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How conservative media became a “safe space”

Former talk radio host Charlie Sykes on the crisis of conservative media.

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Fox News host Sean Hannity (L) interviews U.S. President Donald Trump before a campaign rally at the Las Vegas Convention Center on September 20, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Fox News host Sean Hannity interviews President Donald Trump before a campaign rally in Las Vegas on September 20, 2018.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

One of the more peculiar political phenomena of the last few years has been the rise of “woke conservatives,” sometimes called “Never Trumpers.”

These are old-school conservatives — like Bill Kristol, founder of the now-defunct magazine the Weekly Standard, and Washington Post columnist Max Boot — who have become the self-appointed citadels of a dying brand of conservatism in the Trump era. Many of them, individually, have done quite well, raising their pundit profiles and commanding plenty of media attention.

As a group, though, they’ve so far failed to accomplish their main objective: stopping Trump. Indeed, since Trump’s election in 2016, the Republican Party — and conservatism more generally — has been thoroughly Trumpified. A big reason for this is right-wing media, which has become increasingly insular and invested in Trump’s political success.

In response to this, a group of Never Trumpers, including Kristol, just launched a new website called the Bulwark. Their goal, stated clearly on the site, is “to push back against the moral and intellectual corruption that now poses an existential threat to conservatism as a viable political force.” According to the Bulwark’s editor-in-chief, Charlie Sykes, that means resisting both the left and a conservative movement led by “grifters and trolls” in right-wing media.

I reached out to Sykes, who published the 2017 book How the Right Lost Its Mind, to talk about what’s happened to conservatism and how he plans to save it from Trumpism. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

How would you define the crisis of conservative media in 2019?

Charlie Sykes

The crisis of conservative media is deciding whether or not it’s going to become a tool of Trumpism, whether or not they will turn themselves into the rationalizers and defenders of this particular regime.

Sean Illing

Is that still an open question?

Charlie Sykes

Well, I think we have to truly find out if there is a market and a need for independent, non-Trumpian conservative voices. Of course, after the Weekly Standard went under, the narrative was that this was a sign that there was no market for “Never Trump” conservative thinking and writing, and maybe that’s true.

But we’re going to test that proposition, because we actually do think that there are people on the right who want to hear a different point of view. I’m willing to acknowledge that this is a leap of faith. I’m willing to gamble that there’s an intelligent, literate audience for thoughtful, nontribal conservatism. Maybe I’m wrong, but we’re going to find out one way or the other.

Sean Illing

How did we reach this point where the market for a traditional conservative point of view has been all but extinguished? How is there no longer any space for a conservatism that isn’t marred by nativism and populist hysteria?

Charlie Sykes

That’s a good question, and I’m someone who has spent a good deal of time in the center of this transformation of conservative media from being a legitimate alternative voice to becoming an alternative-reality silo. Today, most conservative media functions as a massive fog machine for its audience

How all this happened is a pretty long story, but I think as our politics has become more tribalized, the media has started to mirror that tribalization more and more. But conservative media is really exceptional here. The funny thing is that conservatives spent years mocking the idea of “safe spaces,” and yet that’s exactly what their media has become — a safe space for their worldviews.

It’s a place where they can go to have their biases confirmed over and over again. If they happen to hear something that’s uncomfortable or disturbing from the mainstream media, they can click on Fox News and be immediately comforted and have their anger turned back on the true boogeyman — the left.

So that’s the situation we now find ourselves in: Conservative consumers have been conditioned to have their biases constantly reinforced, and they’re increasingly intolerant of dissenting voices. Is it any surprise, then, that they’ve surrendered so easily to Donald Trump? Is is it any surprise that the conservative intellectual infrastructure has been so heavily degraded?

Sean Illing

There’s a chicken-or-the-egg problem here. As you pointed out in a recent piece, the GOP tent is filled with bigots — that’s not to say that all Republicans are bigots, obviously, but the GOP is the preferred party of bigots. How much of this is due to the conservative media and how much of it is just a reflection of what conservatism has become?

Charlie Sykes

That’s a really hard question. I think it’s a complicated relationship, and it’s hard to say definitively who or what is responsible. I can say that there’s a responsibility on the part of thought leaders and media leaders because they can either appeal to one’s better angels or they can stoke these sorts of fears and anxieties, and these angels and anxieties coexist in the same people who, if pushed, can go in either direction. But if we exist in a media environment that is constantly seeing all of America’s problems as being summed up by brown people coming across the Southern border, then we’re going to get bigotry and xenophobia.

I know a lot of Trump voters and most of them were not panicked about the border a few years ago — this is a crisis that has been manufactured by Trump. But was this nativism there all along? Was it latent? Sure. We’ve seen this stuff manifest over and over again, so it’s not new. I’ve called it the recessive gene on the right, and it’s why I think conservative thought leaders have a responsibility to not stir up these anxieties.

Sean Illing

Why do you suppose conservative media is so good at constructing alternative realities for its audience? Is it something about the psychology of conservatism? Or has right-wing media just figured out how to sell their views better than anyone else? Obviously, there are left-leaning publications, but they seem to playing a fundamentally different game than conservative media.

Charlie Sykes

Boy, you know, I wish I had an answer for you. No matter how you look at it, it’s hard not to fall back on the gullibility of the audience here, which obviously doesn’t speak well of the conservative movement. But conservative media has become dumber and meaner and it would not be successful without the willing support of the audience.

But the vast majority of conservative media right now is not filled with intellectuals. They don’t traffic in ideas. They traffic in memes and in narratives and in anecdotes, which is why Donald Trump is their most perfect creation. His whole way of doing politics mimics talk radio and the way he frames issues is the way right-wing media has been framing issues for years.

Sean Illing

What do you mean by that?

Charlie Sykes

Think about how Trump talks about almost any issue: He picks a couple of misleading anecdotes, isolates a clear enemy, picks a fight with that enemy, and then turns every issue around to whataboutism — meaning “look at what the other side is doing, look at how crooked Hillary is, or look at how corrupt Mueller is.” These are all just the staples of conservative media.

Sean Illing

I want to be careful here not to caricature the opposition on the right to what you and your colleagues are doing. I’m sure you’re aware of the controversy that Fox News host Tucker Carlson stirred up in a recent monologue on his show in which he accused the Republican establishment of worshiping the market above all else.

I’m not sure I’ve ever agreed with Carlson about anything, but I think he was absolutely right in saying that many conservatives — especially the sort of conservatives you’re aligned with — have come to regard market capitalism as a religion and therefore don’t understand the populist ire or the cultural disillusionment we’re seeing on the right.

A lot of people on the right making this point might have questionable motives, but that doesn’t make the argument wrong. Have you considered that there is an element of the conservative base that doesn’t believe establishment conservatives understand or even care about their concerns, and that that’s part of the reason they’ve decided to blow everything up?

Charlie Sykes

Yeah, and it’s a very real challenge. We’re going through a great rethinking of a lot of these core conservative dogmas — and that’s a good thing. I mean, we’re sitting here in Washington, DC, where we’re surrounded by people who simply want to use government for their own private benefit, and they will use the ideology of free-market capitalism to rationalize things that are very much not in the public interest. We cannot ignore how destructive that is. We have to see people as more than economic creatures.

At the same time, this conversation has to be unpacked from all of the nativism and xenophobia and racism if it’s to be productive at all. We also have to get away from the politics of victimization. The problem that I had with Tucker Carlson is he’s cynically playing the victimhood form of populism, something I never thought I’d hear a conservative do.

So yes, there’s a vigorous debate that has to be had, and we have to purge the white nationalism and the bile that’s lurking underneath a lot of it. But this argument that we’ve perhaps gone too far in our worship of market capitalism is absolutely legitimate, and it’s long overdue. I don’t want to discount that at all.

Sean Illing

How can conservatism as a viable political philosophy survive this era? What does it have to become?

Charlie Sykes

I honestly do not know the answer to that question. I think it’s going to take a very, very long time for conservatism to wipe the stain of Trumpism off — and it may not be able to. In the long term, I think conservatism will always have a place as a moderator of radical change. Its real heart and soul is in reacting to destabilizing changes, as opposed to being a mainly positive ideology.

But I suspect that the whole project of creating a conservative intellectual infrastructure might have run its course. I hope I’m wrong about that, but I’m just not sure. Maybe the one good thing about the current mess is that it’s forcing conservatives to rethink their dogmas and really question what’s going on.

Whatever form of conservatism emerges out of this will not be the conservatism of Ronald Reagan or the libertarianism of Milton Friedman. It will look different and hopefully be more responsive to the actual needs of the real world, without the sort of ugly bigotry we’re seeing now. It’s also possible that the conservative movement and the GOP will just become a white-identity party, in which case I think we’re doomed.

Sean Illing

That seems to be the most likely course, no?

Charlie Sykes

I think so, but we’re hoping at the Bulwark to stand in opposition to this and say, “We’re not going along for this.” We’re hoping to salvage what we can, because the next couple of years are truly pivotal, and we need all the rationality we can get.

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