From book bans to bomb threats, 2022 has been characterized by a disturbing rise in right-wing violence brought on by the viral moral panic of very online fearmongers. And the biggest target of this mayhem has been the transgender community. Figures like Libs of TikTok’s Chaya Raichik, Tucker Carlson, Ben Shapiro, and the Manhattan Institute’s Chris Rufo have joined conservative politicians in flooding right-wing airwaves with hate speech and misinformation on issues like gender-affirming care and children’s sports. But in a year when Transgender Day of Remembrance was marked by a mass shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, one man stands out from the crowd: Matt Walsh.
The Daily Wire columnist and podcast host has made a name for himself by demonizing medical professionals and pushing conspiracy theories about “grooming” and pedophilia in the LGBTQ community. If the Club Q shooter is a “lone wolf” attacker, we should consider Walsh the unofficial pack leader. While the bodies were still warm, the host of The Matt Walsh Show would log on to say, “If [drag shows] are causing this much chaos and violence, why do you insist on continuing to do it? If, according to you, it’s like putting people’s lives at risk, if the effort to have men cross-dress in front of children is putting people’s lives at risk, why are you still doing it?” It’s a crowded field, but The New Republic has crowned Walsh 2022’s Transphobe of the Year.
Walsh launched his fetid career in the same manner as many of the worst of the right-wing swamp: conservative talk radio. Walsh has since gone on to create Johnny the Walrus, an allegorical children’s picture book about a boy who pretends to be a walrus (it reached No. 1 on Amazon’s LGBTQ bestsellers list), and What Is a Woman?, a feature-length documentary on “gender ideology.”
Between early 2010 to August 2011, Walsh hosted The Matt and Crank Program on an F.M. radio station in Delaware, during which time he criticized the Republican Party for supporting Reconstruction after the Civil War, attacked Ronald Reagan for expanding the government “by 90 percent,” and defended the use of political violence.
“Our Founding Fathers had very specific goals in mind … they were willing to back [them] up with guns and violent force,” he said at a Tea Party rally during this time. Doubling down on these comments shortly afterward, he’d tell his radio listeners, “If you want extreme change, you must take extreme action.… You have to make people hurt.”
The comments were unearthed in October by the watchdog group Media Matters for America, which monitors conservative misinformation and dug up videos and blog posts where Walsh downplays teenage pregnancy and calls adolescence a “modern plague.”
“The problem is not, per se, teenage pregnancy. It’s unwed pregnancy,” Walsh said in a 2011 video posted to YouTube, adding that it was normal for the first 10,000 years of human existence.
In another video, unearthed in November by Canadian YouTubers The Serfs, Walsh hits operatic heights of derangement: In a rant that clocks in at just under two minutes, he brushes off accusations of child molestation by ex-cardinal and registered sex offender Theodore McCarrick, claims that Asia Argento—who was raped by Harvey Weinstein when she was 21—kept going back for the sake of “power and clout in the industry,” and challenges the notion that sex should be considered good or bad based on whether it’s consensual.
“The word consent increasingly means nothing because we’ve expanded it so much,” Walsh says, “and we’ve turned it into this complicated equation where nobody really knows when consent is happening.”
Since his early years in radio, he’s gone from a bog-standard shock-jock vibe to a preppy fountain of increasingly weird far-right obsessions. Media Matters’ LGBTQ program director, Ari Drennen, has followed Walsh’s studied transformation, in which he’s changed his appearance based on his audience. “Watching his early videos,” she said, “it’s really obvious that he wanted to become famous.”
Today, Walsh sports a beard and flannels and describes himself as a “theocratic fascist” on Twitter, where he has 1.2 million followers. He says the title can be interpreted in two ways: literally or as a joke.
“I am literally a theocratic fascist. I do indeed believe that my religious beliefs should be forced on people by the government. And not just the government, but a government headed by me as a dictator,” Walsh said in a 2019 video for the Daily Wire before referencing his recent Twitter tirade against white condiments. “Mayo, cream cheese, ricotta, tartar sauce, ranch dressing. In my theocratic fascist dictatorship, all of those condiments will be confiscated. Prohibited. And anyone who is caught with contraband like, say, ranch dressing, will face execution and a $50 fine.”
Are you in on the joke? Like I said, the guy is deeply weird.
The guy is deeply dangerous as well. Walsh’s most disturbing narratives have centered on children. In August, after Walsh called for an “organized effort” against medical facilities that “butcher children,” Boston Children’s Hospital, home to the first pediatric and adolescent transgender health program, received its first bomb threat. Walsh, undeterred by the real-world effect of his fearmongering, continued to push the claim that the hospital was “mutilating children.” When the hospital received its second bomb threat in early September, Walsh claimed it was a “false alarm” and a “leftist hoax,” before turning his attention to Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s trans health clinic.
In a Twitter thread that mimics the tone of an investigative journalist who’s just got their hands on Trump’s tax returns, Walsh claimed in late September that the Vanderbilt clinic “drugs, chemically castrates, and performs double mastectomies on minors.” That day, Republican Governor Bill Lee called for a “thorough investigation” of the clinic. Two and a half weeks later, Vanderbilt announced that it would be temporarily suspending gender-affirming care for patients under 18 after Tennessee lawmakers wrote a letter to its board of directors.
On October 21, Walsh organized a “Rally to End Child Mutilation” in Nashville that drew 2,500 participants. He was joined by Senator Marsha Blackburn and 2020 presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard. A group of Proud Boys stood in the audience, while other protesters held signs that said, “Mutilate the mutilators” and “Doctors who mutilate children should be killed.”
The “Protecting Children From Gender Mutilation Act” was introduced to the Tennessee legislature in early November. Boston Children’s Hospital received its third bomb threat the following week. Three days later, at 11:56 p.m. on November 19, 911 received a call. An AR-15-wielding 22-year-old dressed in body armor had fired a barrage of shots into a crowded nightclub, killing five and injuring 17, as patrons enjoyed a drag show. Matt Walsh blamed the victims.
Boston Children’s Hospital received its fourth bomb threat two weeks later.
Drennen is one of those who’ve stopped ignoring Walsh and started to rally people against him. “I think the backlash is the result of a lot more success in the trans community gaining visibility,” said Drennen. On Twitter, she describes herself as a proud trans woman. The header photo on her account is a screenshot of John Oliver next to a graph depicting the “rate of left-handedness among Americans, by year of birth.” It’s a reference to an October segment where Oliver said, “When you look at a chart of left-handedness among Americans over the twentieth century, you see a massive spike when we stopped forcing kids to write with their right hand, and then a plateau. That doesn’t mean everyone became left-handed.… It means people were free to be who they were.”
Walsh is very much against the idea that people should be free to be who they are, so much so that he’s led a stochastic terror campaign against the trans community, which he says he plans on personally taking to the street. If the Proud Boys are, as some say, modern-day brownshirts, they may have found an unlikely leader in Matt Walsh.
Given his calls to arrest drag queens who perform in front of children, criminalize gender-affirming care for minors (despite a consensus in the medical community that this treatment is life-saving), and exile any members of the Republican Party who vote for the Respect for Marriage Act, it’s worth asking if Walsh has any grander political ambitions.
If his tweets are any guide–he’s said that “this country would be transformed for the better overnight if turnout went down by 80 percent”—he’d likely be running well to the right of Trump, whom he criticized in November after Trump called Florida’s Republican governor “Ron DeSanctimonious.”
“DeSantis is an extremely effective conservative governor who has had real policy wins and real cultural wins,” Walsh tweeted. “Trump isn’t going to be able to take this one down with a dumb nickname.”
While he reserves the worst hatred for the trans community, Jason Campbell, a senior researcher at Media Matters, says it’s “important to point out that Matt Walsh is also a racist. He’s becoming this champion of white rights.” When the Little Mermaid remake announced a Black lead role, Walsh said, “From a scientific perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have someone with darker skin who lives deep in the ocean.” (From a scientific perspective, mermaids also do not make a lot of sense.) He’s been a giddy promoter of the so-called “great replacement” conspiracy theory that’s recently found a purchase in the mainstream conservative media. But Walsh is no latecomer to these racist ideas, from his early fascist stirrings as a talk show radio host until today. “Now this isn’t a conspiracy theory. There’s nothing wild or speculative about it. It’s just a fact,” he said on a May 2022 episode of The Matt Walsh Show.
All of which is to say: Walsh is ready to adapt on the fly as various outrages and panics flit from fashionable to played out on the right. “I don’t think this moment of anti-trans hysteria is going to last forever,” Drennen said. “I would not be surprised if whatever the next right-wing moral panic is, we see Matt Walsh, once again, at the forefront, having conveniently forgotten his fixation on trans people.” Perhaps in years to come, he’ll find new ways to take home TNR’s accolades for scoundrels.