Twenty-five years ago, Representative Joe Scarborough was a Gingrich Republican, swept into office in the Republican wave of 1994. He was, in many respects, one of the most radical members of that freshman class, and a leader of the ’90s equivalent of the Freedom Caucus. In the 2000s, he became a standard-issue conservative talking head. MSNBC hired him to be vocal proponent of the Iraq War on a channel that had developed an untimely reputation for leaning a little too far to the left. (They cleared out poor Phil Donahue, a critic of the war, to make room for him.)
On his original MSNBC show, Scarborough Country, a transparent O’Reilly Factor clone, he was a gleeful right-wing culture warrior, devoting segments to the evils of feminists and the shameful behavior of the cursed Dixie Chicks. (Here is some representative Scarborough Country dialogue: “Pat Buchanan, let me go to you. It looks like, according to this New York Times article, that illegal immigration is exploding in Arizona and across the southwest. Do you think President Bush’s amnesty work program for illegals may be to blame?”)
Since then, Scarborough has been reborn as Morning Joe, the genial and reasonable host of a chat show beloved by liberals (who go on television a lot) and moderates (who go on television a lot) and nonpartisan journalists (who go on television a lot) alike.
Nine years ago, Joe Walsh was a Tea Party Republican, swept into office in the 2010 GOP wave. He was perhaps the most media-friendly member of that new class of Republicans, and a reliable right-wing voice on any given subject. One of his own GOP colleagues described him to BuzzFeed’s Kate Nocera as one of the most “vitriolic, partisan members of our conference.”
Walsh’s legislative career was short-lived—two years later, he lost his reelection bid to Tammy Duckworth. By 2016, however, he had reemerged as a pro-Trump, right-wing talk-radio guy, who regularly tossed off inflammatory racist comments for attention, still referring to President Barack Obama as a Muslim. You might recall Walsh letting it be known that he’d be “grabbing his musket” in the event Hillary Clinton won the election.
Now, Joe Walsh is running for president, promising to challenge Donald Trump for the Republican nomination in the name of decency. His plan is not just winning plaudits from people like Bill Kristol, one of the last remaining “never Trump” Republicans. Neera Tanden, the head of the Center for American Progress, gleefully greeted the news of Walsh entering the race by retweeting his announcement with the comment, “I’m not endorsing because of course I want a Democrat to win. But this is big news.”
Tanden’s tweet—which seemed to imply that the only reason she was not “endorsing” Joe Walsh was down to the fact that he was running as a Republican, and not because she wouldn’t actually want him to be president—was, perhaps, poorly worded. “I think Joe Walsh is grossly wrong,” she added later, in response to criticism from dissenting liberals. Nevertheless, she still admonished others for “downplaying” Walsh, suggesting that liberals should reward conservatives who turn on Trump with their support.
It is defensible to wish for people like Walsh to run against Trump if it might weaken his reelection campaign (though it should be acknowledged that this is basically the same logic that led various liberals to encourage Trump to run in the GOP primaries in 2016). But none of that requires liberals to greet Walsh’s announcement with undisguised glee. There’s something deeply disordered going on when the head of the most influential liberal think tank in the country expresses greater exuberance over the candidacy of Joe Walsh—a virulent Islamophobe and deadbeat dad—than she ever has about the candidacy of lifelong left-winger Bernie Sanders. Walsh grasps this intuitively and is pressing his advantage.
There’s a certain sort of elite liberal who loves Republican men almost as much as they detest anti-establishment progressives. Not “Republican men” like Mitch McConnell or Jeff Sessions, who are too narrowly concerned with implementing their ghoulish agenda to play the game. Rather, their affections attach to men like John Boehner, perpetually out on his lawnmower; or Ben Sasse, with his family canon of great books by men; or good old John McCain, so recently memorialized by every old liberal’s new favorite young person, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg. (Praising John McCain is, of course, good politics—if you are chasing the support of the liberal establishment, that is.)
But while those men easily win over reporters who don’t consider themselves liberal, the path to a more partisan liberal’s heart requires one to become an apostate—or at least play one on television. That’s the lesson Joe Scarborough learned, more or less overnight, when he criticized the Bush administration’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In the space of ten minutes, Scarborough went from being a steady font of right-wing outrage and hostility, to being fulsomely embraced as a breath of fresh air on cable news.
The most notable thing about Scarborough’s transformation is that he didn’t actually have to atone for his past life beyond, perhaps, a dollop of mild contrition. (On the tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, Scarborough hosted a panel on the topic in which he downplayed his own role in drumming up support for that debacle, while playing a misleading video package that heavily suggested that two Democrats who voted against the invasion had instead supported it.) It was enough for Scarborough to merely stop acting like Bill O’Reilly—a thing he did because a TV producer told him to—and start acting like Brian Williams, instead—again at the direction of a TV producer. (“You can cut out this regular-Joe crap,” MSNBC head Phil Griffin told Scarborough when he transitioned from phony populist everyman to phony genial political junkie. “Our audience is from Boston to Washington, D.C.”)
Scarborough has thrived ever since, hosting the flagship morning political talk show, with his not-that-liberal co-hosts and their not-that-liberal regular panelists, on the channel that is still largely watched by people who loved Rachel Maddow for standing up to George W. Bush (whom they now recall with much more fondness).
Joe Walsh is counting on certain liberals (and certain not-liberal television executives and producers with liberal audiences) to be so desperate for someone to fill the “Reasonable Republican” slot that they will even allow him—someone possessing only telegenic looks and the willingness to blow up his conservative movement cred—to follow this same path.
Keep in mind that there will not actually be a Republican primary campaign in 2020. Walsh, and others, may describe themselves as “running” against Trump, but Trump will not be facing off against them in “Republican primary debates.” Trump’s ersatz opponents will not be invited to speak at the Republican National Convention. There might not even be primary elections. South Carolina Republicans canceled their primary in 2004 and are perfectly willing to do so again. There is no real guarantee that Walsh will even deliver on the hoped-for damage to Trump’s reelection chances. Pat Buchanan managed to weaken incumbent President George H.W. Bush with a surprisingly strong primary campaign in 1992, but only because Bush wasn’t popular among conservatives—a group that, today, happens to enthusiastically support Donald Trump.
This conservative media grift is remarkably easy—you can be extremely dim and lazy and still find a sinecure, or be as generally pathetic as Joe Walsh and get a talk radio gig. Still, Walsh has already bombed out of Congress. The right-wing radio universe is populated by thousands of Joe Walsh clones. There’s a lot of competition and not many open slots at the tippy-top of the food chain Walsh has been traversing. There’s real money on mainstream cable news, however—and fewer competitors for the “reformed Republican man” role. (One potential pitfall for Walsh is that he perhaps did not allow enough time to elapse after acts one and two of his career in public life, before embarking on his third act, which has led to statements like: “I wouldn’t call myself a racist, but I would say, John, I’ve said racist things on Twitter.”)
As for why posh liberals seem to feel more personal affection for Joes Scarborough and Walsh than they do for, say, the young liberal people who are actually in their employ, there’s no need to psychoanalyze it that deeply. They are flattered by the approval-seeking of Republican men, and annoyed by the upstart left-wingers who insist that they live up to liberal ideals these same elites find inconvenient or unprofitable. Should Walsh find himself with an MSNBC contract at the end of all this, he will make few demands of his new audience, except that they forget how he got there.