No more Midday

In one-half hour WTMJ radio’s Charlie Sykes will air his final “Midday with Charlie Sykes.”

Sykes wrote for the New York Times:

I’m not leaving because of the rise of Donald J. Trump (my reasons are personal), but I have to admit that the campaign has made my decision easier. The conservative media is broken and the conservative movement deeply compromised.

In April, after Mr. Trump decisively lost the Wisconsin Republican primary, I had hoped that we here in the Midwest would turn out to be a firewall of rationality. Our political culture was distinctly inhospitable to Mr. Trump’s divisive, pugilistic style; the conservatives who had been successful here had tended to be serious, reform-oriented and able to express their ideas in more than 140 characters. But in November, Wisconsin lined up with the rest of the Rust Belt to give the presidency to Mr. Trump.

How on earth did that happen?

Before this year, I thought I had a relatively solid grasp on what conservatism stood for and where it was going. Over the previous decade, I helped advance the careers of conservatives like House Speaker Paul D. Ryan; Gov. Scott Walker; Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee; and Senator Ron Johnson. In 2010, conservatives won big majorities in the Wisconsin State Legislature, and I openly supported many of their reforms, including changes to collective bargaining and expansions of school choice.

In short, I was under the impression that conservatives actually believed things about free trade, balanced budgets, character and respect for constitutional rights. Then along came this campaign.

On the surface, the explanations for Mr. Trump’s improbable win in Wisconsin are simple enough: He won big margins in rural, blue-collar counties and won the pivotal Green Bay area by double digits. But he underperformed Mitt Romney in the vote-rich Milwaukee suburbs and ended up getting fewer votes in victory than Mr. Romney received in his 2012 defeat. Hillary Clinton, however, got about 39,000 fewer votes in heavily Democratic Milwaukee County than President Obama did four years earlier. Democrats simply stayed home, though that is obviously not the whole story.

That is what I saw, and this is what it might mean for the future of conservatism. When I wrote in August 2015 that Mr. Trump was a cartoon version of every left-wing media stereotype of the reactionary, nativist, misogynist right, I thought that I was well within the mainstream of conservative thought — only to find conservative Trump critics denounced for apostasy by a right that decided that it was comfortable with embracing Trumpism. But in Wisconsin, conservative voters seemed to reject what Mr. Trump was selling, at least until after the convention.

To be sure, some of my callers embraced Mr. Trump’s suggestion for a ban on Muslims entering the country and voiced support for a proposal to deport all Muslims — even citizens. One caller compared American Muslims to rabid dogs. But right to the end, relatively few of my listeners bought into the crude nativism Mr. Trump was selling at his rallies.

What they did buy into was the argument that this was a “binary choice.” No matter how bad Mr. Trump was, my listeners argued, he could not possibly be as bad as Mrs. Clinton. You simply cannot overstate this as a factor in the final outcome. As our politics have become more polarized, the essential loyalties shift from ideas, to parties, to tribes, to individuals. Nothing else ultimately matters.

In this binary tribal world, where everything is at stake, everything is in play, there is no room for quibbles about character, or truth, or principles. If everything — the Supreme Court, the fate of Western civilization, the survival of the planet — depends on tribal victory, then neither individuals nor ideas can be determinative. I watched this play out in real time, as conservatives who fully understood the threat that Mr. Trump posed succumbed to the argument about the Supreme Court. As even Mr. Ryan discovered, neutrality was not acceptable; if you were not for Mr. Trump, then you were for Mrs. Clinton.

The state of our politics also explains why none of the revelations, outrages or gaffes seemed to dent Mr. Trump’s popularity.

In this political universe, voters accept that they must tolerate bizarre behavior, dishonesty, crudity and cruelty, because the other side is always worse; the stakes are such that no qualms can get in the way of the greater cause.

For many listeners, nothing was worse than Hillary Clinton. Two decades of vilification had taken their toll: Listeners whom I knew to be decent, thoughtful individuals began forwarding stories with conspiracy theories about President Obama and Mrs. Clinton — that he was a secret Muslim, that she ran a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor. When I tried to point out that such stories were demonstrably false, they generally refused to accept evidence that came from outside their bubble. The echo chamber had morphed into a full-blown alternate reality silo of conspiracy theories, fake news and propaganda.

And this is where it became painful. Even among Republicans who had no illusions about Mr. Trump’s character or judgment, the demands of that tribal loyalty took precedence. To resist was an act of betrayal.

And then, there was social media. Unless you have experienced it, it’s difficult to describe the virulence of the Twitter storms that were unleashed on Trump skeptics. In my timelines, I found myself called a “cuckservative,” a favorite gibe of white nationalists; and someone Photoshopped my face into a gas chamber. Under the withering fire of the trolls, one conservative commentator and Republican political leader after another fell in line.

How had we gotten here?

One staple of every radio talk show was, of course, the bias of the mainstream media. This was, indeed, a target-rich environment. But as we learned this year, we had succeeded in persuading our audiences to ignore and discount any information from the mainstream media. Over time, we’d succeeded in delegitimizing the media altogether — all the normal guideposts were down, the referees discredited.

That left a void that we conservatives failed to fill. For years, we ignored the birthers, the racists, the truthers and other conspiracy theorists who indulged fantasies of Mr. Obama’s secret Muslim plot to subvert Christendom, or who peddled baseless tales of Mrs. Clinton’s murder victims. Rather than confront the purveyors of such disinformation, we changed the channel because, after all, they were our allies, whose quirks could be allowed or at least ignored.

We destroyed our own immunity to fake news, while empowering the worst and most reckless voices on the right.

This was not mere naïveté. It was also a moral failure, one that now lies at the heart of the conservative movement even in its moment of apparent electoral triumph. Now that the election is over, don’t expect any profiles in courage from the Republican Party pushing back against those trends; the gravitational pull of our binary politics is too strong.

I’m only glad I’m not going to be a part of it anymore.

The Cap Times (formerly The Capital Times when it was a daily newspaper) wrote a profile of Sykes that includes obligatory smacking-around from liberals I won’t dignify with their response, and one “conservative” who should know better:

In a Nov. 16 email sent to a long list of politicians and media outlets, Republican activist and Wisconsin Conservative Digest publisher Bob Dohnal referred to Sykes and other “Never Trump” conservatives as “Judas goats” and “Benedict Arnolds.”

“Let them swing slowly, slowly in the wind,” Dohnal wrote. “Do not be scared of these clowns, call them, kick them in the knees or other places. They cannot use their radio shows to persecute, you the FCC and their owners do not like that and they do not like lawsuits. These clowns should not set the agenda for the Conservatives.”

I was unaware that conservatives lost our First Amendment rights with Trump’s election Nov. 8.

One non-conservative quoted:

Bill Lueders, longtime news editor for Madison’s Isthmus and now associate editor of The Progressive, wrote some pieces for Milwaukee Magazine during Sykes’ tenure there. He credits a letter of recommendation from Sykes for helping him land the Isthmus job in 1986. …

Lueders also notes Sykes’ defense of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, which Republicans targeted in the 2013-15 state budget. Lueders worked for WCIJ for four years.

“He wrote a piece in strong support of the Center, against this attack that was brought by the Legislature, not by the governor — in fact, it was Gov. Walker who vetoed it from the bill after lots of people, including Sykes, got up in arms about it,” Lueders says. …

Lueders says he enjoys watching Sykes on MSNBC.

“He’s always articulate and thoughtful,” Lueders says. “I think he makes conservatives look good and I think he makes Wisconsin look good. What’s not to like?”

Readers know that I occasionally appeared on “Sunday Insight with Charlie Sykes,” which I miss. I also occasionally butted heads with Lueders on Wisconsin Public Radio. (One segment might have been the most fractious in WPR’s history, but we were able to laugh about it once we met face to face some time later.) My opinion is that viewpoints aren’t really worth much if you’re not willing to debate them, including in potentially hostile environments.
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