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GOP Trump challengers won't get much help from their party

Former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., gestures during a 2011 news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Walsh, a former Illinois congressman, says he'll challenge President Donald Trump for the Republican nomination in 2020.

Nov. 15, 2011 (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Joe Walsh is never going to be president, and that’s a good thing. I was familiar with this former tea party congressman turned right wing radio anarchist years before his current 15 minutes of national fame, and back then, I might have declared him to be the worst imaginable person to sit in the White House.

Today, I’d say second-worst, tops.

Back when the very concept of a “President Trump” was still a punchline on “The Simpsons,” Walsh, an Illinois Republican, practiced the kind of politics that would one day be called “Trumpian.” During his short congressional career and, later, as a conservative radio host, he employed barely veiled (or sometimes not veiled at all) racism, dehumanizing opponents, suggesting that anyone who disagreed with his agenda was a corrupt, contemptible swamp creature who needed destroying.

That kind of political arson from elected officials was still rare and shocking before the rise of our current Arsonist-in-Chief.

Most of Walsh’s tea party brethren at least pretended that they were driven by something other than racial animus toward America’s first black president, but Walsh seldom bothered with that pretense. He promoted the racist birther movement against Barack Obama, publicly deriding him as an “enemy,” “traitor” and (of course) “Muslim.” He suggested multiple times that Obama was only elected because he was black.

If you’d have asked me a few years ago to rank the worst human beings who have appeared on my political radar screen, Joe Walsh would have been high on that list.

So how have we arrived at a world where, now, I sometimes retweet this guy approvingly?

And, worse, why do I find myself hoping his quixotic effort to win the 2020 Republican presidential nomination makes some waves before it inevitably (and appropriately) sinks?

Part of it is that Walsh, an early Trump supporter, has turned so vociferously against the president, regularly tweeting out his disgust — not just at Trump’s behavior but, crucially, at the hypocrisy of supposedly “normal” Republicans for tolerating it. Walsh’s right-wing rhetoric was always acidic. Seeing it employed for good is invigorating.

But more than that is what Walsh told George Stephanopoulos last Sunday, as he announced his candidacy on ABC’s “This Week”:

“I helped create Trump. That’s not an easy thing to say. … I said some ugly things about President Obama that I regret. … The beauty of what President Trump has done is … he’s made me reflect on some of the things I have said in the past. … the personal, ugly politics. I regret that. And I’m sorry for that.”

I’m not suggesting Walsh’s mea culpa couldn’t just be part of a campaign strategy. It probably is. But what hopeful thing does it say when a proto-Trump politician like this decides that should be the strategy?

Trump is the most dangerously unfit president America has had in modern times and probably ever, but the poison that fuels his movement didn’t appear in a vacuum. The Republican Party has, for decades, been playing footsie with populism, racism, know-nothing-ism and other extremisms.

The country-club Republicans of old wanted their tax cuts and deregulation. So they invited the rabble onto the golf course and plied them with culture wars and Confederate flags and anything else they could come up with to distract from the fact that the GOP platform was fleecing them along with everyone else who isn’t among the one percenters.

Now the “traditional” Republicans are outside the club, looking in through the fence, wondering what the hell happened. They include prominent “never-Trump” conservatives — pundits, commentators, the rare elected Republican — who, in their otherwise spot-on dissections of the catastrophe that is Trumpism, never seem to get around to acknowledging their own culpability.

Example: In 2011, then-House Speaker John Boehner (the ultimate country-club Republican) was asked to repudiate the birther movement. There was one acceptable response: Of course Obama was born in America, and suggestions to the contrary are racist garbage that serious Republicans shouldn’t be peddling.

But what did Boehner actually say?: “It’s not my job to tell the American people what to think.” Nor was it the job of any other prominent Republican, apparently. If any single one of them has expressed regret for that nod-and-wink to the alt-right fever swamps in the eight years since, I missed it.

Walsh isn’t the only conservative out there who owes America an apology for the rise of Donald Trump. He’s just one of the few actually offering it. That doesn’t mean he deserves support for his presidential campaign, nor absolution for his past political sins. But when Joe Walsh is setting a contrition bar that most Republicans can’t seem to reach, maybe it’s time for some soul-searching.