INTERVIEW

Joe Walsh on what the left doesn't get: TrumpWorld "would happily burn this country down"

"I'm responsible for Trump," says former GOP congressman. Now he's here to warn us: The danger isn't going away

By Chauncey DeVega

Published February 11, 2022 6:30AM (EST)

Joe Walsh | People participate in the “Million MAGA March” from Freedom Plaza to the Supreme Court, on November 14, 2020 in Washington, DC. Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump marching to protest the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Joe Walsh)
Joe Walsh | People participate in the “Million MAGA March” from Freedom Plaza to the Supreme Court, on November 14, 2020 in Washington, DC. Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump marching to protest the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Joe Walsh)

The Republican Party's assault on American democracy is an imminent existential crisis. But this disaster was long in the making.

For at least five decades the Republican Party and the larger conservative movement have moved farther and farther to the right, becoming increasingly anti-democratic and detached from reality. Today's Republican Party is a de facto fascist political organization, but that is only the logical end result of more than 50-years of policies and planning.

The Republican Party embraced white supremacy and white backlash in the late1960s and early 1970s, in the form of the "Southern strategy" as a way to win over white voters angry about the victories of the civil rights movement. It then enthusiastically chose the friendly fascism of Ronald Reagan and the gangster capitalism and right-wing libertarianism of the 1980s and beyond as an aspirational template.

It has grown ever closer to white evangelical Christianity, and ultimately to its most extreme factions, Christian nationalism and dominionism.

RELATED: At last the Republican Party comes clean: It stands for terrorism and Trump

Republicans have also operated in concert with Fox News and the larger right-wing echo chamber where the most extreme and dangerous elements of the right gained increasing visibility and power over the direction of the "conservative" movement.

As a practical matter, the groups that Hillary Clinton called "a basket of deplorables" had gained immense influence over the  Republican Party. Conspiracism, hostility to truth and reason, a rejection of empirical reality and an embrace of cultl-ilke thinking have been long-standing traits on the American right since at least the early 1960s.

Ultimately, the Republican Party's embrace of fascism is a story about how "respectable," "establishment" conservatives made bargains and agreements with fringe factions in order to win elections and hold power. Gradually, those supposedly mainstream Republicans gave the political arsonists in their midst the fuel and matches, and then feigned shock and surprise at the resulting conflagration.

In the years since Donald Trump's seizure of the Republican Party, some of those "respectable" conservatives have chosen to break away from their party. One can certainly question their past records and current motivations, but in many cases this has demanded great personal and political courage. And there's no denying that those who want to save democracy need as many allies as they can get, irrespective of ideological differences.

Only a few of those conservatives have been willing to reckon honestly with their role in creating and empowering the present-day fascist movement. The temptation to whitewash recent history and present themselves in a noble light can be too much to resist. 

As Bill Kristol wrote last September, it is time to face the facts: "Real, existing conservatism as it exists in America in 2020 is an accomplice to, an apologist for, and an enabler of Trump's nativist, populist, unconservative, and illiberal authoritarianism." But Kristol is still eager to embrace the conservatism of the 1980s, and to deny its clear connection to what we face now.

I recently had a long conversation with former Republican congressman Joe Walsh, who was a staunch conservative, a leading voice in the Tea Party movement and a vociferous opponent of Barack Obama. At first, he supported Donald Trump before turning against him in dramatic fashion. He even ran against Trump, albeit briefly and with no success, in the 2020 presidential campaign. His new podcast is "White Flag with Joe Walsh," where, in his words, "he surrenders the urge to fight and strives to find a path to unite, not divide."

In this conversation, Walsh warns that liberals and progressives still do not understand the depth of loyalty and power that Donald Trump has over the Republican Party. He shares what it was like to be inside TrumpWorld at the highest levels and explains how and why Trump's coup attempt and the Jan. 6 insurrection have become normalized — if not outright embraced — by Trump's followers

Trump voters, Walsh warns, are willing to destroy American society to get their way — and their opponents must take that threat more seriously if democracy is to survive.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. This is the first of two parts.

How are you managing your emotions in this time of crisis?

We are in a unique moment in the country's history where we are trying to save our country's democracy. If you are in the battle every day it is exhausting — and I would argue that most of us should feel that way.

I receive emails almost every day from people who read my articles or listen to my podcasts. There is a consistent theme: I am tired. I am afraid. Please help me. Tell me what to do. I tell them that the fight hasn't even begun yet. How do we support people who are already tired before the fight has been fully joined?

I am in a weird position. I was part of TrumpWorld. I was part of the Trump cult — and I got out of the Trump cult. Whenever I have the opportunity, I try to wake up Democrats, and anybody else who will listen, to what the people in TrumpWorld and who are part of that movement are really all about and what we're really up against. I do not believe that most Democrats and independents really believe it when they say, "We have to defend our democracy." They do not really understand how close we are right now to losing it all.

As you say, you were part of TrumpWorld. What do people outside that world not understand about it?

People watching MSNBC or CNN every night hear Rachel [Maddow] and everybody else bemoaning what's going on. What you have there is a bunch of liberals and other good people just talking to each other. There are not really seeing what is going on in this country. This is a battle, a fight for the heart and soul of the country. Too many of those liberals and CNN and MSNBC and establishment Democratic Party types are not paying attention to what the other side is doing. You need to understand your enemy.

RELATED: Republicans in Congress were in on Trump's coup plot

I hear from thousands of Republican voters every single day. If there's one message that I try to convey to the MSNBC viewers of the world, it is the following: These people, the Trump folks, the Republican voters of today, they would happily burn this country down to get the country they want. They would happily do it. And they tell me that. I don't think the folks who watch CNN and MSNBC every night really understand that fact.

There is an echo-chamber effect among Democrats, liberals and progressives, the NPR and MSNBC types. They refuse to accept that the people living in TrumpWorld and the MAGAverse really believe what they are being told. Those Trumpists don't think they are sick. They don't think they're confused. They don't think they're lost. They think that you folks, the Democrats, the "liberals,"  are the sick and confused ones. The MAGAverse is the real world to them, and all your interventions will not help them.  

What do people in MAGA world tell you?

They are not nuts. All the good New York City liberal types — the elites, I will call them — they just laugh and think all these people are nuts or that they are all bigots. They are not. They're dead-set on what they want to do. Their country, they believe, their 1953 America, has been taken away from them. In the form of Donald Trump, they have somebody who is going to bring it back, step by step. These Trump followers are taking the long view. The MSNBC crowd does not understand that fact at all.

What is the role of race and racism in their version of the "good old days"?

It is a broader and more general view. There's no doubt that race is part of it. And let's be honest, who are we talking about? This was my family. These were my supporters. We're talking about old white men and old white women. That is the Republican Party base. These people are talking about a life where the factory that you worked at was right there in town. Now it is gone. This was a world where men married women and women married men. That's gone. There is the stupid stuff too, such as their belief that back then they could freely say "Merry Christmas." In their eyes now, that's a struggle. I hear this stuff all the time. The country had borders, and nobody could come into this country illegally. In their minds, that's all gone. Now some of this is an issue of race, where they long for a time when in their minds white people reigned supreme.

RELATED: The Republicans have dug up Jim Crow's corpse — and now they've married it

But as I see it, mostly what they want back is just a time where for them there was right and wrong, and now everything's just gray. In the last 20 years their world has changed so quickly. Trump basically just said, "I'm going to stop it. I'll stop all of this spinning. I'll build a wall. I'll keep brown and Black people out." And that was it. It was over once Donald Trump said that.

What did it feel like, being inside TrumpWorld and the MAGAverse?

You felt a struggle every day. I was a Republican. I was a former Republican congressman. Jim Jordan and I were best friends. Mark Meadows and I were good friends. I was on 200 radio stations around the country. I was going to be the next Rush Limbaugh. In that world you've got these older white men and older white women listening to you. You're incentivized. You're pressured.

How did Trump take over the Republican Party? I am asked that all the time. What Trump did was, he realized that the Republican Party establishment ignored the base. There were all these people who wanted to bring back 1953 America. Instead of sitting them down and educating them, and telling them, "You're never getting 1953 back," John McCain, John Boehner and the party's leadership, ignored these people's concerns. And then, being fair here, in 2010 Tea Party people like me came along and inflamed the base. We riled them up. I was in that world every day. The more you could rile them up, the better. Those people were primed by the time the demagogue came along.

I condemn everything that Trump and the Republican fascists represent. But to see this all happen, to be in a moment in history where so many forces, evil as they may be, are coming together, is exhilarating in a way. It's like a car accident in slow motion. This is a fulcrum in American and world history. It must all be so intoxicating for the Trumpists and neofascists. Most people on the left are afraid to take on that emotional component. Instead, they delude themselves into believing that reason and facts will stop this.

We are living in a populist moment in American history. I voted for Trump in 2016. I didn't love him or like him. I have been preaching this since I was in Congress: Our political system sucks. Democrats suck, Republicans suck, it's broken. We needed disruption. So along came a disrupter. Trump won because he said, "I'm going to drain the swamp. I'm going to blow it all up." There was a part of me that recognized our political system needed, figuratively speaking, some blowing up. Donald Trump is a horrible human being. He's an evil human being. There are good disrupters and bad disrupters.

The Democrats in 2016, and I would argue today, had no clue that we were in a populist moment. If the Democrats had nominated Bernie Sanders in 2016, he beats Trump. Instead, they nominated the poster child for the establishment, Hillary Clinton.

The only reason Biden won is because the country was exhausted with Trump. We're still in a populist moment. To your point, if I had $10,000 to bet right now, I would put it on Trump. He's the favorite in 2024 because the Democrats still don't recognize what this moment is.

What did it feel like to have the power you possessed, at least for a while?

When you go on the radio every day or you go on Fox News every night, what you say can really move people to do things. Again, this is something unique to conservatives and Republicans. Rush was a pro and a master. We on the right dominate talk radio. There's much more of a direct contact and an intimacy on the right, in how their demagogues and celebrities and talkers and politicians talk to the people.

I don't think the Democrats have the equivalent of that. There's an elite aspect to the Democrat Party. Republican and conservative leadership know that Trump's a fucking fraud, it's all a grift. But they play the parts well and they come across like they're one of the people. There is enormous power doing what I did. It is very difficult to do the right thing. It's much easier to lie and inflame your listeners. And that's what Sean Hannity and all the rest of them have made their livings doing. I couldn't do that, because eventually I could only speak my truth. My truth is that Donald Trump is an evil, horrible guy. So eventually I had to say that, and then I lost everything.

Is it just about money? How do these people choose between power and the truth? Do they have any higher principles beyond immediate gains?

Some believe in the cause, but most do not. It's analogous to the other world I come from, Congress. Most Republicans in Congress privately believe Trump is bad. He's bad for the party. He's bad for the country. They don't say it. It's all utilitarian. They want to get re-elected.

Some, though, do believe it. There are true believers in the Republican conference. In the conservative media world, most don't believe it, but some do. And the reason you sell your soul, and I couldn't do it, is that, man, the money is good, the recognition is great, the power is awesome, the ratings are through the roof. That's really hard to walk away from. Being a congressman is an awesome job. They decided, "I'm going to keep my mouth shut when it comes to Trump because I want to get re-elected." I get that. They told me that night after night, day after day. It's a hard thing to walk away from.

Why are so many people in this country, especially among the the political class and the media, afraid to call Donald Trump and the larger Republican neofascist movement evil?

As left-wing as MSNBC may be and as maybe as a little left of center as CNN might be, there's still corporate media pressure not to use the language that someone like me uses. When I call Trump evil, I'll get well-known Democrats coming down on me to tone it down. When I call Trump a traitor or a killer because of the COVID pandemic, the grassroots Democrats love it.  But the Democratic Party establishment and the media class shy away from that kind of language.

Is it just about money and ad revenue? Is it fear of backlash?

They're all part of the same club. Why the hell was Chris Christie on your TV every minute of every day the last few weeks, selling a book that nobody read? Because he's part of the club. Chris Christie has no constituency out here, but he's part of the ABC, CBS, NBC, New York City, Washington, D.C., club. When I was in Congress, I felt it. I was never part of that club because I went there and railed against Republicans and Democrats. And in D.C., the lobbyist class and the media class is a very bipartisan group. In the end, I suppose there is a worry that that my type of plain talking is going to turn off advertisers.

So many in the mainstream media, especially the professional centrist types, are afraid to rise to the occasion. They're terrified of what that would demand of them.

Right after the insurrection, the day of, and for a few days after that, I was on the radio talking to Republican base voters. For the first time I heard them say, "Oh my God, oh wow, this isn't good." I even heard some fear. But as the days went by and the weeks went by, and now the months went by, and now we're a year removed from the insurrection, the average Republican voter now says Jan. 6 was no big deal. I felt the same thing from the news media: "Oh my God, this is happening!" when Jan. 6 took place. But now, a year later, it's all part of the Washington political ratings-grab and they don't talk about what it really was. I believe they are afraid to do so.

How did TrumpWorld, and his followers in particular, respond to the events of Jan. 6 at that time? And where are they now?

We're talking about cult members. Building up to the 2020 election, Trump started talking about it being stolen months before. So by the time of Election Day, what I was hearing over and over from these people was absolute distrust of whatever was going to happen that night. They had already bought into the fact that this was not going to be a free and fair election. In that window of time between Election Day and Jan. 6, I started to become afraid of potential violence because of the things I was hearing.

RELATED: How Christian nationalism drove the insurrection: A religious history of Jan. 6

When it all went down on Jan. 6, that was the first time I'd heard Trump supporters kind of catch their breath. They were a little bit shaken by it all. But because they are good, loyal cult followers, they waited. They waited to hear what Hannity would say to them. They waited to hear what Tucker Carlson would say to them. Laura Ingraham, all the rest of the voices from that machine. Then they waited to see what Trump would say to them.

In the weeks following Jan. 6, the right-wing talkers began blaming antifa and that didn't pan out. So they tried to pin it on other people. And then eventually they said it was no big deal, just a few knuckleheads who got out of hand. Then the cult members over the months really just walked off the ledge. What happened on Jan. 6 was no big deal to them now. Why? Because they were given that messaging day after day from the Hannitys and others of that world.

Did Trump change the Republican Party? Or did he just give the modern Republican Party permission to be what it always has been on some level?

I think it's the latter on some level. This had been building for a while. I say repeatedly, and I mean it, I'm responsible for Trump. Stuart Stevens is responsible. Jonah Goldberg is responsible. Bill Kristol is responsible. Jeb Bush, John McCain, Sean Hannity, every fucking Republican and conservative, I don't give a damn if you're a never-Trumper. We all created the conditions for this guy to come along in 2015.

All of these "principled conservatives" and never-Trumpers and establishment people, their base had been telling them for years what they were scared and pissed off about. But the party did nothing about it. People like Newt Gingrich riled them up. And then the Tea Party people like me, we came along and we riled them up. Trump and this moment were always waiting to happen, because the party ignored their base for years instead of sitting the base down, educating them and teaching them that 1953 is never coming back.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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