Charlie Sykes is a political commentator, writer, prominent conservative, and former talk show host. Sykes is the author of eight books and has written for major national publications. He is a contributor and analyst for MSNBC and was the host of WNYC’s “Indivisible,” as well as the founder and editor-in-chief of the website . Recently, Sykes has drawn attention for his vocal opposition of President Donald Trump.
Sykes came to the University on Dec. 4 as part of its Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation Leadership through Mentorship Program to give a based on his new book, “How the Right Lost Its Mind.” The Daily Princetonian sat down with Sykes to talk about his views, the media, and his thoughts on the direction of the Republican party.
The Daily Princetonian: What encouraged you to leave radio and write this book?
Charlie Sykes: I know that a lot of people think that I left my radio show because of Donald Trump, and that’s understandable, but actually I planned to leave the radio show anyway last year, but the rise of Donald Trump made the decision way easier. For the last 23 years I’ve been a conservative radio host in Wisconsin, and it played a significant role in Republican politics but was appalled by Donald Trump. Even though the audience was very receptive through the Wisconsin primary, you remember Donald Trump was defeated in Wisconsin; as the year went on, I was increasingly out of touch with the audience. I was one of those conservatives that refused to get on the Trump train.
DP: What has the reaction been from other friends and conservative thinkers? Do you feel ostracized because you don’t support Trump?
CS: There is a “never Trump” movement, but it’s incredibly small, we all know one another. I knew we were going to be in the wilderness, but I didn’t know we were going to be on such a tiny desert island. But back home, in Wisconsin, one of the more unpleasant things was, after having been part of the movement for 20 years, to be really excommunicated by the end of the year. And I was really struck by the way that their loyalty to Donald Trump became the hill that they wanted to die on. There are people who will inevitably say that I have betrayed the cause, I was labeled a “Judas goat,”; people believe that I am a turncoat, because I am not enthusiastically supporting Donald Trump. I look at them and go “how can you?” These were people who spoke out strongly against Trump earlier in the year, who understood that he was unfit, that he was erratic, that he was a conman, that he was a fraud, and yet somehow they have now talked themselves into thinking that he’s our great leader. So we’re definitely out of sync, and there’s been a high personal cost and I’m sorry to say that a lot of friendships and relationships are now broken.
DP: But do you feel that the mainstream media has been receptive to your movement and what you have to say in general?
CS: Yes, very much so, and I appreciate that I’ve been treated extremely fairly. It’s somewhat ironic, when I was a conservative talk show host, I was, you know, a conservative talk show host who was easily ignored, and now suddenly I have a wider audience. Really since last spring, I don’t think I have been treated unfairly in a single interview that I’ve done, I will often tweet out that I’m quoted accurately in a story, so as far as I’m concerned, the media has been extremely fair.
DP: Have you been keeping up with the conservative media? Especially other radio hosts? And now that you’re no longer part of it all, how do you feel about the state of conservative media?
CS: It’s embarrassing what it’s become. Back in Wisconsin, some of the conservative radio hosts turned on me because I must’ve never been a conservative if I didn’t support Donald Trump. This is one of the themes of my book: what happened to the conservative media? How it morphed into an alternative reality silo, not just an echo chamber, with its own set of facts and narratives, and how tolerant it was of propaganda and of hoaxes. I devote several chapters of my book to what was the fundamental betrayal of the conservative movement by people like Rush Limbaugh, who pursued the popularity of the Trump movement rather than hold up his hand and say, “People, this is crazy!” We have all of these other choices, why would we do this? This failure of thought leadership and this failure of principle was pretty appalling. So I think that when it mattered the most the conservative media betrayed its listeners.
DP: So you feel that the conservative media is partially to blame for the rise of Donald Trump and for the Republican party’s embrace of populism?
CS: Yes, hugely. I think that between Fox News, conservative talk radios, the online networks centered on Breitbart, they went all in on Trumpism and created for him what is now the news state media.
DP: When do you believe that the Republican party first showed signs of embracing populism?
CS: Well, that’s an interesting question. Part of this book was my attempt at doing an autopsy, going back and asking, “What the hell just happened?” How far back does this go? Did Donald Trump take over an otherwise healthy political party, or was he a symptom of something? Ultimately, I’ve concluded that the dysfunction was a preexisting condition, and a lot of this went back a long way. It’s hard to pinpoint all of the things, but was it the moment, in terms of alternative facts, when publications like the Drudge Report began linking to conspiracy sites like Alex Jones’ InfoWars, which is the worst of the worst? Was it when Republicans decided that Sarah Palin should be their vice presidential nominee? I mean there’s a lot of moments where you can go back to and go, “Okay, that was a warning sign.” When the Tea Party morphed into a perpetual outrage machine that was more focused on what it was against than what it was for … I mean there were populist strains in the party going back to the 1970s, there were people who toyed around with the idea of George Wallace. But ultimately that was rejected, and most of those extremist ideas were rejected. So the question is, “What happened in 2016 that the immune system totally collapsed?” It’s like the human body, you always have the viruses and bacteria that are around you, but what happens when it invades and takes over? And I think that the story of conservative media bubble is really central to that story.
DP: Do you think that the Republican leadership has by now hopelessly embraced the fringe extremes of their party, or do you think that there’s any way for the Republican party to go forward?
CS: You know, this feels like the week where their capitulation to Donald Trump feels complete. The President endorsed Roy Moore, a candidate who’s an accused child molester, and the Republican National Committee reverses its decision and goes all in. The Republicans are rallying around the tax plan, so that feels as though there’s no resistance to Trump anymore. Does that mean that they’re embracing all of the extreme positions, though? You embrace Trump, you embrace all the baggage. You have now enabled and empowered all of the things that he has done and said, his comments about Charlottesville, his wink-wink to the alt-right. This is the price tag that you pay in this Faustian bargain. You sell your soul to the Devil, you get what you want, your heart’s desire, but then you find out that the price was way higher than what you thought it was. Even the Republicans who are capitulating to Trump deny that they are embracing those darker, more extreme elements, but they’re complicit in them. So I think it’s going to be very hard to wipe the taint of that off of conservatives. How do Republicans come back to young people and women? To Hispanic Americans, to African Americans, to Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, and say, “Hey, we’re on your side! We’re open and inclusive, that wasn’t us!” Well, it was you! You embraced all of this. I spent most of 2016 saying, “Don’t do this, you don’t understand what you’ll be doing to yourself for a generation, if you embrace these things.”
DP: What has your reaction been when you see prominent Republicans like Lindsey Graham speaking out against Trump and then either voting in accordance with his wishes or supporting him later?
CS: Well, I understand the people who will denounce Trump but then say, “Hey, I’m still a conservative Republican, this doesn’t mean that I’m going to vote against what I believe to be conservative legislation.” And I think it’s somewhat unfair to expect them to vote against conservative proposals. But going back to Lindsey Graham, did you see the video tape last week? That was classic. He says, “You know, the problem with the media is that they’re trying to portray the President as a kook who’s not fit to be in office” and then cue the tape of him saying, “He’s a cook, he’s not fit for office.” This is what I don’t understand. How do you go from recognizing that the man is unfit for office in early 2016 to now being a cheerleader and an enabler? That’s part of the trajectory, it’s a political party that has embraced someone after Access Hollywood. After he bragged about sexually assaulting women and is today embracing a candidate who has been accused of molesting children … so you have this long line of decline. You swallow this, which makes it easier to swallow this, and the people who have raised their hands against this, like former President George Bush, John McCain, Bob Corker and Jeff Flake all denounced what Trump was doing, but there was just complete silence from everyone else. These are the voices of decency but they’re all on the way out the door. The Republicans who might’ve agreed with them in private didn’t speak out. So that was, in so many ways, a defining moment for the party.
DP: Do you have any suggestions for the way forward for the conservative movement?
CS: The conservative movement, as distinct from the Republican party, can move forward. Donald Trump doesn’t discredit ideas. If freedom is a good idea, if limited government is a good idea, then they remain unsullied. I would say the same thing that I’ve been saying for a while, when this is over, if conservatives want to be taken seriously, they’re going to have to be able to say that they were not complicit in Trumpism. They’ll need to go back to first principles, even if that means they won’t be popular and never be on Fox News again. Even if Breitbart denounces them. Ultimately, I think history is going to vindicate the people who were able to stand principle rather than get on board the train.