Charlie Sykes, the former host of a Milwaukee conservative radio show and a prominent critic of President Donald Trump, discussed his fears and hopes about the current political climate with a group of University of Wisconsin political science students Monday.
Sykes said he has long been involved in both the Democratic and Republican parties, starting when he campaigned as a 14-year-old for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign, where his father served as campaign manager.
Now, two years removed from quitting his WTMJ radio show and publishing his tenth book, “How the Right Lost its Mind,” Sykes said he is one of the few remaining conservatives who oppose Trump and his nationalism, sexism and disregard for liberal democracy.
“It’s been like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers,’” Sykes said, alluding to the 1954 science fiction novel where aliens infect humans and turn them into emotionless duplicates of themselves. “One after another somebody you’ve known for over 20 years, somebody with integrity and character and good judgment, suddenly you can see it in their eyes: ‘Maybe this Trump guy isn’t so bad.’”
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Sykes argued the conservative movement, once based in good character and reasoned argumentation, has shifted dramatically to a party which defends white nationalists in Charlottesville and excuses the abuse of women — all toward the end of securing its political agenda, like tax reform.
In his charting of both the American liberal and conservative traditions, Sykes said politics is no longer about ideas or policies, but about identity and attitudes — with both the Democrats and Republicans using the “brute force of tribal politics” to advance their agendas.
“What we’re seeing now is the rise of alternative reality silos in America … completely hermetically sealed reality-machines that have been weaponized,” Sykes said.
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Sykes, who strongly opposed Trump from the inception of his presidential campaign, said Trump has been worse than he thought. He pointed to the intellectual dishonesty of conservative media, “fake news” and Trump’s destruction of political institutions as signs of an eroding democracy at danger of collapsing.
When Trump leaves the political stage, Sykes said he fears things may be irreversibly changed for the worse.
“Things don’t just snap back to normal … there’s something going on in this country,” Sykes said. “There are things that we’re accepting that we never would have accepted. There are norms that have been shattered, rules that have been changed. We’ve been dumbed down in a way that’s been extraordinary.”
Identifying himself and Bill Kristol as two of only a handful of prominent “Never Trump” conservatives, Sykes said he is fearful for the future of politics in the U.S., where the Republican party has almost completely rolled-over and submitted to an administration which espouses hate and ignorance.
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But Sykes advised the lecture hall of political science students not to get sucked into the “politics of now” — of Trump’s tweets and five-minute television clips — but to instead take a historical perspective and understand the current political climate as a crisis, not the end of all things.
Sykes said he was cautiously optimistic Trump’s presidency may actually result in a more discerning, politically involved public and a revival of institutions who hold power accountable, like investigative journalism.
“Because it turned out we perhaps are not as secure as we thought we are, we’ve destroyed complacency,” Sykes said. “The incredible in growth in engagement in the political process is a direct result of this process.”