Joe Walsh was elected to Congress as a Republican in the "Tea Party wave" of 2010 and served one term in the House, where he was a vocal and harsh critic of Barack Obama. After losing his re-election campaign in a redrawn district in 2012 (to future U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth), Walsh became a nationally syndicated right-wing radio host and, a few years later, a leading supporter of Donald Trump.
When Trump was elected president in 2016, Walsh already had doubts: He didn't love Trump and didn't hate him, as Walsh told me in the first part of our recent interview. But he was rewarded for his loyalty with access to the highest levels of power in the Trump White House and the MAGAverse, before ultimately deciding that Donald Trump represented an existential threat to American democracy and the future of the country. At significant personal and professional risk, Walsh turned against Trump and his movement, even running against Trump (albeit very briefly) as a 2020 Republican presidential candidate.
In the first part of his conversation with Salon, Walsh warned that Donald Trump and his followers 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." I may not agree with Walsh on many political or ideological issues, but he's correct about that. Democratic leaders, and too many liberals and progressives at large, remain in denial about the level of threat despite years of evidence and a mountain of proof that speaks to the true intentions of Trump's neofascist movement.
Walsh also explained how Donald Trump maintains control over the Republican Party and most of its elected officials and voters, and argued that the coup attempt of January 2021 was just one battle in a longer struggle to overthrow American democracy. Speaking of the Trump movement, Walsh said:
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.
In this second part of our conversation, Walsh warns that Trump is willing to start a "race war" in America in order to return to power and punish his enemies — and says that Republican voters would largely support such white supremacist violence. Walsh also talks about what Republicans know about winning and keeping political power — and what Democrats do not. He says the likelihood of right-wing political violence will only increase as the 2022 midterms approach.
At the end of this conversation, Walsh reflects on what it means to be a patriot in America today. This is a recurring question at the heart of his podcast, "White Flag with Joe Walsh."
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
You have said that the Republican base needs an intervention so they can be brought back to reality and out of the delusions of TrumpWorld. What would that look like?
Here's how you teach them: This country that you love, my friends, is never going to be 80% or 90% white again. America is never going to make 90% of the automobiles in the world again. It's a big, competitive world and America's going to get browner by the year. There's nothing wrong with that, and here's why. But instead of having those conversations, the [Republican] establishment just turned the other way and the base grew angrier and angrier.
What do you do about those Republicans and members of that cult movement who would rather destroy America, through violence if need be, than share power with Black and brown Americans?
I think at this point, it's too late. I think at this point, all we can do is outvote them. I remember being in Congress eight years ago. Then I said that America was more divided than we'd been at any time since right before the Civil War. That was five or six years before Trump. I think it's too late. That is a hard thing for me to say, because I spent a lot of my time trying to save people from the cult. The situation is not hopeless. Every day and every week, I save a few of them but the vast majority are lost.
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What was your moment of realization about the Trump cult? Why did you decide to leave it?
The first moment was when Trump got elected. This may sound strange to some, but when Trump got elected I was on 200 radio station around the country, I'm right in that world and I'm moving up. But even in that position, I've got to be honest — and I said this publicly, when I primaried Trump — I messed up, because I didn't pay attention to him. I never paid attention enough to what a bad person he was. So I voted for him. But the minute Trump won, I started to pay attention to him.
The minute we found out conclusively that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help him win, and Trump turned around after learning this and rejected the evidence and facts. Trump did not want his victory tarnished. Trump does not give a damn about the country. Then I realized that every time Trump opens his mouth he lies. I can't stand that in any politician.
The final straw for me was what happened in Helsinki in the summer of 2018. When he stood in front of the world with Putin and said, "I believe Putin and not my own people," I went on the radio that night and I said, "This is the greatest act of disloyalty I've ever seen in an American president. I'm going to do everything I can to make sure he doesn't get re-elected." I began to lose my radio show. I began to lose everything at that moment.
How do we locate Barack Obama's presidency, relative to the rise of Trumpism and neofascism?
I say this as a white guy: Right now in America we are going through a big old course correction in how we look at and talk about our history. I say this as a white guy: I believe that white people need to feel uncomfortable. That does not work with the Republican Party base.
When it comes to Obama, it's a combination of a lot of things. The Tea Party began before Obama. The Tea Party formally began with George W. Bush and all the bailouts and the government spending. But I'm telling you what, Chauncey, because I was right there. This was when I ran for office and I was talking to thousands of those people every day: The election of Barack Obama was pouring gas on the fire that was already there. It was like their final straw. A guy named "Barack Obama" became president. A Black man became president. A guy who seems to love Muslim countries more than America became president. A guy who is a socialist became president. A guy who wants to take over our entire health care system became president. So his election inflamed my base.
To clarify, none of what you are saying about Obama is true. You are repeating what others said and believed.
One hundred percent. I've had to apologize for how I inflamed those fears, instead of trying to ease some of these fears.
What does it mean for you to apologize?
It means that I'm still young enough that I want to do something about it. There isn't anything more humbling than going on with George Stephanopoulos, on national television, and apologizing for things you said about Obama or things you said about Democrats or apologizing for helping to elect Trump, that bigoted, authoritarian traitor. To go on national TV, as I did night after night, and apologize for my role in all this is very humbling. An apology does not mean a thing unless you do something about it. Whenever I apologize — and I apologize a lot, by the way — it's a call to action. I helped divide the country, now I want to do something to try to bring people together.
What does that look like on the day-to-day?
It means a number of things. For example, I started a podcast called "White Flag." We're so tribal in this country right now. Every week I sit down with somebody who does not think like me. We try to figure out if we can find common ground. I'm trying to model how to sit down with people who don't think like you. The other thing I do every day is I get in the faces of the members of the Trump cult and I try to save them. If I can only save four or five members of the Trump cult each week, then I'm going to do it because that's my penance. I will do that until I drop.
I want no compromise with the Republicans, the Trumpists, the neofascists and their followers. There can be no compromise. They are the enemy. They are a danger to American democracy and society. I want nothing to do with these people, and I have suggested that other people of conscience make the same decision. They are a cult.
I'm still a proud libertarian Tea Party conservative. This is a unique moment in American history where you and I are going to lock arms to try to save democracy. I have no interest in working legislatively with the other side or trying to compromise with the other side. But I think what's important is that you have to understand the other side. To defeat them, you have to know what they are thinking.
What do the Republican Party's leaders understand about politics and power that the Democrats do not?
Mitch McConnell, who I respect immensely for how capable he is — and not for what he does — is fully prepared to burn everything down to get the things he wants. The Republican base, the grassroots Republicans, they will burn down America to get their Judeo-Christian white America. But at the elite decision-maker level, Republicans are prepared to do that too.
I do not believe that the Democrats are. Republicans in state after state this cycle are gerrymandering the hell out of every district they can. What are Democrats doing? Complaining about it. You're at war. The control of the House is at stake. Republicans will play hardball and Democrats will not.
What is so compelling about Donald Trump? How does he get people to be so loyal to him?
There are two things that make Donald Trump an incredible cult leader. Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, most of these guys are cowards. They are just typical politicians who hold their finger up to the wind and then do what they think they have to do to continue to win.
Trump says, "Screw it! I'm going to do whatever I want to do and I'm going to only look out for myself." To Trump's credit, he recognized early on how weak these Republican politicians are. How did he take over the party so easily? He was right. These establishment people and elected officials are weak. Trump gave them permission and license to be horrible people just like him. It was alluring to them. Trump is a bully, and he gets away with it. Now you see how many of these Republicans ape him. They imitate him, they emulate him.
The other power that Trump has is that Republican politicians are afraid of him because of how he connects with the base of the party. In private, most of them do not fear Trump. They tell me they fear his symbiotic connection to the base, to the cult, and they don't want to lose that. Republican politicians fear Republican voters.
Why are Trump's followers, the base of the Republican Party, so loyal to him? Trump and his regime made decisions about the coronavirus pandemic that are literally killing them by the many tens of thousands. Yet they stay loyal to him and the party even while they are dying.
They don't believe that. They'll deny it. They deny that to me. I'm in line at Iowa the night before the Iowa caucuses, where I'm campaigning against Trump. I walk the line of people going into his rally in Des Moines and I ask 40 people in line a simple question: Has Donald Trump ever told a lie? All 40 of them told me, no, Donald Trump has never, ever uttered a lie. Now do all 40 believe that? No. But 34 or 35 believe that.
Again, it is a cult. Most do not blame him for COVID. Most of them support everything he did with COVID. The vast majority of them don't even believe that Biden won the election. They believe Trump won. They don't believe Jan. 6 was a big deal.
They believe everything Trump says. If I had to narrow it down to one thing that Trump's cult members have said to me every day over the years, they love him because he just fights. They tell me that they know he is a horrible person. They know he may be bad. They say that maybe he cheated on his wife. But they tell me that Trump fights for them. He goes after CNN. He goes after Pelosi. They say things like, "He fights for me." For these people, that is a hard thing to let go of.
Almost every day there are new "revelations" about Trump and his cabal's coup plot and how serious it was — and how close it came to succeeding. Yet this reality does not seem to be sinking in. The mainstream media, with a few exceptions, has really failed here.
The country does not understand the threat we're facing. Democrats and everyone outside of the GOP base are asleep at the switch. "It's our democracy, stupid" needs to be their rallying cry. Republicans are counting on the fact that most Americans can't fathom that our democracy is actually in real trouble.
To that point, Donald Trump now seems to be threatening a race war, white-on-Black violence on a massive scale, if he is punished for his crimes or otherwise held accountable. Again, the mainstream media is not reporting on that either. It is treated as a curiosity or as hyperbole, when the threats are very serious.
Again, there is a general disbelief in the media that Trump is actually doing what he's doing. Yes, sowing a race war is and always has been part of his strategy. It's of great appeal to the GOP base. I know, because I hear that every day. The media has done an absolutely horrible job of making clear how unique Trump is. How dangerous Trump is. Trump's method has always been to throw a bunch of bad shit against the wall every day, to overwhelm and numb people. The goal of that is so that eventually the American people and the media normalize what he is.
What do you want to prepare the American people for, as the midterms approach and then the 2024 election?
The GOP has become anti-democratic. The threat of violence is always there. People need to wake up. As we get closer to the 2022 elections, the threat of real violence will continue to increase. But I will say, from what I hear every day, the GOP base feels really confident about winning in 2022. If they sensed a loss, the threat of violence would be even greater.
There are people who want to trust you and other former Trumpers, or never-Trumpers, the so-called principled conservatives. But they are understandably suspicious. What would you tell liberals and progressives who doubt your sincerity?
I love you Democrats, but I'm not trying to win you over. I really don't give a damn if you don't trust me, because I'm going to do the same thing this year and next year that I did last year. I'm going to work my butt off as a Tea Party conservative to help Democrats win.
I don't care if I do it with you. I don't care if you do it with me. I don't care if you put me on MSNBC or you don't, because I'm crazy Joe Walsh Tea Party guy. I could care less. I'm going to do the same thing regardless of whether I've won you over. And by the way, that's what I tell them. A lot of people didn't trust me at the beginning of last year after I ended my hopeless campaign against Trump, but a lot more of them trusted me after the 2020 election, when they saw me work my ass off all year to try to help Biden and other Democrats win. Actions, not words. And I'm going to do what I do no matter what.
What does it mean to be a good American right now? To be a patriot?
I love this country. I love our founders. I do think we're going through an important correction right now. Again, white America needs to feel uncomfortable. I think that's important. I think of myself as a founder. I taught American history, I taught American government. I think the country is probably irrevocably divided. I don't believe the pieces can be put back together. Because of that, I feel like a founding father right now. That's what it means to me to be a patriotic American. No matter how this thing shakes out in the next 10 to 60 years, I want some semblance of democracy to be reborn.