Charles Sykes is that rare Republican that I've always felt was what we need in an opposition party but so rarely find: someone who is rational, who respects facts and reason, and who can discuss differences in ideas and policy without being divisive or extreme.
Last week Sykes wrote an Op-Ed piece for the New York Times explaining his dismay at what has happened to the Republican Party and announcing that he will end his radio talk show at the end of the month. Here are some excerpts from his Op-Ed.
* * * * *"MILWAUKEE — After nearly 25 years, I’m stepping down from my daily conservative talk radio show at the end of this month. I’m not leaving because of the rise of Donald J. Trump (my reasons are personal), but I have to admit that the campaign has made my decision easier. The conservative media is broken and the conservative movement deeply compromised.
"In April, after Mr. Trump decisively lost the Wisconsin Republican primary, I had hoped that we here in the Midwest would turn out to be a firewall of rationality. Our political culture was distinctly inhospitable to Mr. Trump’s divisive, pugilistic style; the conservatives who had been successful here had tended to be serious, reform-oriented and able to express their ideas in more than 140 characters. But in November, Wisconsin lined up with the rest of the Rust Belt to give the presidency to Mr. Trump. . . . "
[Sykes then contrasts what Wisconsin conservates, such as Paul Ryan, Scott Walker, Reince Priebus, and Ron Johnson, used to stand for -- like free trade, balanced budgets, character and respect for constitutional rights. And he contrasted that with what happened in this campaign. The simple, surface facts are that Trump's "improbable win in Wisconsin" was due to (1)] "big margins in rural, blue-collar counties and . . . the pivotal Green Bay area by double digits." [And (2) Hillary Clinton's under-performing in the Milwaukee suburbs that Obama carried by large margins in 2012, which was due mainly to Democrats not turning out to vote.]
[Aside from those voting patterns, however, Sykes sees a change in the mentality of the Republican electorate. He points out that earlier in the campaign, he had called Trump] "a cartoon version of every left-wing media stereotype of the reactionary, nativist, misogynist right [and, he said] I thought that I was well within the mainstream of conservative thought."
[However, as the campaign went on, Republican voters seemed to become comfortable with embracing Trumpism, even though] "in Wisconsin, conservative voters seemed to reject what Mr. Trump was selling, at least until after the convention. . . . Relatively few of my listeners bought into the crude nativism Mr. Trump was selling at his rallies.
"What they did buy into was the argument that this was a “binary choice.” No matter how bad Mr. Trump was, my listeners argued, he could not possibly be as bad as Mrs. Clinton. You simply cannot overstate this as a factor in the final outcome. As our politics have become more polarized, the essential loyalties shift from ideas, to parties, to tribes, to individuals. Nothing else ultimately matters.
"In this binary tribal world, where everything is at stake, everything is in play, there is no room for quibbles about character, or truth, or principles. If everything — the Supreme Court, the fate of Western civilization, the survival of the planet — depends on tribal victory, then neither individuals nor ideas can be determinative. I watched this play out in real time, as conservatives who fully understood the threat that Mr. Trump posed succumbed to the argument about the Supreme Court. As even Mr. Ryan discovered, neutrality was not acceptable; if you were not for Mr. Trump, then you were for Mrs. Clinton.
"The state of our politics also explains why none of the revelations, outrages or gaffes seemed to dent Mr. Trump’s popularity.
"In this political universe, voters accept that they must tolerate bizarre behavior, dishonesty, crudity and cruelty, because the other side is always worse; the stakes are such that no qualms can get in the way of the greater cause.
"For many listeners, nothing was worse than Hillary Clinton. Two decades of vilification had taken their toll: Listeners whom I knew to be decent, thoughtful individuals began forwarding stories with conspiracy theories about President Obama and Mrs. Clinton . . . . When I tried to point out that such stories were demonstrably false, they generally refused to accept evidence that came from outside their bubble. The echo chamber had morphed into a full-blown alternate reality silo of conspiracy theories, fake news and propaganda.
"And this is where it became painful. Even among Republicans who had no illusions about Mr. Trump’s character or judgment, the demands of that tribal loyalty took precedence. To resist was an act of betrayal.
"When it became clear that I was going to remain #NeverTrump, conservatives I had known and worked with for more than two decades organized boycotts of my show. One prominent G.O.P. activist sent out an email blast calling me a 'Judas goat,' and calling for postelection retribution. As the summer turned to fall, I knew that I was losing listeners and said so publicly.
"And then, there was social media. Unless you have experienced it, it’s difficult to describe the virulence of the Twitter storms that were unleashed on Trump skeptics. In my timelines, I found myself called a “cuckservative,” a favorite gibe of white nationalists; and someone Photoshopped my face into a gas chamber. Under the withering fire of the trolls, one conservative commentator and Republican political leader after another fell in line.
"How had we gotten here?
"One staple of every radio talk show was, of course, the bias of the mainstream media. . . . we had succeeded in persuading our audiences to ignore and discount any information from the mainstream media. Over time, we’d succeeded in delegitimizing the media altogether — all the normal guideposts were down, the referees discredited.
"That left a void that we conservatives failed to fill. For years, we ignored the birthers, the racists, the truthers and other conspiracy theorists . . . . Rather than confront the purveyors of such disinformation, we changed the channel because, after all, they were our allies, whose quirks could be allowed or at least ignored. We destroyed our own immunity to fake news, while empowering the worst and most reckless voices on the right.
"This was not mere naïveté. It was also a moral failure, one that now lies at the heart of the conservative movement even in its moment of apparent electoral triumph. Now that the election is over, don’t expect any profiles in courage from the Republican Party pushing back against those trends; the gravitational pull of our binary politics is too strong.
'I’m only glad I’m not going to be a part of it anymore."
-- Charles Sykes
* * * * *
I think this is an important analysis of what happened that we wound up with Trump as president. Yes, there were flaws in Clinton's campaign; the relentless and effective demonization of Clinton for over 20 years took its toll; and each new "revelation," whether from the FBI director or a right-wing Twitter tirade, added to that toll.
But two major factors have not gotten their due in the post-election analysis. First, trying to win a third White House term in the same party is always an uphill climb; it is major structural factor in some experts' prediction models. Second is what Charles Sykes emphasizes in the latter part of his Op-Ed: the sharp polarization and the vehemence of the tribal loyalty that has developed. Many many thinking voters convinced themselves that nothing was quite as important as control of the Supreme Court.
I like to think that I would not have voted for Trump, even to achieve that. But I did proclaim from the beginning that the single most important factor in this election is the Supreme Court. From a liberal perspective, of course. But it's not so hard for me to see why serious Republicans would feel that way too. Viewed in this mirror, a conservative's vote for the Republican candidate, even if it was Donald Trump, does not seem quite as outrageous as it does when we only consider Trump, himself. That's not very reassuring against a chaotic and dangerous presidency. But it is not as much of a stretch as it once seemed