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A conservative radio host calls it quits over Trump: “do I really want to be part of this?"

Charlie Sykes on Trump and the decay of the conservative moment.

Donald Trump Holds Rally In Wilkes-Barre, PA Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

The #NeverTrump bandwagon has added quite a few passengers in the past week or so.

But days before Trump’s grab ’em by the pussy” moment, a prominent conservative talk show host stunned listeners by announcing he was quitting radio at the end of the year.

Charlie Sykes has been a leading conservative in Wisconsin for nearly three decades. The host of a mid-day show on WTMJ in Milwaukee, Sykes has amassed a large audience with his aggressive but thoughtful style. This year, however, he has found himself standing athwart a wave of conservative hysteria. A vocal critic of Trump, Sykes has strained his relationship with his listeners, many of whom are irked by his refusal to hop aboard the Trump train.

I spoke with Sykes last week about his decision to leave radio. I wanted to know if he believes right-wing media is responsible for Trump’s ascendance and, perhaps more importantly, if he thinks there will be a reckoning in the Republican Party after this election.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

How long have you been doing your conservative radio show in Wisconsin?

Charlie Sykes

About 25 years.

Sean Illing

And how would you characterize your brand of conservatism?

Charlie Sykes

I would describe myself as a conservative in the mold of William Buckley, someone who during the 1980s followed people Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett, or who today falls in line with people like Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan.

I’m the kind of person that actually bought the Weekly Standard and thought the National Review defined what the conservative movement was, at least until earlier this year.

Sean Illing

In that case, I assume this election has been utterly disorienting for you.

Charlie Sykes

It’s extremely disorienting and disillusioning and I haven’t made any secret of that. To realize, first of all, that you’re part of a movement that was not the movement you thought it was, that you’re aligned with people that you didn’t really understand you’re aligned with, and to realize that everything that you thought about the conservative intellectual infrastructure was really piecrust thin.

You thought you had this big principled movement and then suddenly along comes Donald Trump and you realize that it was just was just the pastry on top. So I think disorienting is a great term. Disillusioning is not too strong either.

Sean Illing

You’ve said your decision to step away from radio wasn’t driven by this year’s political season, but that’s not really true is it?

Charlie Sykes

Well, it made it a lot easier. You basically feel the world kind of shifting under your feet and you look around and say, okay, I’m a conservative talk radio host in a world in which the conservative media is basically setting itself on fire. Do I really want to still be part of this?

This has been in the back of my mind all year long and I needed to be able to step back and ask what the hell just happened. How could we have misunderstood this so much?

When you find out so many of the people that you had relied upon and trusted were in fact phonies, then you have to step back and ask: What is my standard of credibility?What do I believe? What information sources are reliable?

Sean Illing

Do you feel like the Republican Party has basically spontaneously combusted this year?

Charlie Sykes

I think that the Republican Party and the conservative movement are still intact, but what’s happening is unthinkable by any objective standard. If the Republican Party took the ideas or principles or any of the things that it claimed it stood for seriously, this would not be possible.

I mean, I’m old enough to remember when conservatives told people we think character matters…

Sean Illing

And then they gave us Donald Trump…

Charlie Sykes

Well seriously, this is the party that just nominated Donald Trump, and we’re supposed to believe that. Watching a party that had eight years ago mocked Democrats for having low information voters and a cult of personality, and now it’s like we have the lowest information voters ever and the worst cult of personality that I’ve seen since the 1930s.

Sean Illing

It really is quite bizarre to witness how zealous some of the Trump supporters are. Has your opposition to Trump strained your relationship with your listeners?

Charlie Sykes

After I announced I was stepping down, I got all kinds of email, people saying we’re going to miss you and we really enjoy you. And my response was, where the hell have you been?

Because every time I’ve brought up the presidential race, my email box filled up with people saying I’ve betrayed them and that I’m a turncoat. My response is that I am exactly what I’ve always been. You have just turned the party into something completely different.

But, yes, there’s a lot of people who believe that the role of conservative media is to support the Republican candidate no matter what, and so that has created a great deal of strain.

Sean Illing

Do you feel complicit in any way in the creation of this Frankensteinian monster that is Trump? That’s not to say that you’ve been whipping voters into a frenzy all these years, but perhaps you’ve been blind to the role of conservative media in all of this.

Charlie Sykes

Oh, yes, absolutely. I’m different than Rush Limbaugh, but there’s no question that we got caught up in certain word salad, certain narratives that perhaps we did not fully understand how they were playing among our base.

I’m not trying to pose for holy pictures here, but I’ve been doing this for 20 years and critiques of the mainstream media were always a part of everything we did. Some of that critique is valuable, but it did lead to this nihilism that we have now.

I don’t think I’d use the phrase Frankenstein monster, but if that’s your analogy…

Sean Illing

I’ve had this conversation with a lot of my conservative friends who are equally troubled by Trump. My point is always that Trump didn’t spring suddenly out of a whirlwind. Conservative media has been flirting with these darker forces for decades. Trump is the culmination of something, not the beginning.

Charlie Sykes

If you and I had this conversation a year ago, I would’ve disagreed with you vigorously. I would’ve said, “There you go again with the darker forces garbage.” Conservatives have been accused of this for years. But obviously there’s some truth to what you’ve just said.

I haven’t totally worked this out, but the question is simple: Is Donald Trump a logical continuity? Or does he mark a radical break, a discontinuity? And I think that Hillary Clinton has argued that he represents a break.

But I can tell you some of the things he is saying — about Muslims and immigrants in particular — is just way out there. It’s hard to say where it comes from exactly, but we clearly have to ask the question.

Charlie Sykes.

Sean Illing

There are serious conservatives with serious ideas out there, but you don’t hear any of that on the radio. It’s just all rage all the time.

Charlie Sykes

Right, and that’s easy radio. One of the things that has disillusioned me is watching hosts just go with the flow. They don’t want to push back. They’re worried about ratings. They don’t want to have their email box filled up. They don’t want to put up with, you know, the massive blowback on social media. So they just don’t do it.

And as a result, what happens is the worst voices go unchallenged. It’s the easy, lazy approach and I think that up until last year the thought was: Well you know, these are friends, do not take it seriously, it’s no big deal. Then suddenly Frankenstein’s monster walked through the door.

Sean Illing

It’s astonishing how little these political entrepreneurs thought about the consequences of their words. You whip people into a frenzy for long enough, and eventually…

Charlie Sykes

Well this year the walls have completely broken down throughout the media. It’s like watching the dam get blown away. I just can’t push back on all the crazy stuff out there. How many times can you say that Obama isn’t gay or a Muslim or that he wasn’t born in Kenya?

I read polls earlier this year showing what percentage of Republicans believe those things and you kind of brush it off. But then you have to step back and go, okay crap, how did this happen? And are we complicit by not having pushed back more aggressively?

Sean Illing

If you live inside that radio cocoon, you’re hermetically sealed from reality. Everything outside the bubble is dismissed as subterfuge.

Charlie Sykes

Absolutely. And you have these websites out there, like Breitbart.com, which is like reading third-world propaganda. These guys like Breitbart are smart enough to know that they’re full of shit. But if you inhabit that world, you can’t push back without being seen as a sellout.

Now I will say this one thing on the flip side. Some of these people have flocked to sites like Breitbart and they’ve retreated into these dark corners because the left has too easily tossed words like “racist” and “xenophobe” and “sexist” around.

So what’s happened is that when a guy like me or anyone or you says, hey, you know, Donald Trump is a racist and a xenophobe and a sexist. The conservative media world, the consumers, they tell me we’ve been called that for 20 or 30 years. They’ve become conditioned to blow it off as crying wolf.

Sean Illing

I think that’s a fair point.

Charlie Sykes

I’m old enough to remember that being called a racist was the worst thing, the most devastating thing you could call someone — and now it’s lost all currency. I mean, people don’t even blink at it anymore. John McCain’s a racist, Mitt Romney’s a racist, Paul Ryan’s a racist.

But when Donald Trump comes, who is the real thing, we call him that and say we didn’t really mean it about those other guys. This is who we were warning you about. It’s blown off by a lot of the conservative base.

Sean Illing

Would you have believed a year ago that something like this was possible?

Charlie Sykes

I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything remotely like this and I think that part of our inability to grasp it is because we’ve never seen anything like it — not here, at least. The only analogy I can think of is, you know, the man on the white horse during a time of distrust who ascends to power on a cult of personality.

Sean Illing

That’s fascism, no?

Charlie Sykes

It is. This is not about ideas. It’s not about policies of any kind whatsoever. … It’s about the strong man, the authoritarian man.

Sean Illing

Although the story is just now breaking, I take it you’ve heard the leaked recording between Trump and Billy Bush?

Charlie Sykes

Trump's comments were horrific, but utterly predictable because they were totally consistent with everything we knew about his character. The GOP was deluded to imagine that this wouldn't blow up on them.

I felt vindicated for about 5 minutes, but then angry about the dishonesty, cowardice, and lack of principle that led to this.

Unfortunately this has also given much of the conservative media another chance to beclown themselves again on behalf of the Orange Duce.

They broke it. They own it.

Sean Illing

So how do you justify the decision by conservative leaders to endorse Trump’s candidacy? Do you think someone like Paul Ryan will live to regret how he handled this?

Charlie Sykes

Yes, I think the regret will be indirect. But there are distinctions here. The inner circle — the Huckabees, the Giulianis, the Newt Gingriches — they ought to be totally and utterly discredited by their support. And for the people like Paul Ryan who up until now have made it clear that we’re going to vote for him but we’re going to distance ourselves from the racism and the filth — they are somewhat more insulated but still have that problem.

Sean Illing

Yes, but I don’t think that’s a move one can intellectually make. You can’t say, as Ryan has, that Trump is a “textbook” racist but that you’ll vote for him anyway.

Charlie Sykes

Well that’s exactly my point. It’s intellectually incoherent to say, and I’ve had this conversation with him — that this is a textbook example of racism but let’s make him president.

I make a distinction between Ryan and the Kool-Aid drinkers, but I think it’s going to be very difficult to wipe the stink off.

Sean Illing

So you do think there will be a reckoning of some kind on the right after this? I suppose my worry is that there’s always a tendency to double down rather than course correct, and I wonder if that’s going to happen again this time.

Charlie Sykes

Yes, there’s absolutely going to be a reckoning. There has to be a reckoning. We have to come to grips with things like the alt-right, and there has to be the understanding that they cannot be a legitimate part of our party. We have to do to the alt-right what Buckley Jr. did to the John Birch Society, otherwise there is literally no electoral future for conservatives.

Will that happen? I don’t know. I suspect Republicans will try to brush past this. They’ll try to unite by being against Hillary and I think they’ll get that illusion of unity by being in opposition to Hillary. She’ll be the perfect foil. And so that will paper over all of these deeper divisions, which I think is a huge mistake because they’re still there.

And it won’t just go away after Trump.


Watch: The political science that predicted Trump's rise

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