A long time ago (two years, actually), there was a sort of person we referred to as a “full-spectrum conservative.” Full-spectrum conservatives supported traditional morals, free enterprise, and a strong public investment in national security. For this group, 2016 was not a good year.
Trumpian populists effectively set fire to the proverbial three-legged stool. The full-spectrum conservatives of yesteryear were faced with a choice: move quickly or else find yourself on the ground. Many moved. Some took the fall. And few took the latter course quite so spectacularly as Charles Sykes, the radio host whose March 2016 interview with Donald Trump helped send the real estate tycoon spiraling into a dramatic primary loss in his home state of Wisconsin. Sykes won that battle, but he and his associates went on to lose the war. Now he’s compiled his thoughts on conservatism’s decline into a new book, How the Right Lost Its Mind.
If nothing else, the book is a triumph for this reason alone: though he clearly views Donald Trump’s election as a catastrophe (both for conservatism and for America), Sykes manages to discourse on the problem for 274 pages without allowing the Mogul to hog the spotlight. It’s refreshing to find a discussion of right-wing politics that doesn’t veer into yet another attempt to chart the murky waters of Trump’s fevered brain. Instead, Sykes wants to understand how the party of Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley could have degenerated to the point where a frivolous attention-seeker ducked out of a Democratic Party fundraiser just in time to take the GOP on a cosmic joyride.
Here’s the core of Sykes’ answer: Right-wing media created a fever swamp of misinformation, fanaticism, and resentment, which ultimately derailed the party and American politics.
That’s not the whole story, of course. Sykes spreads responsibility for the disaster across multiple parties. He explains how cranks and crazies spent decades clamoring for satisfaction, until the din finally drowned out serious discussion. He chastises the illiberal left, whose relentless, hysterical bullying put millions of Americans on the defensive. He throws a spotlight on exploitative PACs (especially in the late Tea Party era) that repeatedly amped up the rage, mainly for the sake of lining their own pockets. Polarizing figures like Jim DeMint come under fire for removing some of the “safety features” that might have averted the catastrophe and for politicizing organizations that had long been respected for their serious and measured perspectives. Finally, Sykes criticizes the Republican Party for failing to adapt to the changing needs of the electorate. An approving glance is thrown to Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, and their fellow reformocons, who spent years begging the GOP to rein in cronyism and attend to the concerns of the middle class.
In this litany of blame, Sykes also examines himself. Personal regret is not the book’s most prominent theme, but it’s there and seems sincere. Sykes explains how an increasingly polarized political landscape desensitized sincere conservatives (himself included) to rhetoric that should have raised red flags. When the left sees racists and fascists behind every tree, conservatives become practiced at countering such allegations, dismissing them as paranoid or just politically opportunistic. Looking back at the lunatic accusations that were slung at John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Paul Ryan, it’s easy enough to understand how conservatives got to that point. Unfortunately, wolf-crying children don’t keep the monsters at bay.
Now the monsters are out in full force (as evidenced by the massive popularity of sites like Breitbart.com and Infowars). That brings us back to the issue of media. With so much blame to go around, it’s interesting that Sykes’ scathing indictment devotes so much space to the right-wing media figures who, in his assessment, sacrificed principle in pursuit of their private venal interests. Trump was the least conservative Republican candidate in living memory, but the right’s media outlets still unrolled the red carpet for him, mostly in a bid for relevance. Fox News (though initially a bit resistant to Trump) was desperate to be kingmaker. Rush Limbaugh was anxious to recover some of the status he lost in his unseemly flame war with Sandra Fluke. Matt Drudge and Steve Bannon wanted to be titans of internet traffic, and to that end were happy to give a platform to fanatics, crazies, and fire-breathing demagogues. Stoking and stroking is a lucrative business.
Is it unfair to pile so much blame on media personalities? Media is Sykes’ own business, so it’s natural for him to focus on the thing he knows best. Even if you think that Sykes is excessively influenced by personal bitterness, there’s still a point worth pondering here, especially for readers (and writers) of the right-wing media: Isn’t it basically true that this is one of the newer elements in the American landscape? If we think our republic is in sorry shape nowadays, how should we think about developments in media that seem overall to be correlated with a nationwide increase in anxiety, polarization, and despair?
Of course it’s never enjoyable to turn a critical eye back on ourselves. The left has plenty of failings worth discussion, as Sykes knows well, having personally written whole books about the defects of the Academy and the entitlement state. Conservatives are likely to agree that the left’s cultural bastions are well stocked with hypocrites, bullies, and rent-seekers, and they surely have much to answer for today.
This, however, is nothing new: The universities, mainstream media, and Hollywood have leaned left for decades already. That didn’t stop conservatives from winning some major political victories in the 80’s and 90’s, before Fox News, and in the earliest days of right-leaning talk radio. Today the political right has constructed its own complete alternative media, but Americans seem anything but hopeful. Are there connections worth probing here?
The bracing experiences of 2016 obviously led Sykes to re-evaluate his own place in the media landscape. Honest conservatives of all stripes could benefit from considering that tumultuous year through his eyes. Even if you like Trump and are happy with some of the things he’s done, you should still be willing to ask: Why was it possible for so many people to shift positions so dramatically, in such a short space of time? What does that tell us about our commentariat?
Jonah Goldberg captured this problem rather well in his famous “body-snatcher” column. Here’s my own analogy for how anti-Trump conservatives experienced 2016. You show up for a sporting match, decked out in your team’s colors, riding a wave of fan enthusiasm. As the game goes on though, people around you start casually flipping their shirts inside-out to reveal the colors of a completely different team. Quite soon, you find that you’ve become one of the outliers in a “hostile” section, though you’re pretty sure you haven’t moved at all. Who knew you were one of very few fans who came unprepared with a non-reversible jersey? Bewildered, you turn to a friend who just switched her shirt.
“Can you explain why you just did that?” you ask.
“Did what?” she says.
This large-scale transformation was naturally most disillusioning for “true fans” like Sykes, who was quite happy to regard free enterprise and ordered liberty as foundational principles for American conservatism. One needn’t share all of his political views, however, to agree with his concerns about a media that seems to be bobbing recklessly on a surging torrent of populist emotion. Do our opinion-makers actually believe things, or do they just say whatever is necessary to keep traffic high?
Populist sympathizers tend to address these questions by returning to their rhetorical safe spaces: Trump’s virtues, the GOP’s vices, and the egregious failings of the left. That’s kind of missing the point, though. The reversible-jersey episode couldn’t be adequately explained through statistical analyses of the relative strengths of the competing teams. A fan who changes his jersey mid-game is really missing the point of fandom, which should be a kind of participation in the struggle for victory. In a similar way, a commentator who tethers his views to popular opinion is missing the whole point of commentary. It’s not supposed to be mere entertainment; it’s supposed to be part of a communal struggle towards a greater understanding of the truth. If principles are just rhetorical furniture in an ongoing conversation game, what is to keep us from spiraling off into ever-further levels of illiberalism, repression, and lunacy?
Individual cases can be hard to judge, but the broader trends Sykes describes are depressingly easy to understand. You don’t keep your site traffic high by telling readers things they don’t want to hear. From the perspective of an individual writer, saying “the said thing” is a whole lot easier than struggling to discern the truth (and then persuade a possibly unsympathetic audience). Populism is bad for the nation, but it’s very good for business (if your business is to capture clicks and eyeballs). And once the ship starts to move, most media figures would rather move with it than be left treading water with George Will and Charlie Sykes.
Sykes argues that as of today, the political left needs an autopsy, while the right needs an exorcism. Some commentators have remarked, dubiously, that there doesn’t seem to be anyone available to perform such a ritual. Who today has the media control of a Buckley, or the electrifying personality of a Reagan?
One never knows when a great thinker or statesman might appear on the horizon. In the meanwhile, we need to draw strength from the realization that ideas have power. True ideas have particular power. The inane yammering of shills and demagogues can only hold sway for so long. We must continue to pursue greater understanding, so that when the fey mood passes, someone will have a message worth hearing.
Rachel Lu is a senior contributor at The Federalist and a Robert Novak Fellow.