Former Illinois congressman and radio host Joe Walsh is attracting sudden media attention as he floats a possible GOP primary challenge against President Trump — but the Tea Party-aligned Republican could struggle to be taken seriously as he confronts his own history of conspiracy theories and incendiary remarks.
Walsh penned an op-ed for The New York Times this week in which he called for Trump to face a primary challenge from the right, describing him as "a racial arsonist who encourages bigotry and xenophobia to rouse his base and advance his electoral prospects."
At the same time, however, Walsh has had to account for his own rhetoric. In the Times, he wrote: “In Mr. Trump, I see the worst and ugliest iteration of views I expressed for the better part of a decade.”
And on CNN, he apologized “for the role that I played in putting an unfit con man in the White House.”
"What they need is somebody to stick their neck out and say, 'Enough. Enough, President Trump. We're tired of the lies. We're tired of the bullying. We're tired of the cruelty. Enough.' Somebody has to break that impasse," he said, after saying someone has to make "the moral case."
Walsh's comments mark a dramatic road to Damascus moment from a man who forged his name as a bomb-throwing, ultraconservative congressman who made racially charged and sometimes violent remarks about former President Barack Obama.
In 2016, he tweeted about why Obama “hates Israel,” concluding falsely that it is because Obama was secretly a Muslim.
“For better or worse, I'm not afraid to say it publicly. I think Obama is Muslim. I think in his head and in his heart he has always been. And I think it explains Obama's hatred toward Israel and explains his weakening of America these past 8 years,” he tweeted.
“It's not complicated,” he added.
Right before the election, Walsh tweeted that if Trump loses, "I'm grabbing my musket."
Earlier in the year, in response to the killing of police officers in Dallas, Walsh told Obama and Black Lives Matter protesters to “watch out” in a tweet that was widely seen as a possible call for violence.
“This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out black lives matter punks. Real America is coming after you,” he said in the tweet that he later deleted. He then said that he wasn’t calling for violence, and that he deleted the post after Twitter said it was the only way his account would be unblocked.
“I wasn't calling for violence, against Obama or anyone. Obama's words & BLM's deeds have gotten cops killed. Time for us to defend our cops,” he said.
In 2015, in the wake of the San Bernardino terrorist attack, Walsh reportedly said: "Islam, as practiced by most Muslims, is not a religion of peace, and all of us who do live in peace should do whatever we can to defeat Islam."
Walsh is now trying to reconcile these statements with his current stance.
In his op-ed for the Times, he said he only voted for Trump in 2016 because “he wasn’t Hillary Clinton” and said that he initially gave him the benefit of the doubt before turning on him.
Trump’s rhetoric, particularly on the question of immigration, has been in a harsh spotlight after the El Paso, Texas, mass shooting. Critics have pointed to language the gunman used in an online manifesto, in which he reportedly described Hispanic immigrants as “invaders,” as being fueled by Trump’s own language on the question of immigration.
Walsh claims Trump’s time in the White House has caused him to change his tone and reflect on where he crossed the line.
"Mr. Trump has taken the legitimate differences that Americans have on policy and turned them into personal division. He’s caused me to change my tone and to reflect upon where I went over the line and to focus on policy differences moving forward," he said.
Should Walsh decide to put his own name forward, it would be the first significant challenge to Trump from his right. Most of those who have considered or launched runs, such as former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, have positioned themselves as centrist challengers. Hogan has since said he is not running against Trump.
Walsh claims that Trump is more vulnerable to a challenge from the right, but it is far from clear if there is an appetite from Republicans for a right-wing challenge to Trump – and if primary voters would buy Walsh’s dramatic mea culpa and subsequent lectures on “indecency” considering his past remarks.
“We need someone who could stand up, look the president in the eye and say: 'Enough, sir. We’ve had enough of your indecency,’” he wrote in the Times. “’We’ve had enough of your lies, your bullying, your cruelty, enough of your insults, your daily drama, your incitement, enough of the danger you place this country in every single day. We don’t want any of this anymore, and the country certainly can’t stand four more years of it.’”