Charlie Sykes Interview: "The Trumpish Right Is Dumb, Cruel and Dishonest"
Image attributed to Charlie Sykes
Once at the center of the American conservative movement, bestselling author and radio host Charlie Sykes is a fierce opponent of Donald Trump and the right-wing media that enabled his rise. In his latest book, How the Right Lost Its Mind, Sykes presents an impassioned, regretful and deeply thoughtful account of how the American conservative movement came to lose its values.
Until he stepped down in December 2016, after 23 years, Sykes was one of Wisconsin’s top-rated and most influential talk radio show hosts. He is currently an MSNBC contributor and has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Politico, Salon, USA Today and other publications. He has appeared on ABC, NBC, Fox News, CNN, PBS, the BBC and has been profiled on NPR. He has also spoken extensively on university campuses.
"I just want to emphasize that Donald Trump with the nuclear codes terrifies me. I’m not ashamed to say I’m terrified by that prospect."
Sykes is also the author of Fail U: The False Promise of Higher Education, A Nation of Victims: The Decay of the American Character and 50 Rules Kids Won’t Learn in School: Real-World Antidotes to Feel-Good Education, among others. He lives in Mequon, Wisconsin, with his wife and three dogs. He has three children and two grandchildren.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Charlie, how did the right lose its mind?
Charlie Sykes: On, my gosh (laughs). That’s a tragic story. I mean, one of the questions I had was whether Donald Trump was an aberration, whether this was a hostile takeover or whether or not this was a long time in the making. Unfortunately, I think the right loss of mind was a pre-existing condition over some time. Donald Trump is really a symptom of what happened rather than a cause, although it’s certainly part of the story.
There’s no question about it. The Trumpish right is dumb, cruel and dishonest. For someone that’s been a longtime conservative, this is a real challenge. So that’s really why I wrote the book, to figure out what happened. How did we get from Edmund Burke to Ann Coulter? How do you go from William F. Buckley to Sean Hannity? (laughs) I think part of it is that for a long time, conservatives outsourced their thought leadership to the loudest, angriest voices in the room, that they had a conservative media to dumb down the debate, appeal to its worst instincts, and unfortunately, the product of that was Donald Trump and what we’re seeing now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Charlie, you were already speaking out against Donald Trump when he called in to your radio Show on March 28, 2016. What was going through your mind when you realized it was him on the phone?
Charlie Sykes: Interesting question (laughs). I had made it absolutely clear that I was “never Trump” from the moment he came down that golden escalator. So when my producer told me he was going to call in, quite frankly I simply assumed someone on his staff would do a little bit of a background check. It would’ve taken about ten seconds looking at my Twitter account to see where I stood.
I was thinking about this the other day. There had been an ice storm in Wisconsin the previous Friday, and in the parking lot of the radio station, some ice balls had fallen from some of the broadcast towers, and it smashed a number of cars, including mine. The company basically said, “We’re not going to pay for any of this. We consider it an act of God,” which I thought was ludicrous. I was talking to my son about it over the weekend. He’s an attorney for a big law firm, and he apparently had time on his hands and wrote this long email basically telling the company this was ridiculous.
I wasn’t going to do anything about it, but at any case, at 8:30 that Monday morning when Trump was calling in, I was actually sitting and reading my son’s email and deciding to forward it to management. So at about 8:31 AM, I was pressing “send” on that email because I honestly did not expect Donald Trump to call in. When he did, quite frankly, I wanted to ask him the questions that I’d been thinking about for six months. These would be the questions about his demeanor and his character, things I’d said and written for months. I will say he was a good sport about it until afterwards (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are there any differences in Trump’s character and personality now from when he was campaigning for president?
Charlie Sykes: I think that’s a fascinating question, and I’ve thought about this. To a certain extent, Trump, as president of the United States, continues to be shocking, but not really surprising. Really, nothing that has happened since he became president should come as a surprise to anyone who was paying attention to him in 2015 or 2016, or who understood his character. So to that extent, what’s shocking, of course, is to see a man like Donald Trump, an erratic narcissist who is indifferent to the truth and lacks self discipline, sitting in the Oval Office.
It is shocking to realize that he is sitting in the office that was once held by Abraham Lincoln. But the man has not changed. Donald Trump is 70 years old. He is not going to pivot. He is not going to grow. He’s not going to become a different person.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sean Spicer, at this year’s Emmy Awards ceremony, joked about crowd sizes, a nod to what he said behind the White House podium, that Trump had drawn “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration,” which was a lie, of course. The cast of Saturday Night Live has performed many satirical skits on Trump, Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Jeff Sessions, Sean Spicer, etc.
As a country, should we be laughing? In other words, do the jokes begin to normalize this administration to the extent of where the shocking words and lies actually become acceptable?
Charlie Sykes: To a certain extent, you almost need to laugh about it so that you don’t lose your mind about what’s happening. But, yeah, seeing Sean Spicer at the Emmys was disturbing because number one, it does normalize an administration that’s based itself on lies, and number two, treats the whole assault on truth as if somehow it doesn’t pose a threat. I try to maintain my sense of humor, but I had the same reaction you had to all of that, which is that we’re not supposed to think this is cute and funny that we have a regime that is committed to a post-truth political culture.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And there’s the very serious issue of the fact that Donald Trump has the nuclear codes.
Charlie Sykes: I’m giving a speech at the University of Wisconsin and going to be reading something I said back in May before Trump got the nomination. Megyn Kelly asked me, “Why aren’t you on board? All the other conservatives are on board.” I said, “Well, Donald Trump’s a serial liar and a con man who mocks the disabled and women. He’s a narcissist and a bully and a man with no fixed principles who has the vocabulary of an emotionally insecure nine-year-old. So I don’t want to give him the nuclear codes.” Of all the issues that I think cemented my attitude toward Trump, it is the question, “Do you really want to entrust that kind of awesome power to a man who exhibits so little self-control and personal responsibility?”
By the way, I just want to emphasize that Donald Trump with the nuclear codes terrifies me. I’m not ashamed to say I’m terrified by that prospect. I know a lot of my fellow conservatives will say that he appoints Supreme Court Justices or he rolls back these environmental regulations. I don’t know that any of these minor conservative wins counteracts the existential threat that a man like Donald Trump with the nuclear codes proposes.
Is Alabama about to elect Judge Roy Moore to the US Senate? If you want to address my thesis on the right losing its mind, it’s the fact that honestly, that would be exhibit two. The Republican Party now reacts by electing someone that far out there to the US Senate.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Roy Moore has been twice suspended from the Supreme Court for not obeying the law, so there’s that also.
Charlie Sykes: Oh, my God. My son actually worked in Birmingham for a year, so I’m a little bit familiar with it down there. I was in a debate with someone recently who argued with me on about 99% of all this, and he said he voted for Donald Trump because it was important to support the Constitution and the rule of law. My response was, “Really? Donald Trump is a man who shows nothing but contempt for the rule of law and clearly doesn’t understand the Constitution.” Now in Alabama, there’s a conservative hero who is going to rise to the US Senate explicably on the basis of his ignoring what the Constitution and law said. I say that as a conservative, and I’m appalled by it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I agree. In voting for Trump, many evangelical Christians in Alabama wanted conservative justices to overturn Roe vs. Wade and reverse the same-sex marriage decision and apparently were not concerned with his character, morals or lack thereof. The fact that Trump mocked a disabled reporter, a Gold Star family and bragged about assaulting women didn’t seem to matter to them, which was not only shocking, but didn’t seem to be in step with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Charlie Sykes: I have a whole chapter in the book on what happened to the Christians. When I sat down to write this book, the hardest chapter for me to write was the chapter on evangelical support for Trump because I had the hardest time understanding how a movement that used to claim that character matters embraced someone like Donald Trump. This is really one of the most extraordinary stories.
Thomas Edsall had a column saying that, just a few years ago, evangelical Christians were the group that would’ve thought that a politician who committed an immoral act in their personal life was disqualified. Now evangelical Christians are the ones who most decisively say that personal morality does not affect someone’s ability to be in office. They have completely reversed their position on character in public life to justify their support for Donald Trump.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Exactly.. Tell me about your early political life in Wisconsin, Charlie.
Charlie Sykes: For years, I described myself as a recovering liberal because I actually grew up in a liberal household. My father was the president of the Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union. He was a journalist. He was the campaign manager in Wisconsin for Senator Eugene McCarthy back in 1968 when he ran against Lyndon Johnson. In fact, my first political involvement was as an eighth grader traveling around with Senator McCarthy.
As part of the anti-war insurgency, we both, over time, became disillusioned with the overreach of the left back in the late 1960s and 1970s. But I suppose this also means that I don’t come by my conservatism by birth or upbringing and still maintain certain assumptions about what constitutes decency in politics.
I was very much in the center of the conservative movement here over the last 20 years in Wisconsin, so my disillusionment was profound. I describe the last year as being a soul-crunching slog that left me very disillusioned by what the conservative movement had become and now find myself ex-communicated from the movement I was very involved in for many years.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What exactly was the fallout for you when you began to speak out on your show against a party you’d been affiliated with for so many years?
Charlie Sykes: You’ll recall that in Wisconsin, Republicans voted overwhelmingly against Donald Trump. This was one of the states that rejected him. When Donald Trump brought his clown car act into Wisconsin, I think people saw it for what it was, and they voted against him. My audience was listening to what I had to say about it. However, as everybody knows, Wisconsin turned around by November, and what I saw was the tribalization of American politics, how American politics has become so divided, and the gravitational pull of that tribalization is so intense that people who recognized that Donald Trump was a con man whose policies were often extreme and incoherent, decided to support him anyway because they convinced themselves this was a binary choice, that no matter how awful he was, Hillary Clinton was worse.
When I failed to fall in line with this and wasn’t going to change my position when he won the nomination, the reaction I got from the Talk Radio listenership was that I was the traitor, that they were going to turn me off and were never going to listen to me again. I think, at that point, I realized that the conservative media had really become a safe space for conservatives. They wanted Trump, and they did not want to hear conservatives say Donald Trump is a betrayer of conservatism, that he’s a rejection of everything we believe, that he’s a repudiation of the Reagan legacy. They just did not want to hear that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you believe that Donald Trump and/or his associates colluded with Russia to interfere with the presidential election?
Charlie Sykes: I think that’s an immensely important issue. I don’t want to pre-judge what conclusions Robert Mueller’s going to come to, but I think the Russian story could lead to the downfall of the Trump administration because there’s an aura of arrogance and sleaze that emanates from the Trump operation. There’s clearly something odd about the relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. There’s something disturbing about the relationship between Trump and the Russians. Whether it’s collusion or money laundering, I’m not sure, but I think there’s something there. I also think that conservatives and Republicans need to take that very seriously.
I’m old enough to remember when conservatives recognized that Russia posed a geopolitical threat to us. I’m old enough to remember when Republicans would’ve thought, “Oh, my goodness! The Russians are trying to hack our elections. This is an attack on our democracy. We need to take this very, very seriously.” That’s another one of those head turning moments where you look at this and go, “How can Republications in this country not think this is a fundamentally important issue?” You had Ronald Reagan saying, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Then you have Donald Trump saying, “Let’s build this big, beautiful wall!” Reagan waged Cold War against the Russians, and Trump cannot bring himself to criticize Putin. It’s bizarre.
I would also say that if it was not for the Russian scandal, we would or should be focusing on the incredibly blatant kleptocracy that Trump is presiding over. Again, I’m old enough to remember when conservatives and Republicans thought that character mattered. The blatant way in which Trump and his family are using their offices to enrich themselves, their family members and cronies, is one of the most extraordinary scandals in American history, and the only reason it’s not dominating the news is because there are so many other things going on.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Has Trump permanently damaged the Republican Party? If not, how do they pick up the pieces after this president leaves office?
Charlie Sykes: Yes. I do think Trump has permanently damaged the Republican Party. I think it’s going to be very difficult for them to wipe the stain off, especially as they continue to enable him and particularly if they refuse to stand up against him. The Republican Party has made a Faustian bargain with Donald Trump. They basically have decided that it’s worth selling their soul in order to get certain items on their agenda.
Quite frankly, I don’t know how Republicans post-Trump go back to women, minorities and young people and say, “Well, that wasn’t us. That’s not what we’re about.” The reality is that because of their supporting him as president of the United States, in fact, that is who they are and now they own it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I actually thought it was the end of Trump when he mocked John McCain as a Vietnam POW and said, “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Charlie Sykes: I thought it was the end of Trump when he mocked the disabled reporter. I thought it was the end of Trump when he called for the Muslim ban. I thought it was the end of Trump when the video came out where he bragged about sexually assaulting women. I would’ve thought it would have been the end of any possible support for Trump among Republicans after Charlottesille where he was so reluctant to condemn Nazis. This is not hard stuff. Anyone with a moral compass can condemn Nazis.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are you doing these days, Charlie, in addition to writing books?
Charlie Sykes: I’m a contributor to MSNBC. I’m working on a podcast project with WNYC, which is the public radio flagship station in New York. I continue to write op-ed pieces and do a lot of public speaking.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is your role in the conservative movement today?
Charlie Sykes: That’s pretty much come to an end. To be really honest with you, I’m still shocked by what’s happened. I’m really still trying to make sense of how this happened, where we’re going and how the world is changing. This is one of those experiences where you wake up and you think the world has been turned upside down, and you have to question all of your premises, all of the things you thought had been settled.
I’m 62 years old. I’ve spent over 20 years building a conservative movement, and one of the things I had to think through at some point was, “Am I going to walk away from everything I worked on? Am I going to walk away from two decades worth of work?” I understand why people are reluctant to separate themselves from the tribe. But I have to say I never had a moment’s doubt that I was never going to sign onto the Trump train. I was never going to find a way to enable or rationalize someone like Donald Trump. So I’m still coming to terms with being a political orphan.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I just hope America survives these divisive, turbulent times, Charlie.
Charlie Sykes: I agree with you. I try to be an optimist, but I think a lot of the things that are bad are about to get worse, in part because of this intense tribalism of our politics. I know other people have described this as a post-truth culture, and I think that’s also true. It’s not new that politicians lie. That’s not a new phenomenon.
What I think is new is the fact you have a large number of Americans who apparently no longer care, who don’t distinguish between truth and falsehood, and for whom being lied to is not disqualifying. That is also something we’ve never coped with before.
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