Shock-jock radio host and former Rep. Joe Walsh gained a lot of attention by announcing a primary challenge to Donald Trump. I doubt this is because anyone seriously thinks that Walsh—with limited name recognition, no deep pockets, and no large base of support to mobilize—is going to mount a credible challenge for the Republican nomination. But the announcement has been lauded as a high-profile defection by a former Trump booster.
The problem, however, is not that Walsh used to support Trump, but how he used to support him.
My first reaction to such a defection is to say “more power to him” and welcome the return of sanity, one person at a time. But as in the case of Anthony Scaramucci, Walsh’s chosen form of atonement is self-promotion. You remember The Mooch, right? He was a rider on the Trump bandwagon who managed to weasel his way into becoming the president’s communications director for about five seconds in 2017 before being unceremoniously dumped for shooting his mouth off to a reporter about internal White House squabbling. The Mooch stuck around for a while trying to get back on the inside. When he finally gave up, he came out criticizing Trump and promised to atone. His form of atonement has included appearing on TV a lot and promoting his anti-Trump PAC, which I am sure is not totally a scam.
This is a well-traveled path. (Remember Omarosa?) The cycle goes like this: an ambitious hanger-on flatters Trump, works his or her way into the inner circle, gets fired and cast out, and eventually pens a tell-all memoir or goes on cable news to call the president names. On Trump’s side, it’s also a well-worn routine: he welcomes the new hire with the usual hyperbolic flattery, eventually finds him dispensable, then goes on to tweet about how stupid, incompetent, and treacherous this person is who we would never have heard of if he hadn’t been hired by Donald Trump. Basically, the Michael Cohen treatment.
But Walsh is in some respects a worse case. It’s not just that he used to back Trump or ride on his coattails. It’s that he was Trump, for a long time, before Trump even ran for office.
Walsh’s history includes promoting conspiracy theories—the “birther” and “secret Muslim” conspiracy theories against Barack Obama, the Seth Rich conspiracy theory against Hillary Clinton—as well as promoting his “friend,” white nationalist Paul Nehlen, and dabbling in alt-right rhetoric about a “war on whites.”
But what I really remember Walsh for was his apparent vow to stage a rebellion if Donald Trump wasn’t elected:
On November 8th, I'm voting for Trump.
On November 9th, if Trump loses, I'm grabbing my musket.
— Joe Walsh (@WalshFreedom) October 26, 2016
This was a classic example of the hyperbolic and dangerously irresponsible style of Trump’s supporters.
If Trump doing this sort of thing makes him “unfit for office,” as Walsh now assures us, then what does that say about Walsh’s fitness? And if NeverTrump conservatives oppose President Trump on these grounds, then someone whose style and ideas have been substantially similar to Trump’s is clearly not a genuine alternative.
Walsh has since apologized for his previous behavior, explaining, “The beauty of what President Trump has done is he’s made me reflect on some of the things I’ve said in the past. I had strong policy disagreements with Barack Obama, and too often I’ve let those policy disagreements get personal.” He also claimed, “I wouldn’t call myself a racist, but I would say I’ve said racist things on Twitter.” It’s nice of him to let us know what a lenient judge he is in his own case.
I’m glad Walsh took a long look in the mirror and decided to reform himself, sort of. But there is pretty well-established path to moral redemption, and admitting your past sins is only the first step. The second step is a long process of compiling a record of good works to demonstrate that you have truly changed and can now be trusted. The second step is not running for president. Or rather, since I hope no one actually believes that Walsh’s challenge is going to be successful, the next step toward moral redemption is not a campaign that mostly helps to promote your name and gets you on TV, in the hope of saving your radio show.
It didn’t work, by the way. Walsh recently got the news that his show has been canceled. It’s no surprise that a guy who built up an audience with Trump-like ideas and behavior has been rapidly losing that audience after turning against Trump. So does this demonstrate that Walsh has been willing to pay a price for doing what was right? Maybe so, but before he claims that as some sort of proof of superior virtue, he might want to notice that there are a lot of other people in the media world who have also found ourselves out of a gig because we wouldn’t back Trump—and who never soiled ourselves by making excuses for him in the first place.
Yet cases like Joe Walsh and Anthony Scaramucci raise an important question. As Scaramucci said, Trump critics need to “leave room on the off-ramp for those willing to admit their mistakes.” As we get more weeks where suggestions like buying Greenland and nuking hurricanes are the president’s least problematic utterances, more episodes in which Trump displays his dangerous ignorance and impulsiveness—as policies like his trade war reach their disastrous end results—and as he looks increasingly likely to lose the next election—we will need to make room for sincere conversions, and even for some insincere ones.
That’s how you win a political battle. Some people are converted to your ideas and your way of thinking, and others find it expedient to pretend that they have been converted. So we should treat these cases as potential harbingers of the future and start laying down some precedents about what terms we will offer to defectors. The main principle is that we should be happy to have their votes, but not so willing to give them ours. We should be quick to welcome their support, but slow to accept them back into positions of political or ideological leadership.
We need to let the rats leave the sinking ship—but we don’t need to appoint them as captain of the lifeboat.