get people to think. I hate political correctness. And I hate the way that in this damn country of late, we stifle speech. I recoil against that. So I try to really push the envelope. To say provocative things. To get people to feel and to think. And to feel more open about talking about sensitive subjects. I guess that’s one way I’d put it.

If you’re being really honest, though, is any of it motivated by a desire for attention? By liking the exhilaration of being in the crosshairs?

No. That just pisses me off.

Really? I can admit it — I’m in media, I go on television, it’s because I have a side of me that is egomaniacal. Anyone who goes on television on purpose has that aspect, right? And I feel like if you’re courting controversy, whether or not your actual goal is to have a conversation, if you’re the agent to open up that conversation, then a part of you must enjoy that, must enjoy being at the center of it, must enjoy the controversy, the attention, that it results in.

Well, I enjoy being in the battle. I enjoy being the tip of the spear. I enjoy being in the arena. It’s not because there’s a TV camera there. I like trying to make a difference. I like trying to get people to think about these things, whether there’s a camera there or not. That’s never been my motivation. It’s not the reason I’m doing this. Good God, no.


Oh, Olivia! Come on!

I’m not saying I think it’s the central reason. But nobody runs for president if they don’t like attention, come on.

No, God no. I feel like I’ve aged three years. This is the biggest pain-in-the-ass thing I’ve ever done. Anyone who would do this because they simply want attention or that’s the motivation? They need their heads examined. My God. This is too big of a pain in the ass for that.

Donald Trump didn’t think he was going to get himself elected president, either. So what happens if you accidentally get yourself elected president?

You know, nobody has asked me that. I think I’d be a great president.

Joe Walsh on Racism, Regret, and Why He’s Primarying Trump