It’s an elec­tion post­mortem like “What Hap­pened,” but for con­ser­va­tives.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @Car­losLozadaWP Car­los Lozada is the non­fic­tion book critic of The Wash­ing­ton Post.

Af­ter Mitt Rom­ney lost the 2012 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, Repub­li­can Party hon­chos re­leased a 100-page re­port, nick­named the “au­topsy,” try­ing to fig­ure out where the GOP went wrong. It’s the kind of thing you do when you lose.

But how about when you win and kind of wish you hadn’t? “In vic­tory,” Charles J. Sykes writes of the lat­est pres­i­den­tial race, “con­ser­va­tives will need some­thing very dif­fer­ent — an ex­or­cism of the forces that have pos­sessed and, ul­ti­mately, dis­torted con­ser­vatism.”

In­stead of ex­am­in­ing a corpse, to­day the GOP must bat­tle its demons.

Sykes, a con­ser­va­tive true be­liever and for­mer talk-ra­dio host in Wis­con­sin, earned the wrath of Don­ald Trump’s sup­port­ers when he crit­i­cized the Repub­li­can front-run­ner early in the race, call­ing him “a car­toon ver­sion of ev­ery left­ist/ me­dia neg­a­tive stereo­type of the re­ac­tionary, na­tivist, misog­y­nist right.” On the ra­dio and on so­cial me­dia, Sykes was branded “a sell­out, a traitor, a Ju­das,” he re­calls, for not board­ing the Trump Train. In “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” Sykes has writ­ten a sort of “What Hap­pened” for con­ser­va­tives. The cul­prits are not James Comey, Vladimir Putin or a real­ity tele­vi­sion op­po­nent, but the re­turn of “crack­po­tism” on the right; the feck­less­ness of con­ser­va­tive me­dia, po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious fig­ures; and the rise of a dis­torted worldview in which Trump’s over­whelm­ing char­ac­ter flaws mat­tered lit­tle to a base that be­haved as though civ­i­liza­tion was in play in his elec­tion.

The re­sult is a po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment that “has coars­ened the cul­ture as a whole,” Sykes writes. In his eyes, the elec­tion marked “the aban­don­ment of re­spect for grad­u­al­ism, ci­vil­ity, ex­per­tise, in­tel­li­gence, and pru­dence — the val­ues that were once taken for granted among con­ser­va­tives.”

It is a san­i­tized im­age of con­ser­vatism, no doubt, but Sykes seems heart­felt in his lament. The in­san­ity he pur­ports to chron­i­cle — on the book cover, the ti­tle is stitched across a red base­ball cap — did not be­gin in 2016 or 2015, or even dur­ing this young mil­len­nium. Sykes rem­i­nisces about the mid-20th cen­tury, when his hero, Wil­liam F. Buck­ley Jr., was cast­ing out Birchers and Ayn Rand devo­tees from the con­ser­va­tive move­ment, and when Barry Gold­wa­ter’s “The Con­science of a Con­ser­va­tive” sought to bal­ance, as the sen­a­tor wrote, “the max­i­mum amount of in­di­vid­ual free­dom that is con­sis­tent with the main­te­nance of so­cial or­der.”

But to­day’s con­ser­va­tives have failed to do the same. They have tol­er­ated the ru­mi­na­tions of Pat Robert­son, for in­stance, whom Sykes dis­misses as “Chris­tian­ity’s crazy un­cle,” and em­braced the more ex­treme el­e­ments among the tea party move­ment. “For years, we ig­nored the birthers, the racists, the truthers, and other con­spir­acy the­o­rists,” Sykes writes. “We treated them like your ob­nox­ious un­cle at Thanks­giv­ing.” (Yes, he seems to have un­cle is­sues.) Through­out the book, Sykes as­sails Repub­li­cans and con­ser­va­tives for not push­ing back hard enough against the crack­pots — and he points to mo­ments along the way that only em­bold­ened them.

John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his run­ning mate on the 2008 Repub­li­can ticket. The Drudge Re­port’s de­ci­sion to link to — and thus val­i­date — the rav­ings of In­foWars’ Alex Jones. The cre­ation of Her­itage Ac­tion for Amer­ica, the po­lit­i­cal arm of the Her­itage Foun­da­tion, which af­firmed the think tank’s move away from sub­stan­tive pol­icy work. Even the de­ci­sion by the Amer­i­can Con­ser­va­tive Union to un­in­vite Milo Yiannopou­los from its 2017 Con­ser­va­tive Po­lit­i­cal Ac­tion Con­fer­ence, af­ter the alt-right for­mer Bre­it­bart edi­tor was cap­tured on video de­fend­ing pe­dophilia, car­ries pow­er­ful sym­bol­ism. “While the ad­vo­cacy of pe­dophilia was a bridge too far, the con­ser­va­tive group had been will­ing to over­look Yiannopou­los’s racism, anti-Semitism, Alt Right Nazi trolling, and his bul­ly­ing,” Sykes re­minds. “Lines had been crossed; far from be­ing ex­pelled, the Alt Right had been nor­mal­ized.”

Sykes’s big­gest tar­get is Rush Lim­baugh, whom the au­thor says aban­doned con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­ples to pro­mote Trump’s can­di­dacy. “Few fig­ures in the Right’s me­dia ecosys­tem did more to enable the bil­lion­aire’s rise,” Sykes writes. “For years, Lim­baugh was a lead­ing en­forcer of con­ser­va­tive or­tho­doxy and ide­o­log­i­cal pu­rity, which made his ide­o­log­i­cal pirou­ette in re­cent years so re­mark­able.”

He quotes Lim­baugh de­fend­ing Trump’s in­sults of McCain. He cites Lim­baugh ex­plain­ing away the can­di­date’s un­sub­stan­ti­ated claims of New Jersey Mus­lims cheer­ing the 9/11 at­tacks. He chas­tises him for pro­vid­ing “valu­able air cover” for voices from the alt-right (a small, far-right move­ment that es­pouses white supremacy). And he sug­gests that Lim­baugh did it all for pe­cu­niary, self-in­ter­ested rea­sons. “With his au­di­ence ag­ing and shrink­ing, the real­ity from a busi­ness per­spec­tive was that Lim­baugh could sim­ply not af­ford to stand against the pop­ulist tide,” Sykes writes. It’s a cred­i­ble cri­tique, but so re­lent­less that at times it comes off like some tiff within the ra­dio-host fra­ter­nity.

Sykes’s perch as a for­mer pop­u­lar ra­dio per­son­al­ity should give him an in­sider’s per­spec­tive into the tra­vails of the con­ser­va­tive move­ment, yet the book feels oddly dis­tant. Where he could pro­vide first­hand ac­counts of what it was like to watch con­ser­va­tives em­brace a less-than-con­ser­va­tive stan­dard-bearer, Sykes in­stead re­lies on news re­ports and in­ter­views de­scrib­ing how he felt. So in Sykes’s own book, we read in­ter­view pas­sages from Politico and The Wash­ing­ton Post and Fox News telling us how sur­prised Sykes was by the evolv­ing views of his long­time lis­ten­ers, or how he re­garded Trump dur­ing the cam­paign, or how Wis­con­si­nite sen­si­bil­i­ties matched up with the GOP field. Yes, it’s cool to have been in­ter­viewed by the na­tional me­dia, but why don’t you just tell us all this your­self?

Sykes also draws heav­ily on the anal­y­sis and re­port­ing of po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ists and in­tel­lec­tu­als such as Bill Bishop, Conor Frieder­s­dorf, Ni­cole Hem­mer, Gabriel Sher­man, Ross Douthat, Jonah Gold­berg, Rei­han Salam, Bret Stephens and even (oh my) for­mer Obama speech­writer Jon Favreau. Their ar­gu­ments are wor­thy and rel­e­vant, but at times the strength of the book — the brac­ing and im­me­di­ate in­sights of some­one deep within the con­ser­va­tive move­ment — is weak­ened.

“In 2008, con­ser­va­tives ridiculed the Left for its adu­la­tion of Barack Obama,” Sykes re­calls, “only to suc­cumb to their own cult of per­son­al­ity eight years later.” They suc­cumbed, he be­lieves, be­cause they came to re­gard the op­po­si­tion party, and Hil­lary Clin­ton in par­tic­u­lar, as the em­bod­i­ment of all evil. “In this bi­nary world, where ev­ery­thing is at stake, ev­ery­thing is in play, there is no room for quib­bles about char­ac­ter, or truth, or prin­ci­ples.” Think of it: If the Supreme Court, the Con­sti­tu­tion and hu­man sur­vival all de­pend on your side win­ning, “then noth­ing else re­ally mat­ters,” Sykes con­cludes. Even re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives fell into the trap. “The es­sen­tial er­ror of the Christian Right was to give pol­i­tics pri­macy over faith,” the au­thor writes.

Sykes seems con­flicted over how harshly to judge Trump vot­ers, es­pe­cially on race. At one point he deems it un­fair to “im­pugn guilt by as­so­ci­a­tion” to vot­ers who may have other rea­sons for sup­port­ing Trump. But else­where he writes that it is “un­de­ni­able . . . that a great num­ber of Amer­i­can con­ser­va­tives have proven them­selves will­ing to tol­er­ate and even ac­cept racism,” whether or not they har­bor such feel­ings them­selves. Sykes de­cries the alt-right forces for their “open em­brace of undi­luted racism” and con­ser­va­tives for their will­ing­ness to in­ject “toxic sludge” into the Amer­i­can main­stream for the sake of an elec­toral win. “If the con­ser­va­tive move­ment is de­fined by the na­tivist, au­thor­i­tar­ian, post-truth cul­ture of Trump-Ban­non-Drudge-Han­nity-Palin,” he writes, “then I’m out.”

In­stead, he calls for fel­low “con­trar­ian con­ser­va­tives” to re­turn to first prin­ci­ples, re­vi­tal­ize their pol­icy pro­pos­als, break free from the in­flu­ence of lob­by­ists and ad­dress the “le­git­i­mate griev­ances” of Trump sup­port­ers while sep­a­rat­ing them from the au­thor­i­tar­ian and racist el­e­ments of Trump’s base. Ob­vi­ous and generic rec­om­men­da­tions, maybe, though that hardly makes them wrong.

It is not clear who might lead this re­sis­tance from the right, how­ever, with so many party lead­ers and thinkers com­pro­mised by Trump­ism. Buck­ley is no longer around to serve as a gate­keeper for the party, Sykes laments, though he ac­knowl­edges that it’s hard for any­one to take on such a role in to­day’s frac­tured me­dia en­vi­ron­ment. But to per­form an ex­or­cism, you need a priest. The con­ser­va­tive move­ment doesn’t have one. The Trump base doesn’t want one. And the Repub­li­can Party has al­ready made its deal with the devil.


For years, true con­ser­va­tives tol­er­ated “the birthers, the racists, the truthers, and other con­spir­acy the­o­rists,” writes for­mer ra­dio host Charles J. Sykes. The re­sult: the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump.

HOW THE RIGHT LOST ITS MIND By Charles J. Sykes. St. Martin’s Press. 267 pp. $27.99

Car­los Lozada

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