Charlie Sykes isn’t the only person to recognize that the Republican Party has gone batshit crazy, but in many ways he’s one of the more interesting voices to comment on the phenomenon. A former conservative talk show host in his native Wisconsin, Sykes was on the “Never Trump” train from the beginning, watching with horror as the orange-haired one won his party’s presidential nomination, then the office itself, then saw how members of the party managed to justify their support for a man he describes as “an utterly unqualified reality TV star.”
“The capacity of Republicans to rationalize their support appears to be bottomless,” says Sykes, whose forthcoming book, How the Right Lost Its Mind, is the political equivalent of the most frightening Stephen King novel you’ve ever read. “I am less horrified by Trump himself than by what he has done to the rationalizers and enablers. Why are you people defending this, why don’t you see what he’s doing to your own cause?”
Well, it may be about tax cuts, immigration, and other aspects of the conservative political agenda, but as Sykes, who is now a regular on MSNBC, says in the book, “after Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton, the Democrats need to perform an autopsy; the Republicans need an exorcism.”
Sykes see Trump as a symptom of forces that have thoroughly corrupted the GOP—celebrations of nativism and authoritarianism, while ignoring birthers, racists, and conspiracy theorists in its midst (say hi to Alex Jones and Matt Drudge), the toxic rhetoric of Fox News and right-wing talk show hosts, the politics of paranoia (again, say hi to Alex Jones and Infowars) and a conservative base that is now essentially post-literate.
“You can’t separate what’s happened in our political world without talking about the degradation of our culture,” says Sykes in an interview with The Daily Beast. “The real damage of this era is the damage it does to the culture, ranging from the ways we talk to each other to whether we care about truth anymore.”
Or, as he says in the book, referring to the rise of alternative right-wing media, “The vast majority of airtime was not taken up by issues or explanations of conservative approaches to markets or the need to balance liberty with order. Why bother with such stuff, when there were personalities to be mocked, conspiracy theories to be shared, and left-wing moonbats to be ridiculed?”
Not that Sykes is letting the Democrats off the hook. He says liberals painting everyone they disagree with as racist or homophobic is driving their traditional blue-collar constituency into the arms of the nutters. And, he says, after noting that the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren wing of the party only guarantees more electoral losses, “As shambolic as this president is, there’s a possibility the Democrats will blow it again. They don’t seem to have a coherent response to him, which is just to criticize him, which might be enough. But the divisions among the Democrats, their lack of aspirational leadership, should be of concern. I think it’s conceivable that the Republicans will keep control in 2018, and Trump could be re-elected in 2020.”
That thought is as frightening to Sykes as it is to the Dems. And he’s not the only conservative who thinks that Trump is an existential threat to the party, the country, and the globe. In his book, Sykes mentions conservative thinkers like Ross Douthat, Charles Krauthammer, and George Will, who have been highly critical of the president. But he also recognizes that Trump’s most hard-core supporters do not read these guys, and are, in fact, “post-literate and in the alternate reality bubble. One of the shocks of recognition is the real conservative movement turned out to be this layer-thin pie crust over the conservative movement; the people I read no longer are read by the vast number of conservatives. All of those thinkers have effectively been excommunicated in the era of Trump.”
Like Sykes himself, whose anti-Trumpism and connections to MSNBC have now made him a pariah in some quarters. “Watching the transition after he nailed the nomination, I saw Republicans who had no illusions about Trump, deciding they were going to go along—it was like watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” says Sykes. “And there was a backlash against those who did not change their position. I was accused of being a sellout, people said they were not going to listen to me again, I was a traitor.”
One person Sykes is definitely disappointed in—although they remain friends—is Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, whom he has known, and respected, for years. “I have said Ryan has struck a Faustian bargain,” says Sykes. “I think he is fundamentally decent, but is unwilling to take Trump on, and is willing to stay on his good side to get tax cuts. And he has made the calculation that as speaker he doesn’t have the independence to comment on every stupid tweet.”
So Sykes might as well ask, “What is to be done?” the same question Vladimir Lenin once posed in an early 20th century political pamphlet. And it’s not as if he doesn’t have some answers, since Sykes is the first one to admit that conservatives have their own particular policy flaws.
“Conservatives have to move from radical change agents to say, ‘How can we do no harm?’ How can we maintain prosperity without maintaining this massive gap in income inequality? We’re still stuck with ‘zombie conservatives,’ people who apply lower tax rates to every economic situation. Can we at least have policies that relate to conditions on the ground?”
Well, maybe. But Sykes doesn’t seem all that hopeful. In the short term, “more chaos and division.” The best-case scenario, he says, is the Republicans in Congress “strike out on their own, that Trump becomes irrelevant to their agenda.” And, of course, there’s the Mueller investigation wild card, which could lead who knows where.
But in the long term, Sykes is downright pessimistic. “I don’t see the Republican Party coming out of this intact,” he says. “Alienating women, minorities, and young people for a generation, you’re not going to be able to rub the stink off.”