I recently wrote a mixed assessment of How the Right Lost Its Mind, a quasi-confessional account of Republican derangement by conservative former talk-radio host Charlie Sykes. I was eager to probe Sykes for responses to my critique, and he generously agreed to an interview. Sykes is disturbed by the racist and authoritarian elements Trump has exploited, but we don’t fully agree on their sources. Below, we discuss where Trumpism comes from and how the party lost its mind:
Chait: My review of your book mixed praise and criticism. I praised its spirit of questioning and reassessment of where the Republican Party has gone wrong. But my conclusion is that you understate, or perhaps misstate, the role conservative dogma has played in the trends you aptly identify. I would argue that the heroes of your story, such as William F. Buckley and the founders of the conservative movement, had more in common with today’s conservative leaders than you allow for.
Sykes: You quite accurately describe my disillusionment and note that I am left with more questions than answers.
Chait: Maybe we should start with Buckley, since he is such an important figure in your account. My argument is that Buckley defended segregation, and that he played a very delicate and gentle game with the John Birch Society, much like Trump and the alt-right.
Sykes: In the book, I specifically noted his segregationist rhetoric. And the fact that he later said he regretted it. But I do acknowledge that this planted seeds in the movement that generated poisonous growths later. But I guess I would challenge the notion that there is anything like a straight line from Buckley to Ann Coulter, or from Buckley to Trump.
Chait: That’s right. My quibble is that you portray him as having learned from the defeat of segregation. I think his subsequent support for apartheid shows that he merely applied his pragmatism to the situation and saw segregation in the U.S. as a lost cause, but a cause that could still be won in South Africa 20 years later.
Sykes: I do think distinctions need to be made. Both Hubert Humphrey and Che were men on the left. But they ought not be conflated.
Chait: No doubt. I’ve been writing recently about the importance for progressives to understand different strains of right-wing thought.
Sykes: Buckley’s position on apartheid was morally wrong and historically dumb. But I cite him at length for two main reasons: (1) he sought to give some thoughtful coherence to conservatism, (2) he made efforts to push out the crackpots.
Trump represents (1) the replacement of thought with erratic demagoguery, and (2) he embraced and emboldened the worst elements … the paranoid conspiracy theorists, racists, anti-Semites. You suggest that I was “oblivious” to the connections between Trump and the pathologies of conservatism. I freely admit that there were a lot of things that I missed or downplayed. But rather than oblivious … I would describe myself as obsessed with those pathologies, which obviously contributed significantly to Trump’s success.
Chait: Let me stick with Buckley for a second, because I think he gets at the root of my disagreement. I think Buckley represented a politics of reflexive and unbending opposition to progressive social change. Any reordering of social or economic power was bad, whether in the American South, or South Africa, or through any expansion of regulations or the welfare state. This was quite a change from the Eisenhower Republicanism that he overthrew. Eisenhower was more selective, sometimes favoring more government, and sometimes not. Once your party is controlled by a movement that rules out any progressive social change, it is in the grips of a radical dogma.
What’s more, this left the party opposed to popular government programs, as you briefly note. That unpopular stance on the role of government required the GOP to embrace white grievance in order to compete for votes. And it has left many conservatives suspicious of democracy, for the same reason.
So, I conclude that the triumph of the radical conservatives is the cause of the phenomenon you describe quite well.
Sykes: I think Buckley was more complicated than you suggest. He took many positions that would be regarded as heretical today. But I think he also helped fashion a useful critique of the role of the state in society and the fusionist idea of ordered liberty was an important counterbalance to the passion for, and faith in, central government planning.
But I think the nub of your argument, which I think is important, is that the GOP embraced or at least tolerated white grievance because its underlying policies were unpopular. Here, I think it might be useful to break out (1) conservative theorists, (2) cynical GOP politicians, and (3) the larger GOP-voting base.
Chait: Go on.
Sykes: Starting with Hayek, and extending to Milton Friedman, I think there was a principled critique of the limits of government knowledge and, hence, of the ability of the central state to run the economy. There was also an attempt to fuse together various branches of conservatism into the concept of ordered liberty. These thinkers (and I would include people like Jack Kemp later) genuinely thought that limited government, free markets, and economic freedom would provide the greatest scope and opportunities for Americans. But, as you suggest, these ideas were indeed hard to translate into policies that could win elections.
This brings us to the politicians. Richard Nixon, who embraced the most aggressive versions of the Southern Strategy, was not a conservative of this school, but I do think that there was a temptation among the political class to use both cultural and racial issues to substitute for other issues. Conservatives too often gave in to that temptation. Even those who did not turned a blind eye to the grievances among folks whose vote they needed.
Fast-forward to 2016. Trump deftly exploited those grievances, and continues to do so. Rather than talk about health care, he attacks the NFL. It’s very much the old pattern.But: This doesn’t mean that people whose views were shaped by Hayek, von Mises, or Friedman are therefore responsible for the alt-right.
In other words, there is a conservative tradition that is clearly separable and distinct from Trumpism. But it is a tradition that clearly has been abandoned by much of the political class and GOP electorate.
Chait: Obviously Trump is an outlier from his party and right-wing politics in all sorts of ways — his extraordinarily blunt lies, his wild anti-intellectualism, courting of Nazis as fringe members of his coalition, and so on. I think we agree there are also elements of continuity. Sarah Palin took us pretty far down the road toward Trump, for instance.
Sykes: Agree. Let’s talk about Palin. She could be Patient Zero is this current epidemic.
Chait: To be clear, I see the epidemic as having begun long before her. But, yes, her candidacy is important. One key difference is that Palin was sprung on the party as a fait accompli, while Trump had to fight for the nomination over a long period of time. This means some conservatives had a chance to consider and evaluate Trump, which did not happen with Palin. There was very little dissent about her on the right.
Sykes: Yes, it did begin before her. But that’s why Trump was a symptom. Remember that I wrote this: “In other words, did Trump represent continuity or discontinuity? Was he a logical development in conservatism, or a radical, ominous break with that tradition? Or was it a combination of both?”
First a confession: When I set out to write this book, I was prepared to argue that Trump’s victory was a black-swan event, a hostile takeover of the conservative movement. But that position no longer seems tenable; the roots for the populist/nationalist putsch run too deep.
Chait: What about the paranoia and disdain for truth of Joe McCarthy, which conservatives like Buckley and Irving Kristol defended?
Sykes: To be clear: I’m open to a variety of alternative explanations, including some that you have floated.
Chait: The dismissal of the mainstream media by Nixon, Agnew, and Ziegler was quite similar — they simply didn’t yet have an alternate infrastructure in place, but they very much wanted to create one. We’ve already discussed race. But don’t you see these as earlier precursors?
Sykes: Not sure about Irving Kristol. But Buckley was caught up in Cold War anti-Communist politics. I think his attack on the Birch Society was a recognition that things could spiral out of control.
Chait: Well, as I noted, he did not attack the John Birch Society. He deliberately steered clear, defending the group while criticizing its leader, as Alvin Felzenberg recounts in NR.
Sykes: On the media attacks: yes, they were very much precursors. The attacks on the MSM has been a staple of the conservative movement from the very beginning … actually long before Nixon. I spent so much time on the history of the conservative media (relying on Nicole Hemmer’s excellent history) to show how deep that suspicion went.
We don’t need to relitigate this. As the headline there says, he “excommunicated the kooky Birchers.” He also tried to separate the leaders from the followers, which was hardly unusual.
Chait: I think it’s significant because, to me, it reads very similar to the way figures like Bannon have treated the extreme right. Bannon is dismissive of outright Nazis but also wants to retain support from people who follow them. This is almost exactly how Buckley treated the John Birch Society. You could quote Bannon’s denunciations of the far right and say he “purged them,” but that would be inaccurate.
Sykee: We disagree on this. I knew Buckley, he was a friend of mine, and Steve Bannon is no William F. Buckley. Buckley marginalized the kooks. Bannon empowered them. Unfortunately, as we found out, the kooks never really went away. And there is no one with Buckley’s clout to marginalize the new generation.
Chait: And, as you note, once you have dismissed the mainstream media as hopelessly biased, there is no longer any possibility of doing so.
Sykes: Once you have de-legitimized the MSM and discredited any source outside of the alt-reality bubble, yes, it’s nearly impossible. This is at the heart of the right’s disease.
Chait: I found your aside about Reagan to be intriguing — the moment of peak conservative success came when there was no real right-wing media. To me, that means Republicans need to return to a politics where listening to the mainstream media is legitimate. But that’s also incompatible with complete control of the party by the conservative movement. Because Reagan betrayed conservative dogma repeatedly.
Sykes: Yes, I found that fascinating as well. Reagan did not have to rely on or cope with talk radio, Fox News, Breitbart, or any of the other trolls that now dominate conservative politics. I think that meant he had more scope to compromise and maneuver.
Chait: Movement conservatives were still just a faction within the party. There were figures in the White House who were not conservative, and they jockeyed for influence and sometimes prevailed.
Sykes: Well, yes. But movement conservatives are still just a faction in the party today.
Chait: Is there a prominent Republican who would not identify as “conservative,” other than Susan Collins, maybe?
Sykes: Interesting question. Probably not, but the term has a lot of different shades these days, doesn’t it? I think of John McCain as a conservative, but he is clearly not the same kind of “conservative” as, say, Rand Paul. The word is close to losing almost all meaning. (edited)
Chait: Well, political scientists who measure this believe the party has moved far, far to the right almost continuously since the 1970s. The arch-conservatives of 30 or even 20 years ago are now relative moderates. But they’re all part of the conservative movement in one form or another.
Sykes: I don’t think Trump is a conservative. I think he is a man without any fixed principles. And to the extent he does have any ideology, it owes far more to European-style National Front right-wing politics than to American conservatism. But yes. Your point on the movement to the right is correct.
I don’t think the answer is a return to Eisenhower-ism. But I do think we need more pragmatic, reality-based, center-right figures who do not always pander to our worst instincts and make outlandish promises they can’t keep.
Chait: The congressional party is totally controlled by movement conservatives, and they have set the agenda for Trump.
Sykes: Don’t underestimate the extent to which they have also bent to Trump’s agenda.
Chait: Would you agree that every other right-of-center party in an industrialized democracy is Eisenhower-esque? They all, unlike the Republicans, are willing to increase revenue in certain conditions, agree with climate science, and in favor of universal health insurance.
That unique radicalism of the GOP is the quality that stands out to me and other critics.
Sykes: I could attempt an answer, but I suspect it would stretch my actual knowledge beyond acceptable limits. Yes, other conservative parties are more flexible, but as you acknowledged in your piece, I can’t imagine even a moderate conservative movement in this country that would embrace single payer. But, yes, there is a unique radicalism of the GOP. And Trump is just one indication of that.