Charles Sykes, Anti-Trump Conservative, Looks for Common Ground with the Left

Some conservatives are just as horrified as progressives.

Charles J. Sykes is among the more reasonable conservative voices in America now. Formerly a popular conservative talk radio host in Wisconsin, he once specialized in the sort of invective that drives ratings and barroom rants: The Census Bureau was a “bully”; Bill Clinton’s Justice Department was not unlike the Nazis; and so on. In the words of Milwaukee Magazine, he lived in “a Chicken Little reality where the sky is always falling and every public figure is forever running for cover.”

Then came Trump. During the 2016 campaign, Sykes broke ranks with Republicans over the candidacy of the oft-bankrupted real estate mogul. Sykes wrote a book titled How the Right Lost Its Mind. He became a regular contributor to the New York Times and a cogent critic of Trumpism. 

When I spotted Sykes at the Miami Book Fair, I had to ask him a question many people are asking: Can the left and right unite to get rid of Trump?

Here’s our conversation, edited for length.

Jefferson Morley: The country is in an emergency situation with Trump, and I think every possible solution should be considered, even things that haven’t been tried before, like the left working with the right. What could the left learn from the right at this moment when we have an incompetent, ignorant, impulsive, deceptive president?

Charles J. Sykes: First of all, I agree with every way you just described him, so let’s start with that. We have some commonality. If there is a Venn diagram between left and right, there’s not a lot of overlap these days, but there is some overlap, and that overlap is crucial on things like the truth ought to matter. Facts ought to matter. Rule of law ought to matter. Let’s find that common ground.

I find it interesting that people on the left are now suddenly very interested in the whole idea of checks and balances, and that’s OK because this is now an emergency, so let’s talk about it.

People on the right have to come to grips with, have we become a post-intellectual, post-knowledge movement? I think that’s important.

The one suggestion I would make [to the left], no political conversation can begin by people saying, “Will you confess now that you are a bigot and you’ve always been a bigot?”

Also recognize that there are conservatives who are as horrified, if not more horrified than you are, by what’s happened.

JM: What was the moment for you in the last few years when you realized what was coming? Was there an ‘aha’ moment?

CJS: No, there wasn’t one moment. It was this long, soul-crushing slog where I kept thinking, “This can’t happen. This won’t happen,” and then the growing recognition that the conservative movement was much more broken than I had thought. I thought I understood what [the movement] was about. I thought I understood who we were. And then I started to realize, this can’t be happening, if I was right.

There were two phases of this, both of which had their own soul-crushing qualities. The first was Trump’s rise to the nomination over other much more acceptable candidates, and the way the Republican electorate was voting for this man who was so manifestly unfit, so obviously a con man.

It wasn’t that the information was not available. And this was helped by the capitulation of much of the conservative media. To watch Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and others play this disingenuous, sick game of enabling him, I don’t know what game they were playing, but it had disastrous consequences.

The second phase, which was just as disillusioning, was watching all the people who… understood who Trump was—and in Wisconsin we voted against him overwhelmingly—fall in line behind him, one by one, because it was a binary choice, tribal politics. No matter how awful or terrible he was, no matter how many women he sexually assaulted, no matter how many disabled reporters he mocked, at least he wasn’t as hateful as Hillary Clinton.

I don’t think I was naïve about how partisan we’ve become, but the power of that tribalism was really on display there.

JM: You talk about being surprised. I think people on the left would say there’s a straight line from George W. Bush to Donald Trump, and that’s what set the stage for this. So you can’t exempt yourself from blame.

CJS: I don’t. I went back and I said, OK, I had been wrong about some things that I obviously did not fully understand, and I may have participated in myself. As you go back, you start to realize, wow, here are some warning signs I should have seen…

But there is a discontinuity between the party that used to listen to William F. Buckley and now listens to Sean Hannity; that used to read Edmund Burke and now reads Ann Coulter. So some things are not a straight line.

JM: Did you have a favorite among the Republican candidates?

CJS: I expected all along I was going to support Marco Rubio or someone like Marco Rubio. But he didn’t even last long enough to get to Wisconsin.

JM: Now we live in a social media world. We have the Facebook behemoth. Can we ever get back to having credible sources of information that are not immediately impugned and sidelined because of people’s preconceived notions?

CJS: That is an urgent question. That may be the most urgent question. You ask, was there an ‘aha’ moment for me? I think it was sometime in the middle of 2016 when I realized that I was no longer able to push back against fake news. So with people I had known for 20 years, I could not penetrate this alternative reality silo. They were immune. Nothing outside that bubble was credible to them. That was the ‘oh shit’ moment: where they had succeeded in delegitimizing everything on the outside. I don’t know how we put that back together.

JM: Is Robert Mueller our savior? How do you think about the Russia investigation?

CJS: It is immensely important. This is one of the most disillusioning parts of what’s happening: the failure on the part of conservatives to recognize that this is a fundamental issue of our democracy, if we had the Russians trying to undermine our democracy, this is very big and deep.

Having grown up in the era of Ronald Reagan to hear Republicans say, “It’s not that bad.”… I had a caller on the CSPAN show I just did who was defending Vladimir Putin, saying, “Putin stands up for his people just like Donald Trump.”

Obviously, this is a serious investigation. Don’t expect the Trump base to be moved because the battlefield has been prepped already: “this is biased, this is a witch hunt.” I actually believe if we had this media environment in the 1970s, Richard Nixon would have survived Watergate. I’m not kidding. Imagine if he had a Hannity and a Breitbart News and a Fox News.

On the other hand, I think that this is like turning over a rock. You are going to find so many things besides just the Russian collusion. We say that Donald Trump is a con man and a fraud, but that’s the way he’s done business for years. Now suddenly you have a guy [Mueller] who is going to get everything.

… I think if Trump tries to fire Mueller, I think you will have a full-fledged constitutional crisis.

JM: I feel like that’s inevitable: He will fire Mueller.

CJS: I think that anything that is conceivable, is perhaps likely. So, going back to your original question, that’s when you have to have Democrats and principled Republicans voting together. That’s when you are going to need conservative Republicans to say we’re going to draw the line.

It has already begun to a certain extent. Don’t underestimate the significance of John McCain, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, and to a lesser extent Ben Sasse. They’re not running for reelection, so that’s a downside. The upside is that they speak for a lot of Republicans who are not willing to speak out. So there’s a residual potential there—unless you scare them off.

JM: So if you’re a congressman from Wisconsin and somebody says here’s an article of impeachment, are you ready to vote for that?

CJS: Now? No, it’s premature. This is one of the rare moments where I think Nancy Pelosi is the real voice of political savvy. She understands: Keep your powder dry. Don’t burn it all until the real stuff comes down. To talk about impeachment at this point, all it does is reinforce the instinct to circle the wagons.

You know more stuff is coming. Wait until you get it. Don’t cry wolf.

JM: Do you think Trump will survive his term?

CJS: I assume he will, yes. But the issue of the women [he groped or assaulted] is going to come back…. You have this massive cultural shift and it’s inevitable that his accusers are going to get their moment. You have this contrast between all of these other men whose careers have been annihilated. And here you have the president of the United States who has never apologized, who has paid no price for this whatsoever. Republicans are going to have to answer: Do you believe these women or do you not believe these women? That is coming.