Sykes in the Wilderness

Note: this first appeared in the February 8, 2024 “Life, Under Construction” newsletter.

The Bulwark is losing one of its founders. Charlie Sykes will be doing his last daily podcast, The Bulwark Podcast, on Friday as well as his last Morning Shots newsletter email. He will continue to appear on MSNBC and will continue to write, but the daily routine is gone.

Part of me says I’ll believe it when I see it. I was there the last time Sykes “retired” at the end of 2016. I believe there was cake. I know Sykes’ dog was there when he ended a career as a midday talk show host from WTMJ-AM after the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

But instead of finding a beach somewhere, Sykes ended up busier than ever.

Earlier that year, just prior to the Wisconsin presidential primary, Sykes and Trump engaged in a phone call heard around the country. Sykes gained national attention for confronting Trump on his behavior towards Heidi Cruz and women in general, his stance on trade, his attacks on Gov. Scott Walker, and even Trump’s opposition to our membership in NATO.

It was a polite exchange, polite even for Trump, but it showed how Trump was a clear break from Republican politicians of the past and the conservative movement of James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, Arthur Laffer, Russell Kirk, Irving Kristol, and Milton Friedman. Gone was the happy conservative warrior personality of William F. Buckley, who cheerfully and confidently sparred with leftwing commentators with wit and even self-deprecating humor. Instead, with Trump we have the rightwing Id, fueled only by anger, resentment, and appetite.

By November 2016 resistance to Trump within the GOP was gone and Sykes was without a political home. His fellow Wisconsin radio talk show hosts were all aboard the “Trump Train,” as one Wisconsin politician put it. The Republican Party in Wisconsin, which owed so much to Sykes’ promotion of political figures such as Paul Ryan and Scott Walker, turned its back on him.

It would have been easy for Sykes to join his fellow Republicans in supporting the new administration. Even if he didn’t want to continue in radio, his connections and adopting the MAGA banner could’ve meant a comfortable sinecure somewhere. Instead of Mollie Hemingway receiving the Bradley Prize for journalism, Sykes could have been a recipient for some book about immigration or another book on education.

It must not have been easy for Prometheus, with his ability to see the future, to choose the fate of being chained to a rock and having his liver plucked out by an eagle on a daily basis. But at least he knew what he was getting into and the day of his eventual deliverance.

Sykes, on the other hand, probably had no idea what the future would bring. For all the cries of Sykes being a sell-out by his Trump-supporting critics, the safe money was on the other side. The book he was writing could have been a flop. MSNBC could have decided that “Never Trump” wasn’t real. Meanwhile, not one of Sykes’ fellow talk-show hosts in Wisconsin who embraced Trump ever went hungry. Choosing to be politically homeless meant risk, and burning personal bridges as well.

But if Sykes was to be homeless, then it was time to build a new one.

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I joined Sykes that spring at RightWisconsin, an online outlet started to promote conservative ideas and debate to Sykes’ radio audience and beyond. By then, he was working on “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” making appearances on MSNBC, and hosting a new radio interview show, Indivisible, on WNYC.

For fourteen weeks, Indivisible was the beta version of what the Bulwark podcast would become. Sykes recorded his first episode just days after former President George W. Bush described Trump’s Inauguration speech, “That was some weird shit.” Sykes introduced his first appearance by commenting on the name of the show.

“This show is called Indivisible but I want to start off by being honest about that because we may all be in this together but this is a very, very divided nation,” Sykes said. “And I think we saw that starkly last weekend. On Friday, Washington was filled with those people wearing red baseball caps and on Saturday millions of women marched in pink hats so this country is divided. It’s real, it’s emotional, it’s intense. You have to balance out people who are actually optimistic about ‘making America great again’ with folks who regard all of this with genuine fear and loathing.”

Sykes then introduced himself to the audience. “I’m probably one of the most unusual political beasts around these days,” Sykes said. “I’m a conservative contrarian, or a contrarian conservative, however you like it. What that means is, I’m still an actual conservative. Yeah, a conservative on public radio. I’m a conservative who believes in things like freedom and limited government and constitutionalism. But I’m not part of what the conservative movement has become.”

“But we contrarian conservatives, we’re a very, very lonely band of brothers and sisters these days but I think a very important one. Especially if we’re ever going to break out of these alternative reality silos that we’ve all been in. So, one of the questions I’d like to talk to you about and I’d like you to join in with us, what now? For conservatives and Republicans, and even Republicans who might have voted for Donald Trump, what do we do now if we’re not going to get on the Trump train? What role do these independent conservatives play? Will Republicans ever draw the line? Will they ever stand up to Donald Trump and how important is that?”

Sykes’ first guest was nationally syndicated Washington Post columnist George Will. In the “before times” (as before Trump became to be known) Will’s voice commanded attention and respect throughout the Right and beyond. His contract not renewed at Fox news, Will was in the wilderness, too, as a member of “the establishment” and therefore suspect.

Sykes asked Will the question that dogged the conservative movement since Trump came down the escalator in 2015: was Trump the natural result of the conservative movement up to that time?

“Absolutely not,” Will replied. “Donald Trump is the consequence of a progressivism that extends the faceless, meddling, incompetent, arrogant government over people who don’t want that. The conservatism that I joined with casting my first presidential vote, at the age I guess of 22, 23 it was for Barry Goldwater in 1964, talked about the rule of law, limited government, a certain modesty about the actual scope and competence of government – this is entirely different.”

I’m not sure Will adequately answered that question. That question is one Sykes would address repeatedly in interviews, articles and finally in a book. I am sure that we’ll be debating how this break with the conservative tradition on the political right happened for years to come.

By the summer of 2017, Sykes left me with RightWisconsin and Sykes concentrated on his book, his radio and television appearances. If I was asked about Sykes’ activities, I explained how his world was now national politics while RightWisconsin would focus on Wisconsin, a tightrope we walked until the 2020 election made that impossible. When I was pressed further, my reply was simply, “I would have to be a complete ungrateful bastard to start criticizing Charlie Sykes now.”

It’s interesting now to look back on “How the Right Lost Its Mind” over six years later. In the chapter, “The Contrarian Conservative,” Sykes neatly summed up the dilemma of any thinking person on the political right confronted with the reality of a Trump Administration. “If the conservative movement is defined by the nativist, authoritarian, post-truth culture of Trump-Bannon-Drudge-Hannity-Palin, then I’m out,” Sykes wrote.

And then Sykes addressed what came next:

“As difficult as it may be, conservatives need to stand athwart history once again—this time recognizing that Trumpism poses an existential threat to the conservative vision of ordered liberty.

“This will be a complicated undertaking, given the pressures of political tribalism and the reality that conservatives will actually applaud much of the Trump agenda. At times, they will be impelled to mount the barricades against the overreach of the Left and will align themselves with Trump on issues like the judiciary.

“But despite the clamorous demands that conservatives now fall into line with the new regime, precisely the opposite is needed. Rather than conformity, conservatism needs dissidents who are willing to push back—in other words, contrarian conservatives, who recognize that conservatism now finds itself reduced to a remnant in the wilderness. But the wilderness is a good place for any movement to rethink its first principles, rediscover its forgotten values, and ask: Who are we, really?

“Contrarian conservatives will answer as follows: We’re conservatives who believe in things like liberty, free markets, limited government, personal responsibility, constitutionalism, growth and opportunity, the defense of American ideas and institutions at home and abroad, modesty, prudence, aspiration, and inclusion. We are conservatives in the great tradition that stretches back to Burke, Tocqueville, Buckley, and Reagan. But that means that we are not part of what the conservative movement or the GOP has become.”

No, we weren’t. But even if “contrarian conservative” didn’t catch on as a label, the fact that there were voices on the right that refused to just go along with Trumpism meant that there was, and is, hope for constitutional conservatism (classical liberalism). “Never Trump” was roughly defined. Now it just needed a permanent home.

The first Bulwark podcast aired December 21, 2018. Charlie Sykes and Bill Kristol met to discuss what happened to The Weekly Standard, which was “murdered” a week prior to make way for The Washington Examiner. Kristol noted the date, “The darkest day of the year. How appropriate.”

The Weekly Standard was killed in part because of its “Trump skeptical” editorial stance, according to Kristol. “Our corporate overseers were unhappy with our, uh, anti-Trump or let’s just say Trump skeptical, and the fact under Steve’s {Hayes} leadership, and I’m very proud of this, we stuck to it,” Kristol said.

He added that over the previous two years others who had opposed Trump were now more accepting of him now that he was in the White House, unlike The Weekly Standard. This did not make the owners happy.

“So we did stand against the current,” Kristol said, “and I think that – I know – that was… They were not happy to be owning a magazine that was standing against most conservatives and most Republicans.”

Kristol added that the Examiner was able to fill the remaining subscriptions for The Weekly Standard.

Which led to the question Sykes asked, and seems to have been answered by the growth of The Bulwark ever since: “Is there a market in the current Trumpian age for conservative non-Trumpian media?”

Since that Bulwark podcast aired, nine more podcasts have joined the flagship podcast. There are six newsletters, including Morning Shots written by Sykes. (It will now be written by Kristol and Andrew Eggar.) There is even friendly competition now with the start of The Dispatch by Jonah Goldberg (formerly of National Review) and Stephen Hayes (formerly of The Weekly Standard).

Ironically, in that first podcast Sykes and Kristol had some false hope that the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis, coinciding with a stock market downturn, would spark a Republican rejection of Trump.

“The stock market and the economy – that has real world consequences. This is not just some internal Washington game,” Sykes said. “Mattis raises anxiety about war and peace.”

Kristol agreed, pointing to the recent midterm elections that did not go well for Republicans, the economy, and the instability within the administration. “I’ve got to think that normal Republicans out in the country, or in the Senate, looking forward are thinking to themselves, what have we got ourselves into here?”

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It was a reasonable question, but then it would have required an introspection that would have required more than the ganglia of political invertebrates. Instead, “normal Republicans” passed on the opportunity, as they had before and they have ever since.

After tear-gassing protesters for a photo op, two impeachments, a riot to threaten the Vice President of the United States into overturning a presidential election, the undermining of this country’s election laws, a bungled handling of the Covid pandemic, multiple lost elections by the GOP, stirring up endless conspiracy theories, being found responsible for rape and twice responsible for defaming the victim, business fraud, a cover-up of payments to a porn star, ruining people’s lives over false election claims, 91 felony charges, openly stating he would like to be a dictator, seeking absolute immunity from prosecution for any crimes as president, numerous instances of personally profiting from the government, $2 billion from the Saudi government to his son-in-law, being caught in lies too numerous to mention, praising dictators, undermining our efforts to defeat Russia in Ukraine, racist mocking of his political opponents and critics, and countless more actions that would disqualify anyone else from public life, Trump is still the current front-runner for the Republican nomination for President of the United States again in 2024.

Despite every opportunity for Republicans to choose another course, they’re continuing down the Trumpian path to ruin.

On the other side of the scale, The Bulwark, with Sykes’ daily podcast and email, was a reminder to the rest of us that we weren’t losing our minds. One of Sykes’ favorite series of books is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy written by Douglas Adams. Wonko the Sane is a character in the fourth book, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, who turned the walls of his home so the interior was on the exterior facing the world. The world, according to Wonko, was the Asylum, and inside his four walls was Outside the Asylum.

For Sykes’ readers and listeners, The Bulwark became Outside the Asylum. “Did I really just see or hear that?” was inevitably answered with yes, and here are the likely consequences. That reminder of sanity, that there is a political center-right that is still supportive of the Constitution and the rule of law, has given courage to those who want to believe that someday we can have a real conservative movement again (as long as you don’t listen to Sarah Longwell’s focus groups).

Like medieval Irish monks scribbling away while the Vikings plunder the countryside, The Bulwark has helped keep alive a conservative governing philosophy. It’s not Jerusalem. It’s a chronicle of the intellectual self-destruction of a political party while showing an alternative every step of the way. The debates, the podcast conversations and the articles on the website are creating a set of ideas to replace what’s driving the Republican Party now: a mindless pursuit of power as its own good. When Trump is no longer God, reason may yet follow.

For this gift, one of the people we have to thank is Charlie Sykes – lest we be considered complete ungrateful bastards. May he prosper in this semi-retirement and find a beach for relaxation. Not every book has yet to be written, and many are asking to be read.

Left to Right: Charlie Sykes, The Lovely Doreen from Waukesha, James Wigderson, and Gov. Scott Walker at the RightWisconsin dinner.

Charlie Sykes (left) behind the microphone at WTMJ-AM interviewing conservative writer James Wigderson (right) during a “week in review” segment. Sykes’ only advice to Wigderson, “Don’t suck.”

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