For years, Charlie Sykes sat atop the totem pole of Wisconsin’s extraordinarily influential talk-radio universe. He and his fellow righty talkers played an integral role in reshaping the Badger State’s politics from progressive blue to reformist red, serving as indispensable allies to the political figures who ushered in this improbable transformation — Governor Scott Walker, House speaker Paul Ryan, former RNC chairman and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, and Senator Ron Johnson the most prominent among them. Electoral victories brought real results, with Sykes serving on the front lines to defend and buttress the Walker administration on a string of paradigm-shifting reforms. Most notable was the controversial, and ultimately successful, budget overhaul that whipped Wisconsin’s organized Left into a frenzy, culminating in a powerful rebuke to them by voters in 2012’s failed recall election — an outcome in which Sykes & Co. had a significant hand.
It’s jarring, therefore, to watch Sykes promote his new book, How the Right Lost Its Mind, as a celebrated guest on MSNBC. It’s the same cable-news network whose hosts’ exquisitely gloomy election-night reactions to Walker’s recall triumph were a source of schadenfreude-filled delight to many conservatives, Sykes very much included. Following a rather abrupt retirement, which might look to some observers like a self-imposed exile, the polite, bespectacled commentator is now off the radio dial in Wisconsin. His new on-air home is alongside Rachel Maddow and friends. In some conservative circles, ostensibly conservative pundits whose bread is disproportionately buttered by criticizing Republicans from the left are often derided for making a living by being useful to liberals. You know the formulation the liberals use: “Even Conservative X says . . .”
But given Sykes’s years of unassailable service to the conservative cause in a critical battleground state, it feels deeply unfair to cast him as someone eager to be useful to the Left. Just the opposite: He devoted his long-running daily radio program to being a pestering, relentless, effective thorn in liberals’ side. Wisconsin Democrats have the battle scars to prove it. So, to borrow from the title of another post-election book, what happened?
The simplistic, incomplete answer is that Trump happened. A historically small plurality of Republican primary voters chose to nominate an opportunistic, under-informed non-conservative blowhard as their presidential standard-bearer — leaving a sizable minority of self-described conservatives casting about for a political home. Sykes is one of those newly created nomads, trying to come to grips with a number of uncomfortable realities. Trump is not the disease, Sykes writes, but rather a symptom of a conservative movement poisoned by self-serving and compass-less profiteers and charlatans. He contends that the warning signs have been building for years but that it took a figure such as Trump to thrust them all out into the open, in all their sordid ingloriousness. The very first sentence of his book reads, “This is not a book about Donald Trump.” Technically, that’s true, but Trump serves as its unifying touchstone: It was he who exposed dominant aspects of conservatism that Sykes had spent a career adamantly denying.
The book is a chronicle of betrayal and disgust from a wounded true believer, decrying the conservative media’s acceptance or indulgence of crackpottery and taking a blowtorch to the so-called alt-right. At times, Sykes’s tone is melancholy, as when he describes how he and his father abandoned the Democratic party when they realized that it no longer represented them, and when he worries that his adoptive party is in the process of alienating him beyond the point of repair. Precious few major figures in the center-right constellation are spared his contempt or disdain. Among his targets are Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, Heritage Action, Breitbart, Fox News, and a bevy of opportunistic, over-promising GOP politicians.
Trump-skeptical and Trump-hostile conservatives will view his book as a deft and depressing indictment of today’s emotionalist and outrage-fueled shell of the conservative movement. To the Trump-embracing or Trump-enthusiastic Republican, it will likely read as an insulting lecture.
Though I share a great many of Sykes’s views on Trump and the dispiriting state of play in today’s politics, I found myself bristling at how often he quoted left-leaning sources to fortify his arguments. From the left-wing hatchet group Media Matters for America to the notoriously tendentious “fact checker” PolitiFact (which, to his credit, Sykes also fillets) to a slew of liberal bloggers and Democratic figures, Sykes leans a bit too heavily on sources who would be waging shrill, hair-on-fire rhetorical war on a President Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. He also underemphasizes some of the reasons that millions of bona fide conservatives came around to backing the GOP’s nominee, even though many of them would openly admit that he is profoundly flawed.
And although he occasionally acknowledges it, Sykes gives short shrift to Trump’s understandable appeal as a human wrecking ball against political correctness and cultural bullying. He also occasionally risks implicitly, yet unfairly, attributing the worst behavior and excesses of Trump’s most obnoxious “deplorables” to the tens of millions of Americans who ended up pulling the lever for him last November. I was not a Trump voter, yet I still occasionally felt pangs of defensiveness on Trump supporters’ behalf as I read Sykes’s book. His tone isn’t overly hectoring, but he approaches that line a bit too often to be effective in the task of tugging conservatism and conservatives back to a place that more closely resembles what he signed up for.
Still, no fair-minded reader could mistake the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind for a squishy RINO, and certainly not for a liberal. It is a searing critique of the Right from the right — which, in our age of intense tribalism, makes one wonder who will buy the book. Perhaps it will take off, as curious liberals and disquieted conservatives alike seek out a thoughtful and candid analysis of the state of America’s center-right coalition. But while “Never Trumpers” will certainly nod along throughout most of the book, which distills in a single volume many of the phenomena they’ve fought and resented, how many of them really exist in today’s Republican party? The group that most needs to pick up a copy and really grapple with its insights are conservatives who reconciled themselves to voting for Trump as a means of preventing Hillary Clinton from winning but who’ve been so swept up in the tribe-vs.-tribe mentality that they’ve become Trump apologists. Is this cohort interested in paying money to be confronted with some of the moral and ideological compromises they’ve made, and with their longer-term implications?
In his concluding chapter, Sykes embraces the new, sudden, discomfiting intellectual wilderness in which he finds himself. He calls on his remaining political brethren to spend the balance of the Trump era as “contrarian conservatives” — a more grounded, less hysterical, and non-lefty strain of the resistance. An “exorcism of the forces that have possessed and, ultimately, distorted conservatism” will be required, he says. Much of his ensuing advice is worthwhile and sound, but given the movement’s overwhelming embrace of Trumpism and right-wing grievance politics, who remains to perform the exorcism?
– Mr. Benson is the political editor of Townhall.com and a Fox News contributor.