April 25, 2024

The veteran Michigan representative was once a fringe figure. Now, he’s a mainstream Republican.

Representative Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) leaves the House Republican Conference caucus meeting at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington on Wednesday, November 29, 2023.

(Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

When Republican US Representative Tim Walberg told a town meeting in Michigan last week that he opposed any humanitarian aid to ease the suffering in Gaza, and that instead there should be a Hiroshima-style nuclear attack on the enclave, his comments sparked an appropriate outcry from responsible Michiganders and some national groups. But the congressman’s outburst should have been a much bigger deal—not only because of the barbarity of the remark but also because it offered yet more evidence of a Republican Party that has grown increasingly reckless in its embrace of foreign-policy extremism.

Walberg was once on the GOP fringe, a religious-right zealot who primaried a Republican incumbent who had worked closely with the administration of President George W. Bush. Now, he’s a relatively conventional representative of former president Donald Trump’s “MAGA” Republican Party.

Walberg’s March 25 comment dripped with venom toward Palestinians. Speaking as a former pastor during Holy Week about a region where close to 33,000 civilians have been killed by Israeli bombers and ground forces, he said, “We shouldn’t be spending a dime on humanitarian aid. It should be like Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Get it over quick.”

The people who are most aware of Walberg’s track record took him at his word, reacting with horror to the prospect that he was endorsing a 2024 version of the 1945 nuclear attacks that killed several hundred thousand civilians.

“This clear call to genocide by a member of Congress should be condemned by all Americans who value human life and international law,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “To so casually call for what would result in the killing of every human being in Gaza sends the chilling message that Palestinian lives have no value. It is this dehumanization of the Palestinian people that has resulted in the ongoing slaughter and suffering we see every day in Gaza and the West Bank.”

Former US representative Justin Amash, a Palestinian-American Republican now running for Michigan’s open US Senate seat, said Walberg’s “comments evince an utter indifference to human suffering. The people of Gaza are our fellow human beings—many of them children trapped in horrific circumstances beyond their individual control. For him to suggest that hundreds of thousands of innocent Palestinians should be obliterated, including my own relatives sheltering at an Orthodox Christian church, is reprehensible and indefensible.”

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The outcry led Walberg to try to cover for himself by issuing a statement in which he claimed that his comment—which was recorded and featured in Michigan daily newspapers with headlines like, “Video shows Tim Walberg suggesting Gaza be dealt with ‘like Nagasaki and Hiroshima’”—was somehow taken out of context.

Walberg denied that he was advocating the use of nuclear weapons and said he had only “used a metaphor to convey the need for both Israel and Ukraine to win their wars as swiftly as possible.” To achieve that end, Walberg said in his statement that he favored a “full-scale military assault” by Israel—as if that hadn’t been happening during the course of the six months since Israel launched its devastating response to the October 7 attacks by Hamas. (At least 70 percent of civilian infrastructure has been destroyed; at least 85 percent of the Palestinian enclave’s men, women, and children have been displaced; and the threat of mass starvation is now so severe that Cindy McCain, executive director of the United Nations World Food Program, says, “Over 1 million people in Gaza—half the population—are facing catastrophic hunger and starvation.”)

Whether Walberg is proposing a nuclear strike or a full-scale military assault that is so overwhelming that it produces an immediate “win” for Israel, the bottom line is that he is advocating for a dramatically ramped-up attack on Gaza. That’s a horrifying prospect, considering the fact that Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territory, says, “Each heinous crime the Israeli army is committing against exhausted and traumatized civilians in Gaza is part and parcel of a genocidal campaign.”

But to treat Walberg as some kind of outlier in the GOP is absurd. On Easter morning, Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla.) was on Fox News attacking the Biden administration as insufficiently supportive of Israel and enthusiastically endorsing an Israeli assault on Rafah, a Gaza city packed with refugees. Last fall, US Senator Marco Rubio, (R-Fla.) called for Israel to “respond DISPROPORTIONATELY” to the October 7 assault. Another Republican, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, has called for indiscriminate bombing of Gaza “schools, and kindergartens, and mosques” where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his generals imagine Hamas militants might be hiding. “As far as I’m concerned, Israel can bounce the rubble in Gaza,” says Cotton. When asked in February about the thousands of children that have been killed in Gaza, US Representative Andy Ogles (R-Tenn.) replied, “I think we should kill them all.” And, of course, US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has said, “I am with Israel. Do whatever the hell you have to do to defend yourself. Level the place.”

The prospect of nuclear war is, unquestionably, terrifying. But, from the standpoint of people trying to survive on the ground in Gaza, any assault that is launched with the intent of leveling the place, no matter what weapons are employed, is nightmarish.

Yet that’s what Republicans are proposing.

They do so as a party that suffered its greatest defeat in the post—World War II era after nominating a candidate, then–Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who famously announced when he accepted the 1964 Republican presidential nomination, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” That was interpreted by critics as a suggestion that Goldwater would be inclined to employ nuclear weapons in a time of war. The campaign of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson even produced a television ad that featured a young girl plucking petals from a daisy as a nuclear countdown ticks off. “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd,” an announcer said. “The stakes are too high to stay home.”

Voters came out and backed Johnson by a 61-39 margin. The reaction from Republicans who wanted to start winning again was that the party had become too identified with extremism, and there was a concerted effort to move toward the center.

But not everyone came to their senses. One of the disappointed Republicans in 1964 was Tim Walberg, a teenage volunteer for the Goldwater campaign.

Sixty years later, Walberg, who won his seat in the House in 2006, after campaigning to purge moderate Republicans from Congress, is just one of dozens of congressional Republicans spouting Christian nationalist rhetoric. His casual talk of obliterating Gaza, while horrific, is very much in the “mainstream” of a Republican Party that has opted for an extremism that would frighten even Goldwater.

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John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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