ICYMI, I sat down last week with Firing Line’s Margaret Hoover for a wide-ranging conversation about conservativism, the media, political violence, the 2024 election, the Bulwark, and what it means to be a political orphan. There was also some rank punditry.
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You can watch the whole thing here:
Or, if you prefer, here’s a partial (slightly edited) transcript of our conversation:
HOOVER: Charlie Sykes, welcome to Firing Line.
SYKES: Thank you.
HOOVER: You grew up a Democrat. You became a prominent conservative talk radio host, and then you started “The Bulwark,” an anti-Trump news site and podcast, quote, “free from the constraints of partisan loyalties or tribal prejudices.” How do you describe your politics and your political affiliation today?
SYKES: That’s a surprisingly tough question because I describe it as being a political orphan. I knew that we were going to be in the political wilderness after the election of Donald Trump. I didn’t realize that the wilderness was going to be such a tiny island and there would be so few people on it. But, this is an interesting question because I don’t want to go from one tribe to another tribe. So I am politically homeless and politically agnostic on many things.
HOOVER: Do you still consider yourself a contrarian conservative?
SYKES: I consider myself a contrarian. The problem with the word – this is a difficult question because I’m not sure what it means to be a conservative anymore. The word conservative in the modern context, in the age of Donald Trump, in the age of MAGA, certainly doesn’t mean conserving anything. And you look back to what American conservatism was since William F. Buckley founded National Review. [MAGA] is a rejection of much of the entire intellectual tradition. Conservatism has this very rich history going back to Edmund Burke, very thoughtful individuals. And now what is it? It has gone back to a series of irritable gestures and tribalism. I understand what the right wing is right now, but I’m not sure that the right wing is conservative.
HOOVER: When you announced your departure from Milwaukee Talk Radio in 2016 after 23 years of hosting, you said it was to pursue other opportunities. But you have admitted that you would have lost audience if you had remained as a principled anti-Trump host. Explain why you couldn’t have remained a talk show host that came from a principled anti-Trump perspective.
SYKES: Well, if I had stayed I would have lost my audience. But I also think I would have lost my mind, which was actually my main concern here. And I think it’s important to understand what the economics of right-wing media are. Not just radio, but you see it with cable television, you see it in all the other media that are chasing their audience. And we saw that with Fox News, how afraid they are of losing their audience. So they say things, and they feel they must do things in order to keep that audience. But after a while, that becomes a vicious circle. That becomes a doom loop.
HOOVER: Did you leave because you could see that that would be demanded of the person who stayed as the host?
SYKES: Well, I’d done this for 20 years. And I really thought that I understood who our audience was. I thought I understood what conservatism was. I thought I knew who my fellow conservatives were. And up until 2016, I was pretty comfortable with that. Donald Trump comes along. And people that I had known for two decades, I had been friends with for two decades, suddenly, you look in their eyes and you go, oh my gosh, it’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, one after another. Paul Ryan is a very good, close personal friend of mine. And watching him go from being solidly anti-Trump to saying, ‘Well, maybe I can compromise. Maybe I can make a deal with him.’ And watching the whole party go that direction, I just realized that I was no longer in sync with the audience, that I didn’t want to play that role with them anymore. The Republican Party changed and the conservative movement changed into something that was almost unrecognizable for me.
HOOVER: You launched the Bulwark in 2018 and you said, quote, “We have to truly find out if there is a market and a need for independent non-Trumpian conservative voices.”
HOOVER: Five years later, what have you found?
SYKES: Five years later, we found out that it’s still an experiment. It’s still a work in progress to believe that there is still room for a vital center in American media and politics. Right now, where we’re sitting in 2023, are things getting better? Are things moving toward the center or are they spinning out of control? We don’t know the answer to this. So, I mean, some of our folks are center left and some of them are actually quite left. And we also have people on the center right. But what we’re committed to doing is having this continuing dialog, and we share one principle. We share the principle that we need to defend democracy, that Donald Trump and what he represents is an existential threat to our society, and that we need to raise that alarm. But we’re also trying to defend the concept of liberal constitutional democracy. And if we’ve learned anything in the last few years, it’s those things are much more fragile than we ever imagined before.
HOOVER: Liberal in a classical sense?
SYKES: Liberal in a classical sense. Yes, exactly. I mean, we thought that America was immune from history. We thought that all of our institutions would hold. We thought of all these checks and balances. And so this has been a vertiginous time. I mean, a disillusioning time. And we ask ourselves: have we taken the crazy pills? Have we lost our minds? Or is America on the wrong track here?
HOOVER: You cited William F. Buckley Jr., and just now you were talking about the unifying theme of defending democracy. When Buckley launched National Review in 1955, in his famous cover initial edition, he wrote that the magazine would, quote, “stand athwart history yelling stop” Is The Bulwark in its own way –
SYKES: Oh yes.
HOOVER: -standing athwart history yelling stop?
SYKES: I actually –
HOOVER: Standing athwart the GOP and yelling stop?
SYKES: Yes. I was thinking of that exact quote when we wrote our first statement of what The Bulwark would be, that we would be standing athwart history saying, ‘you can’t be serious.’ That was our thing. You can’t be serious. Are you really going to take this seriously? Are you really going to engage in this kind of conduct? Very much inspired by that moment.
HOOVER: Former President Trump continues to present a unique threat to the country, but he also presents a unique challenge to media. And to how the news media and print media cover him. He is the GOP front runner right now for the Republican nomination. He consistently lies. He degrades our political discourse. He displays dangerous authoritarian tendencies, including invoking an attack against the Capitol in order to overturn the 2020 election. What does the media, such as it is, get wrong about covering Trump?
SYKES: Well, and add to this, I mean, he tried to overthrow the government, has been indicted now, and a jury has found that he sexually abused a woman and then defamed her.
HOOVER: I mean, there’s so much I have to put it in multiple questions.
SYKES: Well, and the reason it’s important, because the fundamental point is that he is not a normal candidate. He is not a typical candidate. And if the media sets out and says, ‘We’re going to cover him like any other candidate. He’s the front runner. Why don’t we apply the same rules that we apply to everybody else?’ He is not like everybody else. That is the fundamental problem, not to understand that Donald Trump is not normal, that he is unique. Journalism was broken, I think, in many ways by Donald Trump. And unfortunately, I’m not sure that many media outlets have figured out, even after all these years, how to deal with somebody that lies with the fluency of Donald Trump, who will, if you turn the camera on, will subject you to a firehose of disinformation. And I think that we saw that with the CNN town hall–– which was predictable. And this is going to be an ongoing problem to deal with Donald Trump. But I think the key thing is that you cannot apply the normal rules of journalism to a figure like Donald Trump because that will create a radical asymmetry.
THE LIMBAUGH LEGACY
HOOVER: One of the pioneers of conservative talk radio, or the pioneer of conservative talk radio, was Rush Limbaugh, who, of course, you admired earlier in your broadcast career. He fundamentally changed and created the medium and then ultimately changed the modern American conservative movement. He was on the original Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. in 1992.
SYKES: I didn’t know that.
HOOVER: Take a look at this.
LIMBAUGH My success is not determined by who wins elections, and my success is not determined by what issues dominate. My success is determined by how many people listen to my radio show and how many people watch the television show. There is an entertainment characteristic here. And I am– I view myself as courageous. I’ll go against the tide. Many people view my radio program as the only one of its kind–
BUCKLEY: As a purgative, yes.
LIMBAUGH: And I am going to hear from people who are naturally disposed to be celebratory over the fact that it exists.
HOOVER: What is your reaction watching Buckley and Limbaugh together?
SYKES: My main reaction was watching Buckley watching him, because I wonder whether he realizes this is the future of conservatism, or this is the danger posed by conservatism. Because Rush Limbaugh was actually quite honest in that clip, where he basically said he didn’t care about ideas. He didn’t care about policies. It was all about ratings. And I think this was something that people missed, that he said, ‘I am a showman. I will say what I need to get the biggest possible audience.’ He was fundamentally a man without principle who would then become a champion for politicians without principle.
HOOVER: And it strikes me as such a passing of the torch, maybe unintentional in that moment, where-
SYKES: Yes, that was exactly– And I thought, here’s William F. Buckley who spent his entire adult life creating this intellectual superstructure, driving out the crackpots and the cranks from the conservative movement, creating an intellectual respectability for conservatism. And now you’re sitting across from the carnival barker who is about to transform everything you had created.
HOOVER: And then ultimately, with the end point being Donald Trump. Do you credit Limbaugh with the deterioration of the conservative, of the modern American conservative movement?
SYKES: I think you have to. I think we are living in the world that Rush Limbaugh created for us. And you see all of that conservatism as entertainment, but also that sense of being willing to say things that are completely not true and and laugh it off. Donald Trump has this reptilian instinct that I think that he honed listening to conservative talk radio. And if you listen to a lot of conservative media before Trump came along, you understood what Trump was echoing. And Rush Limbaugh played a tremendous role there.
HOOVER: You’ve written extensively, including in your most recent book, How the Right Lost its Mind, about how the conservative movement, quote, “devolved into a new tribalism that valued neither principle nor truth.” How do you understand that assault on truth?
SYKES: The assault on truth is not simply telling lies. It’s what Hannah Arendt described as the attack on all of your critical sensibilities. So that there comes a point where you doubt your ability to even know the truth. So we have millions of people in this country who are being lied to, who either do not know they’re being lied to or, and I think this is more disturbing, they know they’re being lied to and they don’t care. It becomes irrelevant…. And Donald Trump has just fully immersed himself into this stream. Shamelessness is his superpower. There’s part of him I think that’s a little bit shocked that he gets away with what he gets away with. Can I really say this? Could I really shoot somebody? Could I really actually attack a woman and get away with it? Can I really say these things and have the entire Republican Party say, yeah, we’re okay with that? But it is an extraordinary moment that we’re in. And again, it’s not just that we face a lot of lies. If we use the phrase like post-truth, it means that that whole concept of truth and lies may be irrelevant to much of the political class.
HOOVER: But is it really the entire Republican Party, or is it just enough of the base?
SYKES: Well, this is the interesting thing. No. It is the base. But– and I have this discussion all the time with many of my former friends who will say, ‘Charlie, you know, most Republicans, 60% of Republicans are normies. We get all of this stuff.’ But the problem is you enable and you empower the crazies. You may not be the crazies, but you are part of an infrastructure that has advanced Marjorie Taylor Greene, that is right now prepared to perhaps renominate Donald Trump. So you may not be that, but you allow it and you tolerate it.
BIDEN TRUMP POLL
HOOVER: A recent ABC News Washington Post poll showed former President Trump leading President Biden by six percentage points. You have said this poll should be a wake up call-
HOOVER: Wake up and then what?
SYKES: Well, I think the poll is an outlier. I want to make this clear. But I also worry about complacency. And I worry about people who think that because something is unthinkable, that it can’t happen. But we’ve already lived through this. We’ve lived through this. So there’s a very real possibility that Donald Trump could become president again. And I think that people need to imagine what Trump 2.0 means when – I think it was David Frum who said when the velociraptors figured out how to open the doors, this time when they have figured out how to do all the things they’re going to do. And so that’s where you realize that there [needs to be a] sense of urgency. And I think particularly for Democrats and anti-Trump folks, it’s like, we may have a lot of differences or a lot of other things in our agendas that we’re concerned about. But we need to recognize that right now we can’t sit around and have another seminar. We can’t indulge ourselves in all of the ideological goodies that we would necessarily like. You asked, ‘and do what?’ Don’t allow anything to take your eye off the ball of this existential choice that America will make in November of 2024.
DeSANTIS AND GOP PRIMARY
HOOVER: Presuming that Donald Trump is the nominee–
SYKES: I do.
HOOVER: Let’s go through the Republican field. You are not a fan of Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. The Wall Street Journal editorial board recently assessed DeSantis’s legislative record in Florida, saying that he had, quote, “a notable record of conservative governance in action. They applaud his school choice initiatives, his immigration and abortion restrictions. What are they getting wrong?
SYKES: Well, they’re getting wrong the fact that Ron DeSantis is not really a conservative. I mean, he’s sort of a wannabe MAGA guy. I’ve been around long enough to know when conservatives would not have used the power of the government to attack a private company or engage in this vendetta. This war with Disney ought to be a kind of a wake-up call. It is one thing to push back against political correctness in education. It is something else to be passing book bans or restrictions on what people can talk about here. I’m not sure whether or not Ron DeSantis believes all of these things, but he thinks that he has to. And there’s something fake about him, something inauthentic, that he wants to figure out what is the most extreme, right wing, punitive position to take, and then do it. But he is not a small government, pro-free market conservative by any stretch of the imagination.
HOOVER: And yet he still is doing better than anybody else in all of the polls. Would he be better than Donald Trump?
SYKES: Okay. I could spend half an hour telling you how bad Ron DeSantis is, but I’m going to make this very clear: he is not worse than Donald Trump. I mean, no one is worse than Donald Trump. I think most Republicans want to move on from Donald Trump. They lack the collective will or the strategy to do it. I think the strategy is sort of like something something, something unicorn. Maybe he dies. So there’s a lot of magical thinking about it. And we lived through this in 2016 where everybody in the Republican Party knew that Donald Trump would not become the nominee, but nobody was going to be the one to actually stop it.
HOOVER: So, Charlie, what happens in a general election then if it is Trump versus Biden?
SYKES: Then I think the election becomes a referendum on Donald Trump. And I think this is the decision the Republicans have to make.
HOOVER: A referendum on Trump?
SYKES: Yes, because I think under normal circumstances the general election is a referendum on the incumbent president. And if it’s any other Republican other than Donald Trump, the 2024 election will be a referendum on Joe Biden and his record and his agenda. But if it’s Donald Trump, it becomes completely reversed. That election becomes about Donald Trump. And that will determine what the turnout is. That will determine the levels of enthusiasm. Joe Biden does not need to gin up enthusiasm among the Democratic base if Donald Trump is on the ballot. The formula shifts.
Fantastic interview! Really excellent. Its so nice to hear adults talking instead of childlike screaming about politics. Its no secret that I admire Charlie. This interview sums up why.
Great interview, Charlie, enjoyed it! But we've got to look beyond Trump-whoever-Biden and put more emphasis on the extreme threat posed by what the Republican party as a whole has become. It's not just Trump, it's not just the presidency and it's not just Trumpism. From top to bottom it is now the MAGA Liar Autocracy Party either with Trump or without Trump. It has nothing to do with public service and everything to do with public domination, cutting taxes on those at the top, cutting benefits for those at the bottom, cutting public services, and cutting those burdensome government regulations that protect the public.
They're following the playbook of the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda and Viktor Orban's 12-Point Recipe for Christian Conservative Success - “The first point is that we must play by our own rules. ... The fourth point is that we must have the media because we can only show the insanity of the progressive Left if we have the media to help us.”
[Sidenote: why is CPAC Hungary even a thing? This year's scheduled speakers included Mark Meadows, Kari Lake, Paul Gosar, Rick Santorum and Kevin Roberts (president of Heritage Foundation).]
The Republican party has been taken over at national, state and local levels by MAGA extremists who have left the old rules of spin in the dust as they find that they can get away with engaging in a no-holds-barred campaign of hate, lies, demonization, fraud, intimidation, threats and violence, along with their right wing ecosystem of strategists, think tanks, PR firms, media outlets, influencers, networkers, grassroots organizers, white supremacists, militias, Christian Dominionists, and so on as they coordinate and fight together in waging their outright war against the evil dems, libs, rinos and the administrative state. The Vast Right Wing Conspiracy is alive and well and operating quite successfully thank you. And their base loves it.
Having gotten a clearer taste of what they're doing and a clearer view of what they're planning, America needs to stand up against their campaign of hate, lies and public endangerment, vote them out and keep them out. From the school boards to the White House.