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