Son of a Gun

How Shock Jock Joe Walsh Became Trump’s Fiercest Conservative Critic

Democratic voter anger at the midterms ‘will make the 2010 Tea Party wave that got me elected pale by comparison,’ Walsh told The Daily Beast. ‘The Republicans are in denial.’

Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty

In November 2016, conservative talk radio jock Joe Walsh held his nose and voted for Donald Trump, largely because he wasn’t Hillary Clinton.

As recently as last June, when the one-term Tea Party Republican congressman from Illinois spoke at Talkers magazine’s radio industry conference in Manhattan, he remained supportive of the 45th president.

“He was totally for Trump,” recalled Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of the trade journal that bills itself as “the bible of talk media,” although Walsh’s luncheon remarks—which included a fair bit of yelling—mostly focused on the despoliations of Kathy Griffin and Nancy Pelosi, the anger abroad in the land, and his prediction of a coming “third American revolution.”

A lot has changed between then and now. For instance, @realDonaldTrump blocked Walsh on Twitter last year—“which pissed me off,” he confided to The Daily Beast. “I’ve been told I’m not terribly welcome in the White House.”

These days the 56-year-old Walsh, whose eponymous weeknight program is syndicated to around 80 stations nationwide by the right-leaning Salem Radio Network, is at once Trump’s most angst-ridden advocate and severest critic.

Lately he has been much more critic than advocate. Day after day, he warns that Trump’s incendiary political rallies and constant tweeting against the FBI and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia/collusion investigation will energize voters to boot the Republicans from majority-control of the House in the November midterm elections—and possibly from the Senate majority as well.

“Robert Mueller is a stand-up American patriot,” Walsh tweeted over the weekend, adding a stern pushback against diehard Trumpkin and Fox News personality Tomi Lahren and rabid Fox News host Jeanine Pirro: “Finding out what Russia did in our election and finding out if any American assisted them, is most certainly not a witch hunt.”

In a separate tweet, Walsh observed: “The more Trump talks and tweets about the Mueller investigation, the more he buries himself. Just so stupid to do.”

And another: “No man is above the law. Not a Member of Congress. Not a wealthy Hollywood movie star. Not even the President of the United States.”

On Monday, Walsh scolded Trump, whose public approval rating has been stuck for months in the cellar: “If Trump only talked about & tweeted about tax cuts, jobs, the economy, the wall, the border & sanctuary cities, his job approval would be 60%.”

“I knew full well who he was when I voted for him,” Walsh told The Daily Beast, noting that he preferred Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in the GOP primary race but ultimately supported the former reality television star for his promised new role as “disrupter-in-chief.”

“I voted for him because the political system needed a punch in the face, I wanted conservative judges and a secure border, and he wasn’t Hillary—and I figured if I could get two or three of those things, I’m OK,” Walsh said. “Look, as much as I wouldn’t want my daughter to be married to Trump, and I would never do business with Trump, and as much as I may find him to be a pretty despicable human being, I also find Hillary Clinton to be a pretty despicable, kind of corrupt person.”

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Unlike the president, however, Walsh said he has ceased obsessing over the evils of Barack Obama, the scandals of Hillary Clinton, and “all that baloney.”

Instead, he has been sounding the alarm that the president’s and the Republican Party’s signal legislative achievement, the tax cut, won’t avert disaster.

“If they think that’s going to be our saving grace in 2018, they’re smoking something,” Walsh said. “That tax bill will have no impact in 2018. For most folks, it’s peanuts they’re not gonna feel it. Too many of the tax breaks went to the wealthy.”

What’s more, because of Trump’s behavior, “the Democratic voters are angrier than we’ve ever seen,” Walsh continued, arguing that rage translates into voter turnout. “This will make the 2010 Tea Party wave that got me elected pale by comparison. I think the Republicans are in denial. They have no idea how angry Democrats are.”

Walsh, too, sounded angry—at one point calling Trump a “son of a bitch” before revising the epithet to the somewhat milder “son of a gun.” He expressed dismay that Trump—during his insult-laden March 10 rally in Pennsylvania—called Meet the Press Moderator Chuck Todd a “sleeping son of a bitch”; Walsh generally lamented the president’s frequent attacks on the press as doing potentially lasting damage on an essential institution of American democracy.

Walsh claimed that when it comes to Trump—whose latest embarrassing scandal involves a porn star he’s alleged to have slept with shortly after First Lady Melania Trump gave birth to their son—many of his former House Republican colleagues say privately what Walsh says publicly, but lack the cojones to speak out.

“We both know that Paul Ryan privately can’t stand Donald Trump, but he will never say that publicly,” Walsh said about the speaker of the House. Ryan and his wife, Janna—the parents of three teenagers—“probably have the same conversation that Mike Pence and his wife Karen have every day.”

Yet Pence, a Christian conservative, has been loyal to the point of sycophancy.

Walsh, who got to know the vice president seven years ago when Pence was a member of the House GOP leadership team, explained: “I have no doubt that Mike Pence doesn’t like the kind of man Donald Trump is. But he knew what he was signing on for [when he accepted the role of Trump’s running mate]. I wouldn’t doubt that Pence has calculated in his head that maybe Trump will be a one-term president. Mike Pence wants to be president. Trump’s an odd dude. Who knows if he’s gonna run again?”

“What’s striking about him is that he’s an outlier these days. Very few talk radio guys have shifted from pro-Trump to critics. Usually it’s the other way around as they follow their audiences onto the Trump train.

Walsh’s tough critique of Trump—which Never-Trump conservative Charlie Sykes calls “an odd twist for the guy”—is especially noteworthy; Walsh says he has received “plenty” of blowback and even threats from Trumpkins, so he keeps a bedside shotgun at the ready.  

“What’s striking about him is that he’s an outlier these days,” Sykes said.  “Very few talk radio guys have shifted from pro-Trump to critics. Usually it’s the other way around as they follow their audiences onto the Trump train.”

Sykes added: “Walsh has credibility with a certain segment of the right, so his defection seems notable. It suggests that maybe bullshit has limits. Defending Trump just requires too many compromises, too much dishonesty, and there’s a breaking point for some folks.”

For Walsh, persistently criticizing the president risks alienating the core audience of conservative Trump admirers—a concern shared by Salem senior vice president and program director Phil Boyce.

“I’m always concerned that any of our hosts might chip away at their core,” said Boyce, who in February 2017 signed Walsh to join a conservative talk radio roster that includes Hugh Hewitt, Lou Dobbs, Larry Elder, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager and Michael Medved.

“I love Joe Walsh. He’s fiery and he’s passionate. You really can’t fake it in the talk radio world. You have to do what is on your heart. It remains to be seen if that will increase or decrease his base. I don’t know. This Trump phenomenon is something that we’ve never really seen before.”       

Walsh, meanwhile, said: “Every day, I feel like I’m walking a razor’s edge, because I have to decide every day what I’m gonna talk about and I’ve got a full array of Good Trump and Bad Trump, whereas most people [in talk radio] have chosen sides, and it’s pro-Trump no matter what, it’s all Good Trump, and they don’t have to make these decisions.”

Walsh added: “It’s a roller coaster. Every time I criticize him on Twitter, I gain followers on the Left, and lose Trump diehards. And then when most of those on the Left who began to follow me see me tweet about the border or go after Muslim terrorists…they realize I’m a conservative and not a never Trumper, most of them stop following.” (Walsh’s program remains a no-go zone for American Muslims, whom he insists on tarring with an appallingly broad brush as potential rapists and terrorists.)  

One constituency Walsh seems to have lost for good—or at least for the duration of the Trump presidency—are the bookers at the Fox News Channel, on which he was once a frequent on-air guest.

Initially after Trump got elected, I was on Fox all the time, but when it became clear I couldn’t be a Trump cheerleader, Fox News said ‘Goodbye, Joe Walsh!’

“They made clear they only want people on, who will sing Trump’s praises all the time,” said Walsh, who on Sunday attacked Fox News anchor Jesse Watters: “Kind of a lot going on politically the past 24 hours - McCabe firing, Trump calling for Mueller to be shut down - but @JesseBWatters spends last night on his show talking about... Hillary. Nobody should take Jesse Watters seriously.”

“Initially after Trump got elected, I was on Fox all the time,” Walsh said, “but when it became clear I couldn’t be a Trump cheerleader, Fox News said ‘Goodbye, Joe Walsh!’…It’s Trump TV. They decided, for ratings purposes, that ‘we’re gonna do whatever we can to help him get elected,’ and since he became president their mission in life is to be his megaphone.”

Walsh singled out Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson as the most egregious offenders.

“Tucker always has been great. Tucker was a free-market libertarian, and obviously now on Fox News he’s turned into a cheerleader. I didn’t expect any better from Hannity or Ingraham, but I did expect better from Tucker.”

Neither Carlson nor Fox News offered any response.