Charles J. Sykes joins us this week for a discussion on the origins of the populist, pro‐Trump Right.
What happened to the conservative intellectual infrastructure that was so robust in William F. Buckley, Jr.‘s time? Why does it seem like politics now is more about attitude and tribal loyalty than ideas and discourse? How do groups like the Tea Party and media personalities like Ann Coulter fit into this narrative?
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Charles J. Sykes, the author of eight books on current affairs including A Nation of Victims. He is the former long time host of the number one conservative talk radio show in Wisconsin. In December 2016 the stepped down, writing in The New York Times, “The conservative media is broken and the conservative movement deeply compromised.” He’s now a regular contributor to MSNBC. [00:00:30] His new book is How The Right Lost Its Mind. Welcome to Free Thoughts Charlie.
Charles Sykes: Good to be with you.
Trevor Burrus: We’re recording this on November 7th, 2017, which means it’s 364 days since the election of the Donald Trump to the presidency. Before we get too much into the details, in a nutshell what happened? And, how surprised were you?
Charles Sykes: Well, that was one of the reasons why I wrote the book, was to step back and ask myself, what the hell just did happen [00:01:00] to us? What happened to us as the conservative movement? What happened to the Republican party? What happened to the country? It’s obviously a complicated story.
I was quite surprised that he won that election. I actually was thinking, trying to think back to what I was thinking about two days before the election. I’ll be honest with you, I was imagining that conservatives would have the opportunity to go off into the wilderness and to rethink our fundamental values and present a more [00:01:30] or less unified critic on Clintonsim, but I did not see, I didn’t think that Donald Trump was going to win. Of course the whole last year has been an extraordinary intellectual and political adventure, hasn’t it?
Aaron Powell: Almost feels like conservatives still managed to end up off in the wilderness.
Charles Sykes: Well, okay, it did, and I do think that actual conservatives are really in the wilderness. As it turns out I think principled conservatives [00:02:00] who took many of the ideas, you know, small government, limited government, constitutionalism, seriously, we’re not only in the wilderness, we’re on a much smaller desert island than I was expecting.
Trevor Burrus: And your background, as you write about in the book, is a little different. You say that maybe one reason you weren’t so bewitched by populism and the stuff that came up with Donald Trump, is because you’re a product of the left.
Charles Sykes: Well, yes and now. I mean, part of it was I describe myself as a recovering liberal. My [00:02:30] father was a long time activist, so I didn’t come by my conservatism by birth. I came by my conservatism by a long process of thinking and reading, and going through the ideas. It wasn’t like being born into a church, it was something that I thought I understood.
During the 1970s liberalism became increasingly extreme, implausible to me. I thought reading the works of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and George [00:03:00] Will made a lot more sense to me than what we were seeing from mainstream leftism. So I guess in part it’s because I always took conservatism seriously, not as a tribal identity but as an idea, as a concept. I think one of the shocks of 2016 was realizing how in fact that intellectual element of conservatism was perhaps a much thinner crust [00:03:30] over the movement than I had expectance.
Trevor Burrus: Of course, right wing cranks and crackpots aren’t new to conservatism.
Charles Sykes: No.
Trevor Burrus: And you point out things like John Birch Society, antisemitism. Has it always had this undercurrent, I guess would be the right way of putting it?
Charles Sykes: Yes, it has. Two points to make about that. Number one, there was a time when the conservative movement had gatekeepers like William F Buckley Jr, who were able to excommunicate [00:04:00] those crackpots and those cranks. I go back into the 1960s, when he drew a red line about the extreme paranoia of the John Birch Society, when he expelled folks like the Ku Klux Klan. Not because he was squishy or because he was a rhino or because he didn’t take anti‐communism seriously, but because re recognized that those kinds of movements would deface conservatism, would make it impossible for the [00:04:30] movement to be taken seriously.
Fast forward to 2016, what we realize is there is no one with that moral authority, that intellectual authority, to act as a gatekeeper to exclude the cranks and the crackpots who made a recovery. But I will also admit, that’s the first point, the second point, I will admit that we always knew they were there but I always thought that they were on the fringes. I think that along with a lot of other conservatives, perhaps [00:05:00] we didn’t take their presence seriously enough. We didn’t push back on them enough. As a result, folks on the fringes made their way into the mainstream of at least the conservative movement last year.
Aaron Powell: Do you think that the people who pushed them into the mainstream, so the people who voted for Trump who hadn’t … especially a lot of them had been Obama voters before they were Trump voters. But do you think that the ideas and the moment [00:05:30] that they represent is a relatively new occurrence? Or do you think that they’ve always been a larger part of conservatism or the GOP than we suspected, and that just kind of catalyzed them in the 2016 moment?
Charles Sykes: That’s an excellent question. That’s one of the things that I wrestled with here. I think I would come down to [00:06:00] the latter explanation, that there was a lot there that we had ignored or missed. In part because the conservative movement was never quite as coherent and unified as we all thought it was, not that we all thought it was. But there were a lot of disparate elements that were held together under the big tent, during the Reagan years they were held together by anti‐communism and a variety of other, or anti‐Obamanism.
But the reality was the [00:06:30] real tensions in the conservative movement between social conservatives, libertarian conservatives, populist conservatives versus chamber of commerce conservatives. I think that for a long time the established Republican party had ignored the way in which its base had changed, including how blue collar its base had really become.
Trevor Burrus: I often say that in order to understand the modern conservative movement you have to understand it is a persecution movement. [00:07:00] My background, my parents were conservative, became more libertarian, not being religious, kind of moved us in the libertarians when I was growing up. But I did grow up saying the media’s left, Hollywood is left, public schools are left, universities are left, and these little shining lights of sanity out there, and we’re all being persecuted. I think that a lot of conservatives, since I would say William F Buckley, kind of developed a persecution movement. [00:07:30] But now that sensibility might have backfired it seems.
Charles Sykes: No, you’re exactly right. By the way, all those things that you said are true about that.
Trevor Burrus: Exactly.
Charles Sykes: I mean, everything you’re describing is in fact accurate. We see this on university campuses on a regular basis. But yeah, that persecution complex, that sense of being under siege is essential to understanding the conservative movement. As I write in [00:08:00] the book, the conservative movement, yes is reactionary, but it had something legitimate to react against. The overreach of the left, the browbeating of the left, all of those things. But you’re right, at some point the conservative movement seemed to have adopted the culture of victimization.
One of my early books that I wrote was called A Nation Of Victims, which argued that everybody in America at some time or another can claim victim status. Well, somewhere along the line conservatives [00:08:30] decided that they would like to play that victim card. That’s a constant theme, that they are under siege, they’re under attack, they’re looked down upon, they’re being insulted. You see that playing out in conservative media and conservative politics all the time.
Aaron Powell: I think one of the interesting that seemed to happen with that in 2016, the direction that took, Trump voters when they were asked why you’re voting for Trump. One of [00:09:00] the common things was that he, it was essentially that everyone hates him. Everyone I hate hates him so he must be doing something right. That the victimization turned into, “Well, my politics now are whatever will most upset the people I see as victimizing me.”
Charles Sykes: That is exactly right. I think it’s important to understand that my book does not beat up on everybody that voted for Donald Trump, I want to make that clear, that they are not the ones necessarily who lost their minds, [00:09:30] because many of them I think did think it was a binary choice. But what you’re describing is exactly right, the conservatives really became very clear about what they were opposed to and who they hated, less so focus on what they were for. But that tribal identity cannot be overstated.
The way in which conservatism became basically not so much pro‐liberty as anti‐leftism, is also part of the story. Anti‐leftism [00:10:00] is basically, everything we do is about liberal tears. If the left is upset about it then it must by definition be right. If somebody on the left hates someone, they must by definition be doing something right. Well, that’s deeply satisfying for a long period of time, but as you point out there comes a point where it goes, okay, maybe this got out of control. Maybe now suddenly our desire to [00:10:30] annoy the left has led us into a cul‐de‐sac that’s going to be very, very hard for us to extricate ourselves from.
Trevor Burrus: You point out in the book that some people did seem to predict this. You particularly Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, who predicted a populist element to the conservative movement, including leaving behind the working class. But the one that really struck me was you quote Kevin Phillips writing in the 1970s.
The quote is, “Then there are other conservatives, many I know, [00:11:00] who have more in common with Andrew Jackson than Edmund Burke. Their hope is to build a cultural siege cannon out of the populist steel of Idaho, Mississippi and working class Milwaukee, and then blast the eastern liberal establishment to ideo‐institutional smithereens.” That is a quote that could have been written yesterday by Trump supported. So maybe we should have been listening to some of these people, or picked up on the currents that they were pointing out at least.
Charles Sykes: You know of all the interviews I’ve given, you’re the first person that picked that [00:11:30] quote out. I remember when I read that, I really sat back and went, “Wow.” These are the 1970s. We are talking about something that happened, what, it was written 40 years ago. So many of the roots of this dissatisfaction were much deeper. I have to admit that, particularly when I read some of the work of the reformicons, Ross Douthat and others, I did ask myself, “Why [00:12:00] didn’t we pay attention?” These things were out there, people going, “Hey, understand that there’s a real gap here between much of the grassroots and the quote‐unquote elites,” a word that I by the way dislike more and more all the time.
But what was it that caused us to brush that aside? I think it’s because we had gotten so caught up in our hyper partisanship. Everything was about winning the next election and when you are [00:12:30] just focused on winning that next election and causing liberal tears, then you’re less willing to ask the tough questions about, what does it mean to be a conservative? Why are conservatives supporting this particular program? Why are we not talking about something else? We, as conservatives, did not I think engage in the kind of introspection over the years that probably would have helped us avoid the Trumpocalypse.
Aaron Powell: [00:13:00] How much of this declining influence on the part of the conservative elite is a result of shifts in the media landscape and the technology of media? That for decades up until very recently, your main source of news and opinion on political issues was outlets that were controlled by, and populated by, those elites. You know, the National Review and its ilk. But [00:13:30] then the internet and particularly social media switched, it allowed more fringe voices, so maybe Alex Jones is an extreme example, to reach much larger audiences.
I wonder, not just how much of an impact that had in dragging people away from the elite opinion, but also whether that was a change that the elites almost didn’t notice until it was too late? I think they just assumed for years, “We speak [00:14:00] and everyone’s listening.” And then suddenly people weren’t really listening anymore while they went on speaking.
Charles Sykes: You know, we could spend the whole show talking about this because that transformation really I think goes to the heart of what happened. One of the most interesting things that I came across that surprised me as I was doing the book was the realization that back in the 1980s, during the Reagan era, the golden age of conservatism, [00:14:30] conservative media pretty much didn’t exist. The conservative ecosystem that we now have was not there. There was not conservative talk radio to speak of.
The Fairness Doctrine was not repealed until the end of really almost at the end of the Reagan administration. So all you had was, if you were a conservative you have National Review, perhaps you would read the American Spectator, or you would read the Wall Street Journal editorial page. But that was pretty much it. What we think of as the conservative [00:15:00] media didn’t come until after. You know, Rush Limbaugh, 1987, 1988, Fox News did not go on the air until 1996. You didn’t have Breitbart I think until 2006. So all of that is very, very recent. Going back to your question, yeah, I think that you did have a conservative intellectual infrastructure that thought that conservatism was defined by National Review, Weekly Standard, Commentary [00:15:30] Magazine, Wall Street Journal editorial pages.
These were the things that I read, I’m going to make that clear. I was one of these people and we thought that that was what conservatism was about, when in fact the center of gravity had changed dramatically and permanently perhaps. Clearly the influence of Fox News and talk radio can’t be overstated. They became the gatekeepers for the conservative movement, so that you had this very dramatic book ending, [00:16:00] where in the mid‐1960s William F Buckley Jr and National Review had the power and the authority to expel the John Birch Society. But in early 2016 when National Review Magazine, again Buckley’s magazine, devoted an entire issue to stopping Donald Trump, it was brushed off like a gnat. It had no impact whatsoever. I think that those bookends tell you how dramatically the center of gravity had changed in the conservative media.
Trevor Burrus: [00:16:30] It’s interesting that the conservative history, going back to Buckley and National Review, is this sort of escape, escape from the mainstream. So start your own magazine, and then when conservatives control media, when you had Walter Cronkite and the three networks, we’re going to go to talk radio and then we’re all going to start our own news channel, and then we’re also going to start think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and to a lesser extent Cato insofar as we have conservative leanings.
All [00:17:00] this stuff, where if you’re not going to listen to us we’re going to do our own thing. Maybe we could look at the Alex Jones analytics right, Breitbart is another example of that, because the old counterculture becomes the establishment, so now the establishment is National Review, it’s no longer the counterculture. Alex Jones is doing what National Review did back in the 60s, he’s telling a different narrative than what the conservative establishment wants you to believe.
Charles Sykes: Well yes, but [00:17:30] of course the original media was in fact reality based and fact based, as opposed to Alex Jones.
Trevor Burrus: Well there are those facts things, that’s true. That’s an important distinction.
Charles Sykes: Yeah, but the story you tell is fascinating because it’s basically the story of my career up until now. I was part of everything you have describe. When I got into conservative talk radio in the early 1990s, I thought it was an incredibly exciting and important thing to create an alternative counter [00:18:00] media to the mainstream media. This was a remarkably important and I thought hopeful development. Of course then you had the blogs and the internet and all of these competing voices that broke the monopoly on information of the mainstream media and democratized it. All of this is good. This was some things that I champion.
At the same time, you had this explosion of [00:18:30] think tanks, the development of an intellectual infrastructure that I was also very, very close to. I was very good friends with some of the people at the Bradley Foundation. I affiliated myself with local think tanks here in Wisconsin. This was an exciting period of time, where the left no longer had a monopoly on ideas, and it no longer had a monopoly on communication. So again, now we come up to [00:19:00] where we’re at. You did have this transition, where you did have these new voices, I would argue less responsible, less serious voices.
You did have what I describe as the grifter class, who became part of the business of talk radio, the business of cable television. I think a lot of those people were less interested in ideas than they were in clicks and ratings and fundraising. [00:19:30] This new generation I think was much more open to the kind of demagoguery that we saw last year than the previous generation. I think the original generation was interested in ideas, had a real vision for the country, was really grounded in principles, but that they were eventually replaced by a media infrastructure with very different incentives and very different priorities.
Trevor Burrus: There are some ideas, maybe [00:20:00] so much Trump’s, but I guess nationalism is an idea.
Charles Sykes: Yes.
Trevor Burrus: It has a long pedigree of people defending it, some monstrous people but maybe some fairly smart people, people who think that there has to be some homogeneity in a society and things like that. That’s an idea.
Aaron Powell: Yeah but I don’t think the nationalism we’re seeing now is even idea based. It’s not like these people are‐
Trevor Burrus: It’s probably not.
Aaron Powell: … pointing back to Carl Schmitt. It’s more [00:20:30] just gut reactions and fear. I don’t see even ideas in that.
Trevor Burrus: But even when it comes to ideas, Charlie you mentioned our friends down the street, the Heritage Foundation, you put some blame onto.
Charles Sykes: Considerable blame. Let me just address that point because I do think that … here’s where guys like us, and I mean the three of us, I think we’re at a disadvantage sometimes because we actually think of politics in terms of ideas and policies [00:21:00] and the consequences of those policies.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, we’re naïve, I know.
Charles Sykes: Whereas it turns out that for a lot of Americans politics is now more about attitude than about those specific ideas. It’s about the tribal loyalty. It is that gut visceral sense. So yes, you can … and there are quote‐unquote intellectuals who will try to put a veneer of ideas over some of this, but I think that that’s ex post facto reasoning. You asked me about the [00:21:30] Heritage Foundation and I do have a chapter devoted to the switch that they made. You start of by understanding how crucial the Heritage Foundation was in the intellectual development of the conservative movement, particularly of Reaganism.
So they played a very particular role, but somewhere along the line they decided that it wasn’t enough for them to be intellectual leaders, they had to be activists. I do think the moment when they decided that they were going to be [00:22:00] players was one of those decisive moments in conservatism. Where I think that rather than being this very serious substantive source of conservative ideas and information, not always right, I don’t agree with everything they’ve ever done. But at least you, I mean I certainly remember writing books where I relied very heavily on some very thoughtful research they did.
Trevor Burrus: Absolutely.
Charles Sykes: Then they bring Jim DeMint, who decides to make it a [00:22:30] political, to weaponize it politically, and basically turned themselves into an arm of what I’ve called the perpetual outrage machine. Where you’re pushing for government shutdowns, and you’re beating up on politicians who don’t embrace this tactic or that tactic. That was a decisive move from the conservative movement being policy based to being anger based, and we’ve seen the consequences [00:23:00] of that as well.
Aaron Powell: How does the Tea Party fit into all of this?
Charles Sykes: That’s one of the … That’s a heartbreaking story for me because just like our discussion of the conservative media, I was a big fan of the Tea Party when it first came on, grew up. I thought of it as incredibly hopeful development, a grassroots development. But in very short order I remember asking myself at the time, “Okay, who are these people who claim [00:23:30] to be representing the Tea Party?” All these organizations that were out there, who were raising money and calling themselves Tea Party this or Tea Party that, many of them in retrospect turning out to be scam pacts.
This was a movement that I think had legitimate concerns, was actually, I think in many ways a spontaneous uprising of conservatives. But it was hijacked by grifters and charlatans. [00:24:00] I know that they’re often blamed for other things that have happened, but if you listen to what the Tea Party folks were saying, they really were pushing back against the government that was out of control, a debt that was a massive inter‐generational transfer of wealth. You kind of wonder where those original folks are today.
Trevor Burrus: Ann Coulter. I have to ask you about her because she’s fascinated me for a long time. I met her briefly once. [00:24:30] You talked about going on television I think with her at one point. For her, she’s always struck me as fascinating. I can’t decide if she actually believes what she says. I sometimes call her an anti‐Tinkerbell, which is, you know, you have to clap to keep Tinkerbell alive, you have to hate her to keep her alive.
That actually gives her strength. But she was one of the first Trump supported, and she actually had a line, which I had never seen, you write in the book. She said that Trump could perform abortions in the White [00:25:00] house as long as he kept the immigrants out. So, was she always this way? Was she always in the Trump camp? I guess the second question is, do you think we should take her, or people like her, seriously, as actual thinkers? Or are they playing an act more than actually thinking deeply about problems?
Charles Sykes: You know, one variation of my book, How The Right Lost Its Mind, would have been to take a series of biographies of certain people [00:25:30] and trace how they changed. She would be one of them, because there was a time, and I could be naïve here, where I actually thought she was a relatively serious thinker. I think she’s incredibly bright.
Trevor Burrus: Me too, me too.
Charles Sykes: I think she’s an incredibly effective writer. But, somewhere along the line she did become the prisoner of her own shtick. But more disturbing was [00:26:00] the way that she kept escalating and raising the ante of really, and I don’t want to sound like a liberal here, but I mean really offensive, over the top rhetoric. Including the column she wrote after 9/11 that got her fired from National Review, about basically going into all the Muslim countries and bombing them and converting to Christianity and things like that.
Some of the other things that she seems to revel … she seems to revel in doing [00:26:30] things that are specifically designed to make people hat her, specifically designed to outrage folks. At a certain point that’s less thoughtfulness than it is shtick. So I honestly can’t get into her head, and I’ve been on many shows with her, or several, whether she believes all of this. She’s certainly intense about everything she says, but I do wonder about a kind of conservative that is [00:27:00] more a brand, branding themselves, selling a brand, than it engaging in anything that’s going to enlighten us.
Aaron Powell: I wonder how much that point plays out in the broader picture, because for a while there was, on the internet there were the clickbait‐y headlines. It was like that website, like Upworthy, that would always be‐
Aaron Powell: They don’t seem to be as much a thing, but maybe I’m better at filtering.
Trevor Burrus: I think Facebook killed Upworthy, but [00:27:30] yeah.
Aaron Powell: So it was basically manipulating you, it was like, “10 things that do X, and you won’t believe number five,” or whatever else. They figured out that certain things kept people engaged, kept people tuned in or clicking. It seems like the conservative outrage machine, and as represented by people like Ann Coulter who might be playing a character because it works and gets ratings, that almost ratings became [00:28:00] the thing you chased, and that as a result it broke a generation to some extent. I remember seeing someone on Twitter wrote, I can’t remember who it is so I can’t give them credit, but they said, “Fox News did to our parents what our parents feared violent video games would do to us.”
Charles Sykes: I had not seen that.
Trevor Burrus: That’s really good.
Charles Sykes: I do think there is something to that. We became addicted to it so [00:28:30] that getting the clicks, getting the ratings, winning the elections, became the end in and of itself. It’s the self justification. Jump ahead here, in terms of branding and being the ultimate click bait politician, is anybody more clickbait‐y than the current President of the United States? Who basically figured out that, “Okay, I may not have a coherent philosophy of governing, but I have a brand to sell and I know how to [00:29:00] use social media to hook people.” That’s very much part of the story of 2016 and 2017.
Trevor Burrus: Now we’ve been blaming the right a lot, and of course they deserve a ton of blame, but what about the left? There are things that they’re not, many things that they’re not particularly good at. They have their own problems. One that has been written about a lot and you highlight is the crying wolf problem. For example that they spent the last, [00:29:30] whatever, 40 years labeling every Republican as a racist idiot basically, or racist, just basically a racist.
Charles Sykes: Yeah, bigots.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. Oligarchical racist. Romney had the most insane things written about him. I can’t remember who you cite from the left who’ve kind of had a mea culpa, where they said, “Okay, I called Romney a oligarchic racist and maybe that was a little bit over the top, [00:30:00] because then someone actually came along like that and we had a problem where suddenly we’re crying wolf the entire time.” That seems to be a problem. What other things, that, and other things that the left might have a blame for this?
Charles Sykes: I’m really glad you brought this up because first of all there’s a huge amount of pushback from the left about that. When I basically said, you understand why there was so little reaction to the alt‐ [00:30:30] right in 2016? It’s because you guys have been making this allegation. I will tell you that I get a lot of criticism from left wing media on particularly this point.
They want to be told that because of course their narrative is that, no, conservatism has always been awful. It’s always been sexist. It’s always been xenophobic. It’s always been dumb. And Donald Trump is the perfect expression of conservatism. Everyone that’s a conservative is directly responsible [00:31:00] for Donald Trump. This is the left wing argument that you get right now. But there’s no question about it, and I try to make this point whenever I possibly can when I appear on liberal media, which is again, understand that if you have called John McCain a racist, if you have called George W Bush a racist, if you have called every single person, every conservative for the last 50 years, if you have called them a racist, don’t be surprised when playing the race card is met [00:31:30] with a shoulder shrug, an eye roll and, “This again.”
This became the left’s way of telling conservatives, “You’re bad people. Shut up. We’re not taking you seriously.” As a result, as you point out, when the real thing comes along, and the alt‐right is the real thing, they were out of ammunition. They didn’t have any words.
Trevor Burrus: Really, really racist, yes.
Charles Sykes: These are the, “No, no. No, no, really, seriously guys, these are the real racists.” Yeah, right.
Trevor Burrus: White Supremacists, yes.
Charles Sykes: But the flip side, is [00:32:00] that we conservatives, and I put myself in this category, I think we’d been numb to it. That we had been so used to basically saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” that we really kind of ignored the fact that there were some pretty scary folks over on our side, and we didn’t do anything about them. We didn’t call them out, because they were our allies, let’s be honest about it. They voted with us in elections, so what was the point of picking a fight with them?
Trevor Burrus: I think if you were existing [00:32:30] in the conservative intellectual class, you may have believed that the party was a party of ideas, as has been said before in National Review and all these things were representative of it but that might not have been the case. You write about a specific caller when you were talking about a candidate in Wisconsin I believe, who said that maybe we should deport all Muslims. You had a call‐in show about that and what happened after, when you had [00:33:00] that call‐in show?
Charles Sykes: Yeah, I think he was actually running in the Republican primary against Paul Ryan. He was the Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, Breitbart‐endorsed candidate. Donald Trump had actually said nice things about this guy, his name was Paul Nehlen. At one point he suggested that we should seriously consider deporting all Muslims, including American citizens. Now, I wanted to open up the phone lines because I thought, “Okay now, people will recognize [00:33:30] what an un‐American idea this is.
This is one where maybe the audience will be on the same page and we’ll understand that conservatives can be concerned about illegal immigration and everything, the war on terror, but we are not going to be rounding up our neighbors because of their religion.” One of the first callers, out of the box and I still remember this vividly, Audrey from Oshkosh, who said, “No, you know what, we need to think about this and compare them basically to [00:34:00] Pit Bulls, there may be good Pit Bulls but the breed itself is pretty dangerous.” I will admit to you, and I know that some folks will think I’m terribly naïve, I was really shocked.
I was shocked that there were the people out there who would not only agree with this idea, but then would agree so strongly they would call into my show, which was a 50,000 watch show in the state of Wisconsin, and articulate why we ought to basically have a religious [00:34:30] test and expel people of a certain faith. I won’t say it was the first time I realized, but I did have to sit back and go, “Okay, who are these people?” I thought I understood who our allies were. Had they been listening to me for the last 20 years? Did I say anything that led them to think that this would be an appropriate use of government power? Were there certain themes that I should have emphasized more? [00:35:00] Should we have called these folks out? I still don’t know the answers to those questions.
Aaron Powell: How much of that is demographic and geographical isolation? We know that those areas of the country where people have the most contact with immigrants, whether those are Muslims or Hispanic immigrants, tend to be the most positive about immigration and about immigrants. How much of this is that these people, [00:35:30] it’s not necessarily that they were influenced by these terrible ideas or that they themselves are bad people, although I think in some cases it can rise to that. But just that there’s whole swathes of the country that really don’t have much exposure to or don’t know much about what it’s actually like to live in a cosmopolitan place. So they simply assume that it must be catastrophically awful, in the way that Donald [00:36:00] Trump talks about Chicago.
Charles Sykes: I think that’s a major factor. There’s no question about it, that that is one, that you get out into rural Wisconsin, where this woman was from. I think it’s unlikely that she knew actually knew any Muslims at all or had ever encountered them. That’s [inaudible 00:36:18] factor. But considering how we are segregating ourselves out by culture and by ideology, that’s not going to get any better.
One of the things I touch on in the book is the great sorting out in American politics. [00:36:30] That we are increasingly becoming this blue and … those maps, the blue and red maps actually do reflect something fundamental that’s happening, that we are actually physically now separating ourselves based on ideology. So that it’s not just on social media and media that we live in different universes, we increasingly live in physically different universes.
But I will say this though, and maybe getting back to the whole question of ideas, one would have thought that even if you were isolated and living [00:37:00] in places where you do not encounter people of different religions, still there’s obviously something missing in the American tradition if people would think that this was a good idea. I guess I had thought that the idea of the values of the Declaration of Independence, the values of the Constitutions, ideas of religious tolerance and religious freedom, all of those things had been inculcated to the point that you still wouldn’t think that [00:37:30] you would expel people, your neighbors, because of their religion.
The whole idea of, and I know this is something that you focus on, this idea of freedom and liberty was thinner on the ground, particularly among conservatives, than I had imagined. I’d always suspected that perhaps there was that there, but you would have hoped that those ideas, which had been very strongly articulated by people like Ronald Reagan. I mean go back and [00:38:00] read his Shining City on a Hill speech, how he envisioned what America was all about. I thought that’s what people meant when they said, “I want to take my country back,” or when they talked about, “American exceptionalism.” Apparently my vision of that was very different from what a lot of folks in the grassroots had.
Aaron Powell: We’ve spent a while now talking about the kind of how we got here and [00:38:30] the movements and ideas, or non‐ideas, that led us here. So now I want to turn to more of where we are and where we’re going. With Trump in office and with the way that it’s played out, do you see these trends continuing? Do you see signs that the right can get itself back on track?
I guess, as we’re recording this, the day we’re recording this there’s a gubernatorial [00:39:00] election in Virginia that is supposed to be to some extent a referendum on Trump and Trump’s movement. So how that plays out, what the returns look like tonight might change how we might answer this. But do you think that the way that Trump’s presidency has played, the lack of success that he has had is going to sap the vigor of this movement? That the ideas can come back? Or, [00:39:30] do you think we’re just getting started?
Charles Sykes: Well, it’s very difficult to make predictions, given how all of us were wrong about a year ago, or at least I was wrong about a year ago. It’s very hard to say what’s going to happen in 2018 given how strong the base continues to support Donald Trump. Let me actually go to the mega question, what does this mean for conservatives? I wish I could give you a more hopeful message here, but in many ways the election [00:40:00] of Donald Trump has been worse for the conservative movement than I thought it would be.
There are people like Hugh Hewitt out there who will completely disagree with me on all of this. But what I’ve been struck by is the willingness of conservatives to basically roll over and to rationalize and to trim their sails on issue after another. Their willingness to conform to Trumpism, as opposed to say, okay, here’s a distinctive kind of conservatism that is not populist, not [00:40:30] nationalist, which is authoritarian, which in fact still respects the rule of law, that actually understands the importance of the constitution. Those voices are muted rather dramatically.
So what I see happening is that you’ll continue to see the kind of polarization that we’ve had, but that polarization will be more tribal than it will be ideological, unfortunately. The number of conservatives, I would say libertarian conservatives, who have been willing to really speak out [00:41:00] loudly in opposition to some of the more disturbing trends in the era of Trump is vanishingly small. I would like to say that more will speak out, and maybe more will, but right now all of the forces tend to be pushing toward conformity, and I don’t think that that’s a good trend.
Aaron Powell: Well then let me ask you about a possible counter‐narrative that gets offered to that and one that might be slightly more hopeful.
Charles Sykes: I hope you’re right.
Aaron Powell: That’s, [00:41:30] we know from throughout the campaign and we know from people who know Trump, that he’s highly impressionable. There’s the longstanding, many people say that whoever the last person he spoke to, whatever position they advanced is the one that he will advance, and so everyone jockey to be the last person to speak to him. So maybe this, what looks like conforming to Trump’s agenda, is [00:42:00] perhaps a ultimately attempt to … Yeah, this guy is awful. We don’t want to support the things he’s doing, but we’ve got control of both houses, we’ve got control of the presidency. Maybe we can finally get a handful of things done.
So if we just kind of flatter him a bit, don’t push back too hard, we can talk him into doing the things that we’ve always wanted, like reforming taxes, say. So as long as we’re holding out hope [00:42:30] that we can ultimately … there’ll be lots of bad rhetoric but we’ll ultimately get some good things out of it, and so we’re just going to go along. And then maybe if that doesn’t happen there’ll be more pushback, as they realize that this is a disaster and they’re not going to push through a legislative agenda.
Charles Sykes: I think that what you described is exactly what is in fact happening here. Which is the bargain that they’ve made, that, okay we can get some conservative wins. By the way that’s true on judges, [00:43:00] the federal judiciary, supreme court, these are good things. The rollback of the administrative state, the regulatory relief, these are real genuine wins. But on the other hand, you have to also weight the cost, what are you willing to spend for all of this? I mean, the butcher’s bill keeps going up all the time.
I also think that there’s two other counter‐narratives. Number one, that let’s say that you’re right and we do get all these conservative wins under Trump. My [00:43:30] concern is that by the Trumpification of conservatism, also means that it will be toxified. That yes, you have these wins over the next four, maybe even seven years, but then because the conservative movement has been discredited by its association with Trump, that it ushers in decades of democratic dominance, a la what’s happened in California. I always have that image [00:44:00] in my mind of when California used to be bipartisan, and what’s it’s become now. Is that the model for the rest of the country? So that you have short term advantages, long term disadvantages.
If in fact the left snapped back to power in 2020, are they likely to be centrist or moderate, or are they likely to push the country towards single payer in reaction to Donald Trump? Also considering the way that Republicans are governing by ramming through legislation [00:44:30] on the narrowest of partisan margins with almost no due deliberation. Is there any reason to think the Democrats once in power will not act exactly the same way and perhaps even more aggressively, as each party ramps it up? I guess I’m concerned about the backlash to that.
I am not seeing enough conservative wins to justify many of the compromises that [00:45:00] are made. But I certainly hope that those folks who say, “Give it time, we’re going to get some wins,” I hope they’re right, but I also don’t think that we snap back from this. I think our politics has become coarsen. I think the impact on our culture is dangerous. I think the willingness of more and more voters and citizens to adjust their moral compass to accept things that were unacceptable, to believe [00:45:30] things that were untrue, the cover up for corruption, I think all of that is going to leave a stain that’s going to last a lot longer than the Trump presidency.
Trevor Burrus: At the end of your book you offer some modest advice to fellow conservatives, and some things that conservatives … You kind of alluded to some of those, but for people who are like us, very disgusted by Donald Trump and what’s happening to this country but still have [00:46:00] conservative or libertarian leanings, what is your advice to those people?
Charles Sykes: Well, part of it is to step back, and this is hard for a lot of us. Step back from the day to day and from the who wins the next election, and really go back to first principles. What is it we believe in? What is really important? Why are we conservatives? All of those things, and also this is a period to recognize that we can’t keep replaying our greatest hits [00:46:30] from the 1980s.
As much as I admire Ronald Reagan we can’t become part of a zombie conservatism that continually comes up with the same answers to every problem and every decade. But I also think this is an opportunity for a distinctive kind of conservatism that is free of the crony capitalism, the special [inaudible 00:46:51] crony capitalism that is free of … that rejects the authoritarian appeal that you’re often seeing. But also is willing to address some [00:47:00] of the legitimate concerns of the Trump supporters, without embracing the toxic elements of all of that.
I also think that there’s a moment where because the Trump presidency is such a shock to the constitutional democratic system that we’ve had, that I’m seeing an openness on the part of even people on the left, bear with me here. Who suddenly have developed a strange new appreciation for things like limited government, for the Bill [00:47:30] of Rights, for the concepts of checks and balances. There might be a teachable moment here for why perhaps we ought not to invest our masters in government with as much power as the left once thought was a good idea. I’m sensing more skepticism of that centralized power, more skepticism of government across political line than I ever have before. But I guess this is one of those moments where I would say, don’t sacrifice [00:48:00] long term principles for short term gains, it’s not going to be worth it.
Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.