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A former Tea Party congressman is already ticked off at Trump: “I’m disappointed”

A conversation with Joe Walsh about Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” and race's role in the election.

Donald Trump Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

This year’s presidential election orbited around a handful of themes. Among the most significant was change. Millions of voters chose Trump because they thought he signaled change — actual change. He may be ideologically vacuous and dangerously unprepared, they thought, but he’s different, one of those mythical “outsiders” who can roll into Washington and clean house.

“It is time to drain the swamp,” Trump wrote in an October press release. “Decades of failure in Washington, and decades of special interest dealing, must come to an end. We have to break the cycle of corruption, and we have to give new voices a chance.”

For Trump, breaking the “cycle of corruption” meant, among other things, instituting a five-year ban on various forms of lobbying, with particular emphasis on blocking former government officials from lobbying once they leave office.

Like virtually everything Trump said on the campaign trail, this promise strained credulity. Still, millions of Americans were persuaded by his anti-establishment posturing.

If they weren’t racists or nativists, they were willing to overlook his racism and nativism on the hope that he’d “shake things up,” or at the very least run some of the special interests out of town. Many fringe conservatives, including current and former officeholders, were equally convinced that Trump represented real change.

One such conservative was former US Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois, a member of the Tea Party. Initially a Rand Paul supporter, Walsh became a consistent defender of Trump after he earned the nomination. But just a few weeks into Trump’s transition, Walsh has noticed what many of us already knew: Trump isn’t in the swamp-draining business.

“So far he’s not draining the swamp,” Walsh wrote on Twitter. “It’s a cabinet full of wealthy insiders. Come on Donald. It wasn’t a corny phrase. It got you elected.”

There’s some debate about what Trump actually meant by draining the swamp. Conservative columnist Rich Lowry argues an “anti-swamp agenda” ought to be about reducing the size of government. But Trump is a populist, not a conservative; a vote for him was a vote against the donor class and the political elites.

Trump was elected in large part due to the overwhelming support he received from white working-class Americans (nearly 70 percent of non-college-educated whites voted Trump). And yet he appears to be filling his Cabinet with Republican financiers, the very people against whom he raged in the primary.

For education secretary, he chose Betsy DeVos, a billionaire businesswoman. For commerce secretary, he choose Wilbur Ross, another billionaire investor and banker. He tapped Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs partner, to run Treasury. He’s also considering Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil CEO, for secretary of state.

Whatever else they are, these people are not outsiders, and certainly not the kind of appointees the average Trump voter expected. They’re insiders, not rebels looking to blow up the system.

As Walsh is one of the more public critics of Trump’s appointments, I reached out to him to hear about his frustrations. I wanted to know what he was expecting from Trump, and why he found any of his promises credible.

I also wanted to talk to him about the contradictions I saw in his views and the views of many other Trump supporters. His concerns about the “swamp,” justifiable though they are, are conspicuously narrow. There’s plenty of outrage over the “wealthy insiders” but deafening silence over Trump’s racial politics or his appointment of Steve Bannon, who ran the far-right website Breitbart.com for four years, as his “chief strategist.”

Walsh himself has used offensive rhetoric over the course of the campaign, most notably when he threatened to grab his “musket” if “Trump loses.” Following the murder of the Dallas police officers in July, he posted a string of outrageous tweets, the most offensive of which read: “This is now war. Watch out Obama. Watch out Black Lives Matter punks. Real America is coming after you.”

Walsh has walked back the Dallas comments, and he insists they had nothing to do with race. Rather than debate this or the other controversial statements by Walsh, my initial goal in this conversation was to unpack his criticisms of Trump’s appointment decisions.

In the end, though, we spent most of our time debating the role of race in this campaign, and what the conversation about “draining the swamp” reveals about Trump’s supporters.

Sean Illing

Let’s start with this: When did you become a Trump supporter? Did you back him throughout the primaries?

Joe Walsh

No, I was actually a Rand Paul supporter during the primary, and then I became a big Trump supporter after he got the nomination.

Sean Illing

But you weren’t on the NeverTrump bandwagon, right?

Joe Walsh

I was never a NeverTrumper. I wasn't opposed to him, and I appreciated a lot of what he said even if I didn't like him personally.

Sean Illing

Okay, but obviously you support him now and you enthusiastically supported him in the general election. I’m curious why that is. You’re a conservative, and I’m sure you’d concede that Trump lacks an ideological core.

So why do you trust him to govern as a conservative?

Joe Walsh

There's some reason to believe he will, but I don't deny your point. Look, I'm a former Tea Party congressman. I'm a limited-government guy, and that ain't who Donald Trump is. I've always known that. You're right: He's got no philosophical core.

But my position was simple: We had a choice, and it was Hillary or Trump. Hillary was a known quantity to me, and Trump was a kind of an unknown quantity.

House Reps. Rigell, Ribble, Schrader, And Cooper Discuss The Fix Congress Now Caucus Bill
US Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL) (R) speaks as Rep. Scott Rigell (R-VA) (L) listens during a news conference to announce the formation of the “Fix Congress Now Caucus.”
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sean Illing

As you said, you’re a Tea Party guy, and Trump clearly won over the Tea Party crowd, both during the primaries and in the general election. Why do you suppose that is? If the Tea Party cares at all about limited government, why rally behind a big-government, anti-trade protectionist like Trump?

Joe Walsh

I think the Tea Party movement, at its core, was a populist movement. I got elected by people who were as pissed off at Republicans as they were Democrats, and I went to DC and acted that way. I think there's a huge populist strain in the Tea Party movement, and Trump tapped into that.

You're right, Trump isn't a conservative, but I think there were two issues that brought all of these people together: He's going to do something about the border, and he's going to be honest about the problem of Islam in this country.

Sean Illing

I think there are also some uncomfortable cultural motivations lurking behind the scenes here. Let me try to get at it by asking a different question: What did “make America great again” ­mean to you? What did it mean to the Tea Partiers who listen to your radio show?

Joe Walsh

That's a great question, Sean. First, let me say that a lot of my listeners are huge Trump supporters, and I get a lot people mad at me because I refuse to be a stupid Trump cheerleader like Sean Hannity.

Now, I think "make America great again" meant, and I'm sure you'd disagree with this, but for my listeners there's a belief that we've had eight years of a president who didn't like America and wanted to put the rest of the world first. So for them, make America great again meant just that: putting American jobs first, putting the American border first, putting American interests first.

I think that’s how the people I hear from viewed it.

Sean Illing

This notion that Obama doesn’t “like America” is frankly silly, and I suspect the sentiment is an expression of more fundamental biases, but since I can’t argue with your audience here, I’ll leave it there.

I want to ask about your views of Trump more directly. Obviously you believed that Trump would “drain the swamp” once he got elected. What do you make of his appointments so far?

Joe Walsh

Well, I hoped he would drain the swamp. Today, I'm disappointed. He's picked two Wall Street insiders to run Treasury and Commerce, and that just sucks. Evidently he's contemplating another Goldman Sachs guy for OMB [the Office of Management and Budget], and that's bullshit. Can't you find somebody who doesn't work at Goldman Sachs? So far he's picking insiders across the board, and that's disappointing.

It was a populist revolution that got him elected, and I wish he would appoint some real genuine outsiders, but I just haven't seen it yet.

Tea Party

Sean Illing

You say it was a “populist revolution” that got Trump elected, and I think that’s true in a vague sense. But you were more specific last week when you tweeted that Trump’s “drain the swamp” pledge was the reason he got elected.

Do you really believe that?

Joe Walsh

Yeah, I do. You may disagree with me, but I really do believe that outside of the border and terrorism, it wasn't issues that got him elected. I think it was his promise to go to Washington and, pick your metaphor, drain the swamp or blow the place up. Angry people elected him, and he clung to that anger, even when people wanted him to pivot away from it. He understood, as I understand, that the American people are pissed off at both political parties. Hell, he won the nomination by running against the Republican Party, and he did the same thing in the general.

So I really do think it was this populist wave that got him elected, and "drain the swamp" captures it.

Sean Illing

I feel like we’re pirouetting around the race factor here. I'm not disputing the populist wave, but the data we have shows pretty clearly that racial resentment was a significant factor, certainly a bigger factor than his promise to "drain the swamp."

As the Washington Post reported, it was shared racial angst that united college-educated and non-college-educated whites. Trump didn't create this resentment, but he exploited it very deliberately, and there's just no way around that fact.

You talk about the Tea Party factor a lot, but there's a bit of revisionist history here. The Tea Party wasn't seen as a populist movement when it began; it was said to be an explosion of small-government conservatism. But these people didn't discover their conservative religion until Obama, our first African-American president, stepped into office.

There was no Tea Party when George W. Bush was bankrupting the government and getting us involved in costly foreign misadventures. But as soon as Obama was elected, there was this massive cultural reaction among white Americans.

Joe Walsh

Well, I have to stop you there, Sean. When was the Tea Party born?

Sean Illing

I’m not sure there’s a precise date, but it certainly became a national movement right around the time of Obama’s inauguration in January 2009.

Joe Walsh

Check the dates. The Tea Party was born before Obama. What gave birth to the Tea Party was in fact George W. Bush's bailout. It was early in 2008. Remember, the guy who helped start it, a CNBC commentator named Rick Santelli, went on TV right in the midst of Bush's bailouts, and his rant was part of what got the movement going.

[Author’s note: The Santelli rant that kick-started the Tea Party occurred live on CNBC on February 19, 2009, one month after Obama was inaugurated.]

Sean Illing

Do you deny that racial animus was a pretty significant factor for a lot of Trump voters?

Joe Walsh

Yeah, I deny that it was a "pretty significant" factor. I acknowledge that the racial animus exists, and that plenty of white racists supported Trump. Are there some Trump supporters who think "make America great again" means "make America white again"? I'm sure there are some like that, but that's not true of the overwhelming majority. I don't know anyone who voted for Trump because they wanted to make America white again.

Sean Illing

Okay, but the real concern here is Trump's willingness to indulge his racist supporters. When you talk about "draining the swamp," a lot of Americans wonder why Trump's racist supporters or the self-described "alt-right" aren't considered equally worrisome.

[Author’s note: For a thorough account of the fringe alt-right movement, read this explainer by my colleague Zack Beauchamp.]

Joe Walsh

I understand the concern. There was a recent incident with Richard Spencer, the alt-right leader who's an obvious racist. He had that convention in DC with the disgusting Hitler salutes, and Trump should've come down much stronger on that guy, and he should've called him a racist in clear terms. He also should've renounced [former Ku Klux Klan leader] David Duke during the campaign. I agree with you on this, Sean.

But do you think Trump is a racist? I don't think he's a racist.

Sean Illing

Well, I don’t know if he’s a racist. What I can say is that he’s deliberately endeared himself to racists, and I’m every bit as concerned about that as I am his backtracking on the “drain the swamp” pledge.

Joe Walsh

That's a fair point, Sean.

Sean Illing

Let me ask you this: As someone worried about Trump not draining the swamp, are you more comfortable with a guy like Steve Bannon in the White House, who ran the race-baiting alt-right site Breitbart.com, than you are with the billionaires and the lobbyists?

Joe Walsh

Yeah, I am. Even though I disagree with Bannon about a lot of things, I think he's more of an outsider than a lot of these Wall Street guys who have been giving money to politicians for years.

Sean Illing

Well, perhaps he’s more of an outsider, but he’s also a race baiter. Look, there are many peaks on the swamp landscape, and there’s space reserved for the alt-right somewhere on it. I understand the desire for an outsider, but that can’t be the only criterion.

Personally, and I’m sure for many of our readers as well, the minute Trump announced that Bannon was joining his team (and I think this was his first or second appointment), it was already clear that he wasn’t draining the swamp in Washington — he was bringing it with him.

Joe Walsh

I guess this goes to what you and I mean by the "swamp." To me, the swamp is elites in big government and big business who make laws that benefit themselves and screw the average American.

Sean Illing

Do you at least understand why millions of Americans would find Bannon’s presence in the White House so alarming and offensive?

Joe Walsh

Absolutely. I think they consider Bannon a racist because of his ties to the alt-right. Now, Bannon insists he's an economic nationalist, not a racist. And I believe him. But look, this is an important debate, and I get it.

Sean Illing

Assuming Trump continues on the course he’s on, do you expect more of his supporters to turn on him when or if it becomes apparent that the change they hoped to see isn’t coming?

Joe Walsh

I think each one of these things will chip away at this support. His supporters are going to be with him as long as he generally does the things he says he's going to do. People like me will be critical of him for hiring Wall Street insiders, but I'm not sure his supporters really give a damn.

I think if he doesn't deliver on his campaign promises, then you'll really begin to see his support fade. But based on my interactions with his hardcore supporters, I suspect they're going to cut him a lot of slack.

Sean Illing

In our bizarre post-truth world, I wonder if there's any mistake he could make for which he'd pay a substantial political price. He made a lot of promises he either knows he cannot keep or thinks he can because he doesn't understand how government works.

Whatever the case, he's about to disappoint a lot of people.

Joe Walsh

If his supporters see him ground up by the Washington machinery, he'll go to his supporters and say, "I'm doing the best I can, but I'm getting ground up by the establishment," [and] I think they'll stay with him.

But if he goes back on his word on the really big things, like immigration, then I think he's in serious trouble.