Back in the ancient days of . . . 2016 . . . former Illinois congressman and conservative talk-radio host Joe Walsh was one of those guys calling Barack Obama a “traitor” and insisting that he is a crypto-Muslim. He has, since then, had a change of heart, and says he now regrets that nonsense. More joy in Heaven, and all that.
In 2016, Walsh was a Trump guy. Now, he denounces Donald Trump as a “racial arsonist” and assails him as indecent. I’m not going to exert a great deal of effort contesting any of that, but I have my doubts about Walsh’s political analysis, i.e. his argument in today’s New York Times that President Trump is vulnerable to a primary challenge from the right on grounds of fiscal responsibility.
Set aside, for the moment, what you actually think about Trump’s approach to race or his basic human decency and such, and only ask yourself this: If you sincerely believed President Trump to be a “racial arsonist,” that he is fundamentally indecent, that he is habitually dishonest, that he is morally and intellectually unfit for the office he holds, etc., then what on God’s green Earth would cause you to let all that slide only to draw the line at his unwillingness to take on entitlement reform — a project that nobody on either side of the political fence actually seems to want? (And that’s what fiscal rebalancing ultimately means: entitlement reform. We aren’t spending all those metaphorical and probably literal tons of money on art subsidies.) I do not remember Representative Joe Walsh (R., Ill.) going to the wall on real-world entitlement reform. (I do remember his support of the balanced-budget amendment, which is the Republican version of promising to mine asteroids to fund fully automated luxury gay space Communism.) When President George W. Bush got serious about entitlement reform for about five minutes, Republicans were walking sideways away from him as fast as their furry little rat feet could scurry.
I’ll believe that Republicans are serious about fiscal reform when a trillion-dollar deficit scares them more than does a strongly worded email from my friend Grover Norquist. As things stand right now, it’s — Advantage: Grover.
(For the record: It is true that I welcomed Bill Weld’s kamikaze entry into the 2020 race. I disagree with Weld on a great many things, but he makes me laugh, and if you’re an Eisenhower man looking at a protest vote, why not the guy whose picture appears next to the dictionary entry for “Country-Club Republican”?)
Walsh has gone one way since 2016, and the Republican party has gone another. There were a lot of heaving sighs and melancholy little gestures of resignation in 2016 — “It’s Trump or the commies!” they told us. A lot of people seemed to think that the word “binary” offered a smart-sounding way out of that. That was then. But unless I grievously misread the mood of Republicans, that’s not really the case anymore. The Republican party has embraced not only Trump but also Trumpism. It is his party now. There is not likely to be any challenge to Trump from the right because the Right is, by all indicators, satisfied with him.
For now, anyway.
There’s a scene in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (which is the greatest film yet made about American politics, as long as you don’t fall into the error of thinking that it is actually about Richard Nixon and his times) in which some right-wing Texas oilmen try to bully Nixon into taking a more hardline position. Nixon, who can do a little math, brushes them off: “What are you going to do? Vote for Hubert Humphrey?” That worked for Republicans in 2016. It probably will work for them in 2020, too. But there are people for whom “conservatism” means something other than late-night Kulturkampf on Twitter, who believe in limited government, free trade, the Bill of Rights, the rule of law, fiscal sobriety, the irreplaceable leadership of the United States in the international order, etc. Inertia isn’t going to keep them in the Republican party forever.
And not all of them are media figures with born-again plot lines to sell.