Donald Trump’s grotesqueries have presented the Republican Party’s intellectual class with a searing test of faith, somewhat akin to the way Marxist intellectuals experienced Stalin’s pact with Hitler or Khrushchev’s secret speech. Some of them have justified every one of the Great Leader’s lies, reversals, and authoritarian gestures. Others have begun to examine what about their party and their movement could have brought them to such a point.
How the Right Lost Its Mind, by Charlie Sykes, is the portrait of a conservative mind gripped with doubt. A conservative talk-radio host who found himself alienated from his audience and many of his comrades by the rise of Trump, Sykes reexamines his beliefs, and finds himself with more questions than answers.
Sykes approaches the dilemma of conservatism from the standpoint of its media wing, which he knows intimately, and many of his observations keenly identify the rot that set in in the right-wing echo chamber. Competition for audience share rewarded the most strident voices, many of which gained attention and loyalists by articulating racist or paranoid theories. The more sane conservatives declined to call them out “because, after all, we were friends,” confesses Sykes. “That proved to be a moral failure that lies at the heart of the conservative movement.”
Worse still, the conservative critique of the mainstream media went too far. Sykes earnestly believes that the mainstream media treats conservatives unfairly, but also believes it supplies real value and legitimate news. “We have succeeded in convincing our audiences to ignore and discount any information whatsoever from the mainstream media,” he laments.
Sykes even entertains the possibility that right-wing media have not helped the conservative cause at all. He notes that the Reagan administration, which saw the greatest advance of conservative politics, came at a time before Fox News or conservative talk radio existed. Reagan might not have had the room to forge compromises on issues like taxes and immigration had he lived with a conservative base perpetually mobilized to punish any ideological deviation.
Yet at many other points, Sykes seems so oblivious to the connection between Trump and the pathologies of conservatism that he is at a loss for how anybody on the right could have supported him at all. His book recounts a potted history of American conservatism that lionizes the movement’s rise from the margins — where it opposed mainstream Republicans like President Eisenhower and his “dime store New Deal” — to take the party over. In this account, which Sykes repeats, the original conservatives were utterly opposed to the strains of paranoia, racism, and authoritarianism that Trump embodies.
Sykes’s model is William F. Buckley, the widely acknowledged founder of modern conservatism. Sykes concedes that Buckley initially supported segregation and white supremacy, but “moderated his views and came to regret his stance on civil rights.” Buckley’s “excommunication” of the Birchers — the far-right group whose delusions included the belief that Eisenhower was a conscious and dedicated Communist spy and that fluoridated water was a red plot to weaken the citizenry — is the foundation of his worldview, and the lesson to which modern anti-Trump conservatives must turn.
But Buckley’s actual history is less heroic than Sykes realizes. As Alvin Felzenberg showed in National Review (no less), Buckley refused to excommunicate the Birchers outright, because he needed their subscriptions. Instead, he trod a careful line, gently (though in progressively stiffer terms) denouncing John Birch Society president Robert Welch’s statements while embracing the Birchers themselves. His seminal anti-Welch editorial “closed with the hope that the JBS would reject Welch’s trajectory and thrive,” recounts Felzenberg. And even then, Buckley “tried to retain a façade of cordial relations with the man he had denounced,” sending polite letters to Welch offering to renew his free subscription and good wishes. Buckley’s careful handling of the Birchers was not a counterpoint to the modern GOP’s treatment of the Trumpian fringe, but a precursor.
It is true that Buckley gave up his support for de jure segregation after Congress had outlawed it. But if he had learned any moral lessons, they were not apparent two decades later when Buckley continued to defend the Apartheid government in South Africa. Buckley did not merely defend South Africa on strategic anti-communist grounds, but embraced the white minority’s right to rule undemocratically. “President Botha of South Africa is incontestably right in saying in effect that he was not elected leader of his government in order to preside over the liquidation of the South Africa he was elected to govern,” he wrote in 1985. “One-man one-vote is a fanatical abstraction of self government that not even the United States tolerates institutionally.”
Buckley was a political realist. He might not have defended authoritarianism or white supremacy after they had suffered an irrevocable defeat. But nothing in his political makeup enabled him to support progressive egalitarian reform until it had become a fait accompli. The conservative dogma he helped to implant as the official policy of the Republican Party was unbending.
Sykes also takes the premise that the mainstream media is hopelessly biased against conservatives and Republicans as so manifest, he hardly bothers to demonstrate it. He holds up as evidence of bias truth-ratings from the fact-checking site Politifact, noting incredulously that Republicans were deemed to have spoken untruths at a higher rate than Democrats, even before Trump came along. Sykes can imagine no explanation for this other than bias.
But what about the possibility that Republicans say more untrue things because they have a friendly media ecosystem that allows them to do so? In their daily lives, Democratic politicians may not have more honest character than their Republican counterparts. But Democrats know that if they utter blatant falsehoods, the New York Times, NPR, CNN, and so on are likely to call them out on it, and their own supporters (who draw from those outlets for news) will think less of them. Republicans have no such constraint. The GOP voting base, as Sykes has noted, relies almost entirely on conservative media, which do not even attempt to follow the principle of journalistic objectivity.
Whatever failing Sykes attributes to the liberal media, he surely recognizes that they have no parallel in the blatant propaganda of Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. The mainstream media is at least trying to be fair, and even if its errors don’t balance out perfectly, they do run both ways. A week before the 2016 election, a New York Times headline announced, “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” One can only imagine what Sykes would make of it had the paper committed an error of equal magnitude against a Republican nominee.
The large historical fact Sykes cannot bring himself to acknowledge is the connection between Trump and the rigidity of conservative dogma. One manifestation of the link passes briefly into his field of vision, and then disappears. “It is harder to explain why free markets create wealth than it is to pander to workers who have been displaced by global competition,” he writes. “It is an uphill fight to persuade workers that the minimum wage is not in their interest.” (The list could go on if he wanted: It is also hard to talk voters into supporting cuts to extremely popular social insurance programs or tax cuts for very rich people.)
Sykes goes on from here to argue that these unpopular principles must be defended nonetheless. He might consider another way to read these facts. The Republican Party under Eisenhower reconciled itself to the popularity of the New Deal, and created an identity for itself that allowed for a positive vision for the role of the state. Right-of-center parties in other democracies have done the same. The United States is the only democracy with a major conservative party so extreme in its hostility to government that it rejects universal health insurance, climate science, or tax increases of any form at any time. And the GOP’s attraction to white racial grievance and authoritarianism is a direct result of being saddled with unpopular economic views.
Sykes concedes that many of his liberal readers are bound to be disappointed with the breadth of his critique. Indeed, liberals sometimes fall into the trap of demanding that Republican critics of Trump endorse every element of the Democratic platform. A rational, post-Trump party would surely stake out conservative ground on abortion and other social issues, foreign policy and the military, opposition to single-payer health insurance, and other questions. A more centrist GOP would not need to deflect every economic question by appealing to ethno-nationalism, nor would it be so easily panicked into supporting a Flight 93 strongman to stave off the terrifying nonwhite hordes.
Sykes proposes that conservatives can sharpen their thinking by opposing Trump, just as they did by opposing the moderation of Eisenhower. What if they tried emulating it, instead?