Sykes, who during his varied print and broadcast career wrote a column for Isthmus, was recently profiled in
“Charlie ought to be going out in a wave of glory.”
So wrote fellow conservative Milwaukee radio host Mark Belling on the occasion of Charlie Sykes’ retirement from the airwaves last December. Belling noted that, as of Sykes’ final radio show, Republicans were about to take full control of both the federal and state governments for the first time since the 1950s. That fact should have made this moment the pinnacle of Sykes’ 23-year radio career.
Sykes’ final week of broadcasts on WTMJ-AM included tributes from virtually every Republican political star in Wisconsin. Ron Johnson jokingly blamed Sykes for his ascent to the U.S. Senate. And Gov. Scott Walker gushed, “You have had a tremendous impact … on the conservative movement, not just here in Milwaukee, but across the state.”
Despite the glorious send-off, the 62-year-old Sykes’ political identity was in a state of upheaval. Significant swaths of the once-cohesive Wisconsin conservative juggernaut, a group that he had both led and served for decades, were now ignoring him or, even, actively shunning him.
A bomb named Donald Trump had detonated within the GOP. And Sykes, who had believed for years that Trump would be an absolutely unacceptable leader of his party, was among its casualties.
The ideological and professional stability Sykes enjoyed through his decades on the air were a contrast to his peripatetic earlier life as a student and journalist. Before radio, he had bounced back and forth between liberalism and conservatism, and from publication to publication, working as a reporter, editor and columnist.
No one could have convinced me two years ago that, come 2017, Charlie Sykes and I would be on the same wavelength. But Donald Trump has left me politically homeless, too.
While I was not one of his listeners, Sykes loomed large within the Republican Party of Wisconsin, of which I was an active, but often malcontented, member. My fellow libertarian-leaning activists and I regarded him as an establishment shill, dedicated to the promotion and protection of an ossified party power structure. Belling’s overall assessment of Sykes’ career is positive, but he observes that Sykes “often seemed like a cheerleader rather than a commentator.”
If Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Reince Priebus and Ron Johnson were the party capos, then Sykes was their muscle. “If you went against the grain,” recalls longtime Sykes adversary Michael Murphy of the Republican Liberty Caucus, “Charlie would call you out.”
I also assumed Sykes was, stylistically, a local version of Rush Limbaugh, his shtick exploiting the darker corners of his listeners’ psyches. Though presumptuous, my distant read of Sykes was not entirely off base. Sykes himself has spent a good deal of time lately reassessing his radio career, and acknowledging mistakes he made.
In early October, Sykes’ ninth book, How the Right Lost Its Mind, will be published by St. Martin’s Press. The book chronicles the bizarre transformation the conservative movement has undergone since Donald Trump declared his candidacy in June 2015. But it’s also a personal story. The conservative movement has been so central to Sykes’ life, and he so central to it, that the book could hardly not be personal.
While Sykes has come a long way toward making sense of what happened, he is still somewhat bewildered by Trump’s decisive capture of the movement. From Sykes’ perspective, it was a hostile takeover, constituting a “repudiation of the conservative mind.” As Sykes writes in the book, Trump had tapped into “something disturbing that we had ignored and perhaps nurtured — a shift from an emphasis on freedom to authoritarianism and from American ‘exceptionalism’ to nativism.”
When I met with Sykes late this summer, he recalled the strong sense of loss he felt as the conservative movement slid into derangement, and the decision it forced him to make. “If I break with the movement,” he had asked himself, “have I squandered everything that I’ve spent 20 years working on?” Sykes says he understands others’ reluctance to break. “This is who you are, this is your identity, these are your friends. And if you break with them, are you repudiating a real large chunk of your own life?”
Despite the high price, “There was not a single moment when I thought, ‘maybe I should go along.’” Today, he adds, “The infrastructure that I had is completely gone.”
From a distance, Sykes’ decision might not seem so self-sacrificial. He has, since Trump’s election, had multiple op-eds published in The New York Times. He co-hosted Indivisible, a WNYC radio series that explored the early Trump administration’s impact on American life. And, most notably, he is now an official contributor on MSNBC. Would any of these opportunities with big-time media have come his way had he not so publicly and vehemently refused to board the Trump Train?
At the time of his retirement, Sykes told The Cap Times that he had decided to end his radio show over a year earlier. So throughout 2016, as he relentlessly bashed Trump, he knew that he would be scouting for new opportunities.
“Charlie looks out for Charlie,” says the Republican Liberty Caucus’ Murphy. “This latest act is just him hoping to stay relevant, and maybe even go national.” Others, like Isthmus columnist and Urban Milwaukee editor Bruce Murphy, assert that Sykes’ political beliefs have often tracked with career opportunities. The reality, Murphy wrote earlier this year, “is that Charlie Sykes has been changing his views, over and over, throughout his life, and has always been rewarded for it.”
Quel horreur! Enlightened self-interest! It’s like Sykes is a capitalist or something! (Murphy doesn’t sound bitter or anything, does he?)
Sykes seems dumbfounded by accusations that his steadfast opposition to Trump is driven by expediency. While people with whom he was closely associated — like Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus — moved into positions of great influence, Sykes’ uncompromising stance against Trump kept him out in the cold. “An opportunist goes with the power, not into exile.”
Sykes does appreciate the “strange new respect” he is getting from corners of the media world that used to dismiss him. But he is still quick to criticize the “liberal media,” arguing that their shabby treatment of conservatives fueled the rise of the right-wing propaganda machine. Conservative news-seekers, he writes, “were drawn to safe places, but also pushed.”
At some point, conservative talk radio hosts discovered that traditional news sources make perfect foils. So the talkers pounced, and kept pouncing, until, Sykes writes, “We had succeeded in convincing our audiences to ignore and discount any information whatsoever from the mainstream media.” He regrets that this strategy of delegitimization served to “destroy much of the right’s immunity to false information.”
Sykes devotes a substantial section of How the Right Lost Its Mind to the ascendance of “Alt-Reality” propaganda, how it nurtured “Post-Truth” politics, and its role in Trump’s electoral triumph.
It’s a chilling read. A sizable chunk of the American electorate is astonishingly susceptible to fabrications, even patently absurd ones. In Sykes telling, things got so weird during last year’s campaign that a cottage industry of fake fake news sprung up. Pranksters began fashioning reports just to test the limits of credulity. One tweeted out a contrived Clinton Foundation expense report that showed payees like ‘Sharia Law Center’ and ‘Bill Ayers,’ to see if the Twitterverse would bite. (Spoiler alert: the pranksters were unable to detect any limit to credulity.)
President Trump has, in a stroke of propaganda genius, co-opted the term “fake news,” applying it to legitimate media outlets that he considers unfriendly. In our conversation, Sykes noted that for each of his op-eds, The New York Times assigned a fact-checker. When he hears the president call the Times a “fake news joke,” he remembers the extreme rigor the paper has subjected his work to.
Toward the end of his book, Sykes urges fellow conservatives to “confront the conservative media that boosted and enabled Trumpism and created a toxic alternative reality bubble.” I asked him what non-conservatives might do to help. Because false beliefs are protected by extremely stubborn psychological barriers, Sykes thinks only “still-trusted conservative voices” have the power to stop the madness. “The right’s going to have to clean up its own house.” He laments that, as of now, “We’re not seeing a lot of that.”
I find it silly that Sykes is now being called a non-conservative for daring to criticize Trump (as did, by the way, every major conservative talk-show host in this state before the Wisconsin Republican primary, which is a major reason why Trump lost the GOP primary) and his hard-core supporters, or for appearing on public radio or TV or MSNBC. He’s been quoted frequently on this blog, and other than his non-support of Trump I challenge you to find non-conservative positions he’s taken, beyond possibly support for the taxpayer-funded Miller Park. Sykes has been one of the biggest supporters of Gov. Scott Walker from Walker’s days as Milwaukee County executive. Sykes led on-air support for Act 10. Sykes was a target at the biggest act of attempted censorship of political speech in this state, the Milwaukee County John Doe investigation. Sykes spoke at at least one county Republican Party Lincoln–Reagan Day dinner, which I know because I was there.
Regular readers know the first and foremost answer to Cardin’s question is that if the alternative choice was Hillary Clinton, virtually any Republican would have voted for Trump. (I’m not a Republican, so I didn’t.) As it turned out, a lot of independents in swing states must have voted for Trump as well, because, again, he wasn’t Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton demonstrates daily that if the November choice was Hillary or Trump, Trump was the better choice.
Having said that, it’s clear that Trump is a situational conservative, in that sense the Republicans’ answer to Bill Clinton. Trump, author of The Art of the Deal, deals with whoever (he thinks) is in charge. So he cozies up to Sen. Charles Schumer (D–New York) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D–California) on “Dreamers,” which is as Republican a thing to do as donating money to Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate campaigns. If Republicans lose control of Congress in the 2018 election, the resemblance between Trump and Republicans will disappear.
The answer to Cardin’s second question is answered in part because Trump has done conservative things (Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, undoing Obama regulations and executive orders, Monday’s United Nations speech), and in part by one of her Facebook commenters …