By Eric Lutz
The front line in the war for the American dream, it turns out, is here, at Fox Run Golf Links in Elk Grove Village. Go figure. Joe Walsh, the freshman congressman from Illinois’ eighth district, a Tea Party Republican who rode a wave of anti-incumbent fury to the United States House of Representatives in 2010, is leading the charge for one side. He’s trim, handsome, charismatic and, to the seventy or so people in attendance at tonight’s town hall, the only thing standing between them and Obamacare and anti-business Democrats and job-stealing illegal immigrants and radical Muslims and political correctness and an assortment of other evils aided and abetted by the political left.
“This country is literally going through a revolution… a down-on-our-knees, hand-to-hand fight over the soul of America,” Walsh tells his supporters, who nod their heads in concern.
Walsh drives this theme home all night: the idea that Tea Party Republicans are defending the ideas this country was founded on, while Democrats are creating a “New America” where the government does everything for you and the whole nation is basically a sad, “Metropolis”-like dystopia. In his own words:
“I think we’re losing our freedoms every single week.”
“I could care less about [income] inequality!”
“I really do believe in my bones that we’re losing this country.”
“We used to live in an America where, where did you turn for help most of us? Your family, your church, your neighborhood, your community. That’s long gone.”
“My job was to stop this president, ‘cause what he was doing, and is doing, and wants to do frightens me.”
“We need to fight—yes, fight—to get back to the free, responsible America where you keep your money and you’re responsible for your life.”
Because this is the New America, where nobody has any money or personal responsibility.
This is an America where radical Muslims are trying to kill Americans every week, and the government is “so afraid of offending Islam” that they won’t do anything about it. Where the United States government is “down in Mexico, advertising to Mexicans, on how generous our food stamp program is.” Where our problems stem from politicians having “got along” in the past—“I’m glad we’re fighting,” he says.
Bizarre economic theories abound. Contradictions are spouted. The whole thing is basically just a Tea Party gripe session.
Since taking office in 2010, Joe Walsh has been perhaps the best embodiment of post-9/11 politics—dramatic, war-like and polarizing.
He calls himself a “regular guy.” His opponents call him “America’s most offensive congressman.”
He vows “no compromise,” says “our kids will never know what this country was founded on” if Democrats get elected in 2012, and still has the stones to begin his town halls urging: “Respect every opinion in this room.”
He sleeps in his Washington office, turned down the congressional healthcare and pension plan on principle, even though his wife reportedly suffers from a preexisting condition.
And now, he’s fighting an uphill battle for reelection against Iraq veteran Tammy Duckworth—a race that has implications well beyond the northwest suburban district the two are fighting for.
Joe Walsh is a politician completely of his time. A man whose ascendance to power is the result of widespread populist anger, and whose hopes of retaining that power rely on keeping tempers high.
This becomes clear midway through the town hall, when an old guy with a funny-grandpa tee-shirt tells Walsh he’s “depressed about the way the country’s going right now.”
Walsh thinks for a second.
Then, he tells him to: “Change ‘depressed’ to ‘angry.’”
He says, “Stay angry.”
Anger defines Joe Walsh.
It is both his means and his end.
It is the blood of his every statement, the cadence of every word, the muscle of every manner. It lives inside him, and in the people who support him, and, consequently, in the people who do not. When he speaks, he sets off a storm of anger—a dark cloud that follows him wherever he goes.
Following his campaign, then, can feel like trailing a hurricane’s wake. Opposing signs stick from front yards like headstones. The cars at Walsh events come adorned with stickers: LORD, DELIVER US FROM OBAMACARE! Dissidents attend town halls to heckle the congressman; a Super PAC running a Take Down Walsh campaign videotapes his statements, fighting back against his “extreme, crazy views.” Anger hangs in the air here like moisture before a big rain.
The anger at Walsh events has many targets: from the people with “funny accents” collecting Social Security to the government telling us “what I have to eat, what I have to drive” to the guy who practically shouts, apropos nothing: “Does anybody in this room know when they’re getting their mail every day?! I never know when I’m going to get my mail!”
Populist anger has always been a political force—especially in tough economic times. But the current landscape—with a proliferated internet, hugely influential Super PACs and a news media whose gears are turned by conflict and sound-bite—seems particularly suited to anger. It provides a home for the furious and a microphone for their views. It makes anger not just a motor of movements, but a keen political strategy: demonize the other side, keep the money flowing, keep people coming to the polls. Stay angry.
Walsh’s critics paint him as a man with little capacity for critical thought—an inarticulate hothead who doesn’t understand the issues. And there is certainly no shortage of evidence for this view—if you know Walsh at all, it’s probably for the litany of inflammatory statements he’s made since entering office, his wildly atomistic views on issues and government and the many controversies of his personal life.
But Walsh is not an idiot, and it’s possible that the belligerence with which he speaks on so many issues is not accidental. He holds a masters in public policy from the University of Chicago. He also attended the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute—the method-acting school whose alumni include Robert De Niro, Alec Baldwin, Scarlett Johansson, Mickey Rourke and Uma Thurman. He knows the issues, and more importantly, how to spin them. And he knows how to capture a room and keep it—how to stoke the flames of his audience, how to use their fury for his benefit.
He paces before the crowd like a stand-up with the audience in his palm. His voice—a serrated tenor—shifts without warning between a conversational calm and a full-throated yell, declaratory, to really drive home a point. He’s funny, affable, passionate—so normal-seeming with his off-the-rack wardrobe and boring good looks, you almost forget that he’s not just a dorky suburban dad, but a real Washington shaker, an influential partisan whose nine-to-five is to obstruct the president and to further small-government philosophy. Perhaps you disagree with his politics, find his views unreasonable–I do, too. But he’s not dumb, and those who dismiss him as such do so to their own detriment. Because the reality is, he plays to a dichotomy both the left and right believe in deeply: that we’re the heroes in the revolution, and that those who disagree are evil or crazy.
Joe Walsh has always been a theatrical politician.
In his first run for congress in 1996, which he lost, he held a “birthday party” for octogenarian incumbent Sidney Yates, which featured a birthday cake crowded with eighty-seven candles. In 1998, in a doomed run for the Illinois House, he traveled through the district in a school bus to critique opponent Jeffrey Schoenberg’s education policy.
But he hasn’t always been so conservative.
In those first two bids for office, he was a self-described “moderate Republican”—pro-choice and eager to distance himself from Newt Gingrich, the ideological quarterback of the right at the time.
Both those races were contests for mostly liberal districts that included Evanston, Skokie and Wilmette.
In 2010, he ran in the district he’d lived in most of his life, the district he grew up in. The eighth district, a pistol-shaped chunk of the northwest suburbs covering towns like Schaumburg, Elk Grove Village, Palatine and Barrington, had been represented for twelve years by Goldwater republican Phil Crane. Longer, actually—Crane, one of the so-called “Kennedys of the Right,” had represented the area in question since the late sixties when he succeeded Donald Rumsfeld, back when it was the thirteenth district. Back then, the area was in the midst of its transition from exurban farming communities to the intensely corporate suburbs they are today. Until the mid-fifties, the area was largely disconnected from Chicago. But the construction of O’Hare in 1955 led to the Northwest Tollway being built, providing a stronger link to the city. The area saw more growth in the seventies, when I-290 was built and Woodfield Mall opened. Now it’s a big-business paradise, home to Sears, Motorola and a host of other corporate powerplayers. A land of office parks, strip malls and subdivisions. Urban-like, with Schaumburg’s glass-Lego skyline and chain stores and restaurants, but also still with that vague feeling of spatial emptiness characteristic of the countryside it once was.
This time, Walsh ran as a hard-line conservative, wanting to “give a political voice to this anger” of the Tea Party.
His opponent, Melissa Bean, who’d represented the district since defeating Crane in ’04, was well-funded and had the endorsements of every newspaper in the Chicago area.
Walsh, by contrast, didn’t even really have much support from his own party. The GOP felt a more moderate candidate would have a better shot at beating Bean, and didn’t drop a dime on the district.
Drastically outspent by the moderate democrat, Walsh didn’t even have enough money to purchase a TV ad. But Walsh campaigned relentlessly, taking any opportunity he could to speak publicly or to appear on talk radio. And, when Bean cast her vote in favor of President Obama’s new healthcare law, he pounced on her—capitalizing on what remains one of the most divisive political issues of our time.
He won by 291 votes.
After the election, in which Joe Walshes all over the country rose to office, the New York Times posed the question: “If you win in anger, can you govern in anger?”
The answer: Depends on what you consider governing.
Walsh kept his promise of “no compromise.” He continued his theatrics, appearing on cable TV more than any other freshman congressman during the first stretch of his tenure, rising to national prominence with an endless string of incendiary statements—that President Obama “pushed that magical button: a black man who was articulate, liberal, the whole white guilt;” the semi-joking suggestion that an alligator-infested moat should be constructed along our border with Mexico; that American Jews are so liberal they don’t care about Israel. And, despite his constant jabbering about how he doesn’t care about getting re-elected, he transitioned so swiftly back into campaign mode for the 2012 race, it was as if he never left the stump.
If his early contests were mean-spirited and his 2010 win angry, the current election cycle has been fueled by white-hot rage. Early in the summer, he was videotaped yelling at a constituent during a campaign event. Soon after, another video emerged in which he accused Democrats of making “African-Americans dependent upon government,” and trying to do the same now to Hispanics. At another meeting, he implied that opponent Tammy Duckworth, whose legs were blown off in Iraq, was not a real hero because she spoke about her service too frequently. He called President Obama “son” and criticized the GOP for not defending Rep. Todd Akin following his insane rape remarks. He’s been endorsed by Stephen Moore’s Club for Growth, received a 100 percent rating from the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, and a True Blue certification from the Family Research Council—a socially-conservative lobbying outfit that also happens to be designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Who is the real Joe Walsh?
The self-described “moderate,” whose political stunts seemed more smart-alecky than combative? Or the hard-right conservative we know him as today, angry and divisive?
What does he really believe?
Is he a moderate posing as a down-the-line conservative in a political moment that houses down-the-line conservatism? Or is he a conservative who once posed as a moderate in hopes of convincing more liberal-leaning constituents to vote for him?
Is he really angry?
Does he really believe the country is in the throes of revolution? Or is his rhetoric carefully calibrated to rile people up and play off the fear of a frustrated populace?
Put differently: Is Joe Walsh the real thing? Or is it all just theatrics?
I don’t know the answers to those questions.
I hoped to talk with Joe Walsh for this story, but never got the chance.
I emailed the campaign August 29, requesting an interview. I didn’t hear back.
I followed up on August 31. Still nothing.
Finally, on September 3, I got a response from Walsh’s communication director, Erin Rapp. The Congressman would be happy to do an interview, she wrote. I agreed to speak with him by phone, and asked when it could happen.
Three days later, Drew Meiner, another campaign person, emailed me back. He told me Erin Rapp was no longer with the campaign, but that Walsh would be happy to do an email interview. Send us the questions, and “we can get them back to you asap.”
So I did. It wouldn’t be ideal, but at least it’d be something.
I sent Walsh questions about his youth, his early career in social work, his races in the nineties as a moderate. I gave him a chance to clarify his statements about the president, to explain his “no compromise” approach, to talk about the role of anger in politics.
I said I’d ideally have the answers by September 10, three days later, but that I could be flexible. I wished Walsh a Happy Labor Day.
On September 11, when I hadn’t heard back, I emailed Meiner, looking for an update.
On September 13, I emailed Meiner again. I said if I didn’t get a response, I’d just go ahead and write the story as is.
He emailed me back, saying the campaign had been busy.
I said I understood, and asked if they’re still in for the interview.
I never heard from them again.
In the end, though, this isn’t really about Joe Walsh, but what he represents.
It’s about the conditions that allowed him to rise to power and the political culture that’s kept him there.
It’s about anger, and the system that rewards it.
It’s about partisans who’ve eschewed compromise, content to live in realities of their own construction.
Rage has become a tool—a way of mobilizing the base and of making your voice heard. The bitter partisanship we’re all so quick to point out on the other side has not just choked our political process—it’s also become the armor that protects politicians from criticism.
Both have become a crutch for a nation hobbled by high unemployment in a tough economy, the release for a people whose problems at home and abroad have left us scared and desperate, and whose leaders’ apparent unwillingness or inability to solve them have created mass disillusionment.
But when the history of our era is written, its heroes will be those who sought understanding while the rest of the country was fighting in Joe Walsh’s revolution. They will be men and women who disagreed vehemently with one another, but who saw each other first as humans and not as walking abstractions. They will have tried to figure out this weird world in all its nuance, emerging thoughtful but uncertain. Their first impulse will have been toward compassion. They will have seen compromise not just as fundamentally right—as fundamentally American—but as pragmatically essential.