Conservative in the Wilderness

Charlie Sykes was a right-wing radio star. Then Trump won.

Then-candidate Donald Trump makes a speech at a campaign rally on March 5, 2016, in Wichita, Kansas.

J Pat Carter/Getty Images

For more than two decades, Charlie Sykes was one of the leading conservative voices on Wisconsin talk radio. But in 2016, he became alarmed by the rise of Donald Trump, and even more alarmed when his audience seemed to be much more Trumpian than he ever thought possible. Now, after leaving the world of right-wing talk, he has written a new book, How The Right Lost Its Mind, in which he seeks to explain how nativism and racism took over the Republican Party. (It’s quite a departure from one of his previous books, A Nation of Moochers: America’s Addiction to Getting Something for Nothing; he also once referred to Michelle Obama as a “mooch.”)

While harshly critical of many aspects of the GOP’s post-Reagan existence, Sykes—now a contributor at MSNBC—nevertheless remains a staunch conservative. I spoke by phone with him several times last week. During the course of our conversations, which have been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how the GOP has used racism in the past, why Trump is nonetheless different than other Republicans, and why Sykes said what he did about Michelle Obama.

Isaac Chotiner: Do you view Trump as a symptom of the GOP of the past quarter-century or as a cause of the GOP’s woes?

Charlie Sykes: I think it’s a little bit of both, but there’s no question that the dysfunction in the Republican Party was a pre-existing condition; otherwise this party never would have embraced Donald Trump. He did not just drop out of the sky on an otherwise rational, coherent political movement. I suppose it would be the recessive gene of Republicanism that he exploited.

Your book, though, is not saying let’s go back to the happy days of Rockefeller Republicanism. You’re more conservative than that. So where did the party go wrong?

Obviously there were a lot of strains of this that go back through all of that conservative history. There’s nothing that’s really completely untainted. I am somewhat nostalgic for the era in which William F. Buckley was a thought leader, rather than say Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter, but it’s hard to ignore some of the more unfortunate elements of Buckleyism, including some of his racial attitudes.

There was always the paranoid strain in American politics, particularly on the right. For years, I think we kept that contained, but I think that containment was broken in the last several decades. I think that there was a certain amount of complacency about who these fringe elements were, how influential they were. I know the analogy is grossly overused, but: It is the bigoted uncle at Thanksgiving. You know he’s there, but you just don’t think he’s that influential and you look away. You ignore him. Then of course you find out that he’s a lot more influential than you imagined.

You present Buckley pretty positively in the book, but there are also these aspect to him about race, about Apartheid.

Which I mention in the book.

You do mention it, but I am wondering: You said that it had been “contained.” What is the inherent problem with a right-wing party, if there is one, where all these ideas have to be contained? Is there something about the ideology itself that makes these ideas so prevalent?

I actually don’t know the answer to that question. That’s interesting. Look, the reality is, and I’m not saying that it’s necessarily equivalent, but every political movement has its crazy fringes. I mean you have them on the left as well as the right. There was a moment in the late 1940s when the Americans for Democratic Action was formed to basically say, “Hey, we are not communists, and we’re pushing that out.”

William F. Buckley, in the 1960s, pushed out or attempted to push out the John Birchers and the KKK, to say, “We’re not that big a tent.” Are these things inherent in an ideology? I don’t know. I mean if my view of conservatism is correct, and there’s a legitimate question about that of course, that it’s about constitutionalism, limited government, personal responsibility, free markets, does that imply bizarre conspiracy theories? I don’t think so.

Buckley did criticize [Birch Society founder] Robert Welch, but he also tried to remain in the good graces of Birchers, no?

I think that’s true, but the real contrast that I try to draw in the book is between this era in which there were responsible gatekeepers who said, “All right. Here are the bright lines. Here are some bright lines.” Those gatekeepers no longer exist. As a result, some of the, I would say, the residents of crazy town, who we thought had been marginalized, made their return to center stage last year.

By the way, it’s one thing to say, OK, Robert Welch is a complete nut job and a conspiracy theorist and he’s going to discredit our cause, versus rejecting the ideas but not rejecting the people. I think that’s what you’re getting at there. I think that’s part of the problem that the right has made, which is that I think that too many conservatives turned a blind eye to some of this because, bottom line, they wanted their votes. They were relying on people who had these attitudes. They could reject the attitudes, but they wanted those votes to continue to win elections. That was a calculation.

One problem for the people in Congress who I would say represent not a Trumpian conservatism but a real Republican conservatism is that their views seem less popular with the voters than the sort of Trumpian views. Do you think that kind of a “purer” conservatism can be popular again?

Well, that’s a really good point and an important point. I think one of the things that we realized in the last couple of years is that fiscally conservative, small-government conservatism was a much smaller group of the electorate than we had imagined. I think this has been one of the problems for a long time: When people talk about, “We’re going to cut the entitlement programs,” or “We’re going to have massive slashes in the budget,” these things are not that popular. There’s no question about it that the juice in the conservative movement is very much with the populist, nativist, nationalist wing as opposed to the free-market wing of the party. When I describe conservatives as being in the wilderness, it’s a recognition of the fact that we were just not as numerous as we had imagined, even within the Republican Party.

I would argue that at some level the party needs to embrace the welfare state in some form. You probably need to have the Trumpian populism or the bigotry or the welfare state if you want to form a coalition.

Yes. [A] coalition had appeared to be intact up until last year. I do think that when non-Trumpian conservatives step back, that there are a lot of these principles that need to be rethought, including the zombie conservatism that I think we’ve seen, which applies policies that we’ve been talking about in the ’70s and ’80s to every single circumstance. I’m a conservative who likes small government and lower taxes. Does that mean that tax cuts are always the answer to every problem, that you would apply the same sort of policies to 2017 that you would apply to 1981, despite the fact that the world is a completely different place? I think that there’s got to be a much more modest conservatism that recognizes the reality on the ground.

This comes to issues like health care and other issues that we’ve been wrestling with. Do you understand how people’s lives will be affected? Or are you just sort of in this zombie lockstep?

Let me ask you then, because every psychological or political social science experiment you see shows how much partisanship drives how we think about things: Has your kind of awakening about Trump and the Republican Party changed the way you react either rationally or emotionally to other things? Like if you’re following a debate on ending Obamacare, which I’m sure you were never a big fan of, do you find yourself emotionally reacting to it in a different way than you would have five years ago, even though maybe your ideology about health care and the free market hasn’t actually changed?

Yes. Very much so. The shock of Trumpism has made me rethink what the conservative movement was about and who our allies were, and what our assumptions were. So yes, I do. And once you step out of the echo chamber, once you step out of the bubble, it’s kind of liberating. I actually find it’s incredibly liberating to break out of the chrysalis of having to defend the tribe.

I was a strong critic of Obamacare, but I’m able to step back and go, OK: Are we seriously going to blow this thing up when they were voting on it, without having any hearings, without having any discussions? Do you understand how this will affect people’s lives? I do find that if you step back, and if you’re no longer invested in tribal loyalty, you’ll have a very different perspective, both intellectually and emotionally.

You also take some swipes at liberals for basically calling conservatives racist forever. Your argument seems to be not liberals were right, though, but rather that being called racist for so long had a bad effect on conservatives.

I think one of the shocks of 2016 was the fact that you have a presidential candidate who is engaging in implicit and explicit racial rhetoric, aligning himself with some of the darkest elements of society, and yet when people pointed this out, there was no reaction [on the right]. Why?

I’m old enough to remember when that would have been disqualifying. This is where I come back to, and I understand there’s a lot of resistance to this, but you have to understand from the conservative base, the race card had been played so relentlessly, so promiscuously that it had lost its power. If John McCain was a racist, if Mitt Romney was a racist, if George Bush was a racist, then … If every conservative who supported conservative policies was a racist, then when the real thing comes along, what do you call him? How do you recognize it?

So what happened was, I think, there was a numbing effect. On the one hand: “OK, this again?” Because we’ve heard this for 50 years. But also then a numbing, sort of defensive numbing, to not recognize the bigots in our midst. If you’re constantly accused of being racist, there’s a certain point at which the conservative reaction was complete denial.

I get what you’re saying, but at the same time it wasn’t like Trump was hiding his racism.


It wasn’t like only liberals were saying it and it had to be discovered and this was hindering the discovery process.

Oh, absolutely not. See this was my life for a year and a half, where I’m on the air, as a conservative talk-show host, saying this man is actually every stereotype that the left has had of racist and xenophobic, misogynist conservatives. You’re not really going to embrace him, are you? Yet the response I got was people saying, “Well, yes, but that’s what they always say.”

As I say in the book, a political party that had taken these racial issues more seriously never would have embraced Donald Trump, but obviously they had cultivated indifference to this, this racial language and racist tropes, and you saw the consequences.

Calling John McCain racist is not the best approach, sure, but given that we got Trump, doesn’t it seem like liberals were right that it was worth people paying attention to the Republicans and race and racial strains in the party? Given that it led to Trump, it seems like someone should have been commenting on it, right?

Well, yes. [Laughs.]

You were a talk-radio host for many years. How many years?

About 23.

When you were doing conservative talk radio for 23 years, what did you feel was the message that your audience wanted you to send about race?

[Long pause, exhales loudly.] What did the audience want to hear about race?

I mean, you’re talking to the base of the party every day for 23 years.

I think it’s complicated, because of course this is one of the things that maybe I didn’t understand. Maybe I didn’t understand what my audience really wanted to hear, considering the fact that they went in a completely different direction than I went during this election.

You know, I’m not sure how to answer your question, telling you what other people wanted to hear. You know, we tried to talk about racial issues in a different way. I advocated policies that I thought would actually lead to more social justice but from a conservative point of view. I tried to distinguish myself from the Rush Limbaughs of the world, but I also understood that there were folks on the left who did not want to make that distinction, who thought that we all sounded alike and we all were in lockstep. I think that’s unfortunate that they didn’t fully understand that when we advocated for certain things, it was not because of some racial animus.

Now southeastern Wisconsin is one of the most racially segregated areas in the country. The reality is that much of our base I don’t think was engaged on racial issues. I think many of them were essentially indifferent to many of the problems of race. But it came up a lot less than I think you might expect. I mean it did. I’m not saying it didn’t.

Your book was called A Nation of Moochers, and I found this quote about you calling Michelle Obama a “mooch” on air. That came across like a wink at your audience. What do you make of it now?

Yeah, that was … I am certainly not proud of that at all. And it only happened once, and frankly I thought that it was … who knows, you know, it was a brain-fart type thing. I think I had heard someone use that on another show and I thought that it was a common parlance and I was immediately informed, “Why would you do that? It is fundamentally disrespectful.” So I never did it again. That is something I am not offering any rationalization for. Yeah, sorry about that. This is of course a problem doing 5,000 shows over 20 years, 3½ hours a day. You will say stupid things, and that was one of them.

Because we were talking about the ways in which we play into things.

Is there a gap between what people heard and how they were reacting to that? In retrospect, I don’t know. Was that something that was fostering some sort a stereotype that I might not have been conscious of at the time? I was just being flip. Those are the type of things where you go back and say, “What did I say that might have been heard in that particular way?”

So you didn’t intend it to be a racial stereotype about a lazy black woman, but you think that’s how people might have heard it?

It’s the kind of thing that was certainly not constructive, yeah.

When you look at the title of your book, do you think that was a brain fart? How much of the stuff that you did, do you in hindsight see a signal?

Look, I definitely did not intend that to be a racial connotation, but I can understand how people might misinterpret it. That book, for example, at least half of it is about corporate welfare and Goldman Sachs, and that sort of thing. In retrospect, I can understand how if people were looking for that type of a signal, they might have interpreted it that way. That is part of the rethinking I am doing here.

Are you still close with Scott Walker?

I’m pretty much in exile from a lot of conservatives. That doesn’t mean that, you know that I couldn’t reach out or anything, but I wouldn’t describe myself as close with anyone on the Republican side right now.

Scott Walker and a bunch of other Republican governors have pushed voter restrictions based on the idea that lots of people are voting illegally, and it’s clear that some of this is aimed at driving down the rates of nonwhite voters. What are your feelings about that now?

I think that some of the concerns about … Look, I think voter integrity is a legitimate issue. But if any policy is aimed to actually suppress the vote, then it is fundamentally anti-democratic and I think there needs to be some real rethinking of that.

I’m really concerned about the stories that you hear out of places like North Carolina, that it was intentionally designed to do that. Those are the kinds of things that need to be confronted and they need to be rolled back. Secondly, what Trump is trying to do by lying about voter fraud and this commission ought to be a red flag about what their intentions are. Again, I don’t know for sure, but the fact that you actually now have a voter fraud commission that was launched based on one of Donald Trump’s lies is extremely disturbing.