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Joe Walsh Was Donald Trump Before Donald Trump

The former Illinois House rep is running to replace a president he helped create.

Walsh pauses during his concession speech in 2012, when he lost his seat to now–Sen. Tammy Duckworth.   Photo: Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune

Maybe Joe Walsh hates Donald Trump so much because the president stole his act.

The one-and-done congressman from Chicago’s northern suburbs, who over the weekend announced that he’s seeking the Republican nomination himself, was Trump before Trump: a right-wing troll whose dictionary of insult and invective made his campaigns the political equivalent of Mancow’s Morning Madhouse.

Like Mancow, Walsh is an unreconstructed libertarian whose understanding of “freedom” means license to utter whatever diatribe sneaks its way past his prefrontal cortex and out of his mouth. Like Mancow, his gig on the big stage was canceled. And like Mancow, he’s trying to make a comeback.

During Walsh’s two years in the Illinois congressional delegation, he was most notable for his attacks on President Obama, whom he has called a “traitor” and a “pussy.” He also made headlines for baiting his re-election opponent, Tammy Duckworth. First, he suggested that Duckworth, a veteran who lost both legs in an Apache helicopter crash, was not a hero because she boasted about her military record: “I’m running against a woman who, my God, that’s all she talks about. Our true heroes, it’s the last thing in the world they talk about.”

Then, in case the men of the 8th congressional district needed a reminder that he was “running against a woman,” during a debate with Duckworth, Walsh held up a photo of his opponent looking at dresses before her speech at the Democratic National Convention.

“I was marching in a parade in Schaumburg [on] Sunday,” he said, “when Tammy Duckworth was on a stage down in Charlotte picking out a dress for her speech Tuesday night.”

If that sounds familiar, recall that Donald Trump called the length of Hillary Clinton’s bathroom breaks “disgusting,” and said she was “schlonged” by Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries.

For Walsh, the piggish remarks backfired. They drew so much attention to the campaign that they turned Duckworth into a national heroine, setting her up for a successful Senate run four years later. Meanwhile, Walsh became the host of a radio show syndicated to low-wattage stations around the country. He adopted the Twitter handle @WalshFreedom, as though he’s trademarked his own brand of liberty.

Honestly, most days, it’s hard to tell the difference between Walsh’s feed and @realDonaldTrump, other than the fact that Walsh has 202,000 followers and Trump has 65 million. Take this tweet from last year, in which Walsh used Trump’s “shithole country” jibe as a launching pad for his own racist attack on Chicago:

The commonalities don’t stop there. Walsh was a leading light of the Tea Party movement, which promoted the “birther” conspiracy that Obama was born in Kenya. Trump later adopted that belief as he transitioned from reality TV personality to race-baiting blowhard.

Now that Walsh is running for president, though, he’s expressing regret for egging Trump on in the pages of The New York Times, which, ostensibly allured by the exoticism of an anti-Trump conservative, gave him a spot on the op-ed page:

In Mr. Trump,I see the worst and ugliest iteration of views I expressed for the better part of a decade. To be sure, I’ve had my share of controversy. On more than one occasion, I questioned Mr. Obama’s truthfulness about his religion. At times, I expressed hate for my political opponents. We now see where this can lead. There’s no place in our politics for personal attacks like that, and I regret making them.

When a man suddenly disavows his entire career and the underpinnings of all his beliefs, look at his motivations. More than a conservative, Walsh is a contrarian — a provocateur, a chain puller, a habitual line stepper. In his first run for Congress, in 1996, against Sid Yates on the North Side of Chicago, he promoted his campaign by offering $1,000 to anyone who saw the 87-year-old congressman in Chicago. (Yates’s doorman collected the reward.) 

Back then, Walsh was a pro-choice Republican. “If there’s a more gay-friendly Republican around, I’d like to meet them,” he told the Windy City Times. Fifteen years later, during his term in Congress, he earned a 0 rating from the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights lobbying group, for his votes against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, against extending spousal benefits to federal employees in same-sex partnerships, and against funds for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” training materials for military chaplains.

Walsh claims that restraining executive power is at the heart of his conservative principles. Actually, Walsh’s only principle is attacking the occupant of the White House in order to draw attention to himself. When Obama was president, Walsh was a Tea Partier. Now that Trump is in the White House cracking on his enemies like Don Rickles, Walsh wants to be the voice of civility and moderation in politics.

Walsh, obviously, has no chance of winning the Republican nomination. That’s not his goal: He’s a second-tier conservative pundit looking for publicity in order to lift himself into the league of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Michael Savage. A presidential campaign is his vehicle.

“Donald Trump is going to attack us,” he said in his announcement video. “It’s not going to be easy. Being brave is never easy.”

Do you know what is easy? Throwing away all your old political beliefs every time you run for a new office. Joe Walsh does it all the time.

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