The American Conservative: Exorcising the Conservative Media

The American Conservative: Exorcising the Conservative Media

Really great discussion of 'How The Lost Its Mind" in the American Conservative:

A long time ago (two years, actually), there was a sort of person we referred to as a “full-spectrum conservative.” Full-spectrum conservatives supported traditional morals, free enterprise, and a strong public investment in national security. For this group, 2016 was not a good year.

Trumpian populists effectively set fire to the proverbial three-legged stool. The full-spectrum conservatives of yesteryear were faced with a choice: move quickly or else find yourself on the ground. Many moved. Some took the fall. And few took the latter course quite so spectacularly as Charles Sykes, the radio host whose March 2016 interview with Donald Trump helped send the real estate tycoon spiraling into a dramatic primary loss in his home state of Wisconsin. Sykes won that battle, but he and his associates went on to lose the war. Now he’s compiled his thoughts on conservatism’s decline into a new book, How the Right Lost Its Mind.

If nothing else, the book is a triumph for this reason alone: though he clearly views Donald Trump’s election as a catastrophe (both for conservatism and for America), Sykes manages to discourse on the problem for 274 pages without allowing the Mogul to hog the spotlight. It’s refreshing to find a discussion of right-wing politics that doesn’t veer into yet another attempt to chart the murky waters of Trump’s fevered brain. Instead, Sykes wants to understand how the party of Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley could have degenerated to the point where a frivolous attention-seeker ducked out of a Democratic Party fundraiser just in time to take the GOP on a cosmic joyride.

Here’s the core of Sykes’ answer: Right-wing media created a fever swamp of misinformation, fanaticism, and resentment, which ultimately derailed the party and American politics.

How I Was Excommunicated

How I Was Excommunicated

(Excerpted from “How the Right Lost Its Mind” pp. 211-213) 

The demand that conservatives drop their objections and conform was also taken up by the grassroots.

In Wisconsin, even after I stepped down from my daily radio show, there were calls for pogroms against conservatives (like me) who might dissent from the new regime. The publisher of the Wisconsin Conservative Digest, for instance, sent out a blast email excoriating conservatives who had not backed Trump, calling them “Judas goats,” suggesting that activists retaliate against them after the election.  This was curious, because just months earlier (in August 2016) the same publisher had sent out a similar mass email calling on the GOP to repudiate Trump. “If the top leaders, not the old timers of the party stand up and disavow him and tell him to get out let pence (sic) carry the mail we could at least stop the rest of the bleeding,” he wrote onAugust 15. Within weeks, he had decided to back Trump and began castigating dissidents.

After the election, he ratcheted up the recriminations, which were aimed not merely at me (I was about to go off the air,) but other hosts and conservative activists who had been critical of the new president.

ICYMI: Conservatism Betrayed

ICYMI: Conservatism Betrayed

The Washington Times Book Review: 

How the Right Lost Its Mind” is an important work. Any serious-minded citizen, no matter of what political persuasion, will benefit from reading it and carefully contemplating the powerful message of its thoughtful, solidly conservative author.

A highly principled conservative of the William F. Buckley Jr./Ronald Reagan mold, Charles J. Sykes is the author of eight other acclaimed conservative books and was a well-known Wisconsin conservative radio talk-show host.

Many will remember when an especially ill-prepared Donald Trump called into “The Charlie Sykes Show” days before the Wisconsin primary and how during that 17-minute interview Mr. Sykes respectfully but grippingly dismembered him regarding his fitness for the presidency and his elusive and anything but conservative positions on important issues. That the Wisconsin primary became a Ted Cruz routing of Donald Trump was in no small measure because of the challenging questioning Mr. Sykes and other leading conservative talk radio hosts in that state had raised about the Trump candidacy.

“How the Right Lost Its Mind” will be labeled as anti-Trump. It’s that, to be sure — but it is so very much more than merely that. Above all, this is the story of the betrayal of the conservative cause by many prominent persons who had been considered, and disingenuously still claim to be, principled conservatives.

The author neither minces words nor pulls punches as he mourns over how some of the right’s “leading voices turned from gatekeepers to cheerleaders and from thought leaders to sycophantic propagandists” and how “a movement based on ideas devolved into a new tribalism that valued neither principle nor truth.”

The Washington Post Reviews "How The Right Lost Its Mind"

The Washington Post Reviews "How The Right Lost Its Mind"

After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, Republican Party honchos released a 100-page report, nicknamed the “autopsy,” trying to figure out where the GOP went wrong. It’s the kind of thing you do when you lose.

But how about when you win and kind of wish you hadn’t? “In victory,” Charles J. Sykes writes of the latest presidential race, “conservatives will need something very different — an exorcism of the forces that have possessed and, ultimately, distorted conservatism.”

Instead of examining a corpse, today the GOP must battle its demons.

Sykes, a conservative true believer and former talk-radio host in Wisconsin, earned the wrath of Donald Trump’s supporters when he criticized the Republican front-runner early in the race, calling him “a cartoon version of every leftist/media negative stereotype of the reactionary, nativist, misogynist right.” On the radio and on social media, Sykes was branded “a sellout, a traitor, a Judas,” he recalls, for not boarding the Trump Train. In “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” Sykes has written a sort of “What Happened” for conservatives. The culprits are not James Comey, Vladi­mir Putin or a reality television  opponent, but the return of “crackpotism” on the right; the fecklessness of conservative media, political and religious figures; and the rise of a distorted worldview in which Trump’s overwhelming character flaws mattered little to a base that behaved as though civilization was in play in his election.

What The GOP Is Becoming

What The GOP Is Becoming

For the GOP, especially its Trumpist wing, the moment is piled high with irony. The primary victory of Roy Moore in Alabama over the candidate for the U.S. Senate seat backed by President Trump suggests that that not even Trump himself can control the forces that he unleashed.

Moore’s win is an acid flashback to 2010, when GOP voters in Senate primaries nominated Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell in Delaware and the unelectable Sharron Angle in Nevada, who announced a 2018 campaign in March. Republicans had hoped that they had exorcised those characters after that debacle. But years of stoking a sense of perpetual outrage has created a new political dynamic that has given us Roy Moore, a perfect stew of extremism, ignorance and intolerance.

Commentary Magazine Reviews 'How The Right Lost Its Mind"

From Commentary Magazine, a lengthy, thoughtful review:

Late last year Charles J. Sykes published an op-ed in the New York Times called “Where the Right Went Wrong.” Sykes wrote that he was giving up his talk-radio show in Wisconsin after nearly 25 years: “My reasons are personal,” he said, but the rise of Donald Trump “has made my decision easier.” Not that the presidential campaign had lacked a certain personal angle for Sykes, a sharp Trump critic. “Conservatives I had known and worked with for more than two decades organized boycotts of my show,” he wrote. On social media, “I found myself called a ‘cuckservative,’ a favorite gibe of white nationalists; and someone Photoshopped my face into a gas chamber.”

The op-ed was a signal moment in the aftermath of Trump’s election. For years, Sykes had been a conservative stalwart, helping to make Wisconsin a wellspring of conservative thought and action. (He has also written for Commentary.) He had championed the political careers of conservative Republicans including Representative Paul Ryan, Governor Scott Walker, and Senator Ron Johnson, and he had backed conservative reforms such as reining in public-sector unions and widening school choice. Yet here he was in the Times, declaring: “The conservative media is broken and the conservative movement deeply compromised.” Conservatism’s “moral failure” in a time of ugly tribalism, he said, “lies at the heart of the conservative movement even in its moment of apparent electoral triumph.”

The story of that moral failure demanded a fuller accounting than the spate of op-eds, columns, and articles produced by disillusioned conservatives following Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party. Now we have it with Sykes’s How the Right Lost Its Mind, a dissection of conservatism’s 2016 collapse but also a canny historical analysis. Sykes closes by suggesting how “contrarian conservatives” can work to restore the movement to sanity, but after reading this portrait of cynical acquiescence, collaboration, and opportunism, they would need a strong stomach to undertake such a mission.

Read the whole thing here: 

A Starred Review From the Library Journal


From the October 1, 2017 issue:

"What happened to the Republican Party? That's the knotty question Sykes (A Nation of Victims) cuts into in this, despite its inflammatory title, stark, honest, and unflinching look at the steps that moved the right to the fractious party it is today, argued from a voice within the camp.

"Sykes is not rejecting conservatism but providing a contrarian voice to the state of affairs as embodied by the support for and election of President Donald Trump through ideological bubbles and a vocal conservative media. Was the act emblematic of the modern conservative's ideals, or a fluke, out of line with the principles of Republicanism? Where does the "alt-right" end and conservatism begin? And, more pressing than the identity crisis of a political party, what kind of world is being shaped by the politics of this evolution and blurred lines?

"Sykes concludes with advice to conservatives for how to recover their values and suggestions for how to exorcize the party from its problems. Exceedingly readable, Sykes's voice comes across as clearly as if over the airwaves. VERDICT: Highly recommended. Sykes provides a valuable contribution to the arguments happening in the GOP about the party's future and priorities. --Laurel Tacoma, Fairfax County, P.L., VA"

The Trap of Liberal Tears

The Trap of Liberal Tears

For much of the Trumpist Right, it's all about Liberal Tears.

Tweeting over the weekend columnist/author Kurt Schlichter declared:

The main reason for President Trump to pardon Sheriff Joe was fuck you, leftists. The new rules, bitches.

Trumpist talker John Cardillo echoed the sentiment:

Once @realDonaldTrump eliminates #DACA, leftists will drown in their own tears. Win win

This has become a familiar pattern among some on the right, who rush to defend anyone (especially Trump) who is attacked by the Left, no matter how reckless, extreme, or bizarre their behavior has been.  If Liberals hated something, the argument goes, then it must be wonderful and worthy of aggressive defense, even if that meant defending the indefensible and losing elections. So in years past, conservatives embraced and defended figures like Christine (“I am not a witch”) O’Donnell and lost winnable senate races with candidates who said bizarre things about rape (Todd Akin) or were just too weird for the electorate (Sharron Angle.)

But in the era of Trump, the appetite for Liberal angst has morphed into an addiction.

The Pardon of Joe Arpaio Was Worse Than You Think

The Pardon of Joe Arpaio Was Worse Than You Think

Where to begin here?

In the name of “law and order,” President Trump just pardoned a man who defied the law to violate constitutional rights.

On the obvious level, his pardon was an unmistakable symbol to the darkest fringes of his nativist base. But it was also an insult to law enforcement itself. Far from being a martyr who was persecuted for “doing his job,”  Sheriff Joe Arpaio was a caricature of law enforcement – living up to every stereotype of a lawless, brutal, racist cop, who ignored fundamental rights and reveled in calculated cruelty. 

Behind the Arpaio Pardon: The Alex Jones-Drudge-Hannity Nexus

Behind the Arpaio Pardon: The Alex Jones-Drudge-Hannity Nexus

Here’s a bit of useful background to the president’s hint that he intends to pardon former Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, illustrating once again the influence of the fever swamps on Trump’s thinking.

For months, the idea of pardoning for Arpaio has been been a cause celebre for the Alt Right and a near obsession for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars website.

Was Infowars’s support in fluential on the president? Arpaio thinks so. Via Media Matters:

Donald Trump's Grievance Presidency

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Because you surely have; the meltdown of Donald Trump’s shambolic presidency may be the most predictable event in political history.  

The rationalizations, wish-casting, and projections of the pro-Trump flunkies notwithstanding, his presidency is cratering, at least in terms of governing. As Trump becomes more isolated and his relations with Congressional leaders trend into mother-in-law territory, the prospects for legislative victories appear to have gone south of slim. As a result, his presidency has now shifted into the full-on Grievance Phase.

This was also predictable.

As I tweeted the other day, it is worthwhile going back to the last weeks of the 2016 campaign, when Trump seemed on track to an historic defeat. Re-read this piece from The Washington Post’s Philip Rucke and Robert Costa, headlined “Inside Donald Trump’s echo chamber of conspiracies, grievances and vitriol”:

He is preaching to the converted. He is lashing out at anyone who is not completely loyal. He is detaching himself from and delegitimizing the institutions of American political life. And he is proclaiming conspiracies everywhere — in polls (rigged), in debate moderators (biased) and in the election itself (soon to be stolen).

In the presidential campaign’s home stretch, Donald Trump is fully inhabiting his own echo chamber. The Republican nominee has turned inward, increasingly isolated from the country’s mainstream and leaders of his own party, and determined to rouse his most fervent supporters with dire warnings that their populist movement could fall prey to dark and collusive forces.

This is a campaign right out of Breitbart, the incendiary conservative website run until recently by Stephen K. Bannon, now the Trump campaign’s chief executive — and it is an act of retaliation.

Four days later, Costa predicted that this “Trump-driven divide” would haunt the GOP long after the election.

The axis of furious conservative activists and hard-right media that spawned Trump’s nationalist and conspiratorial campaign is determined to complete its hostile takeover of the GOP, win or lose.

Trump’s insistence that the election will be “rigged,” which he again suggested at the debate, has only stoked the specter of a grievance movement that will haunt Republicans for months and years to come — threatening to leave the longtime norms of American politics shattered and Washington paralyzed by his followers’ agitation and suspicion.

Fast forward to this week, and Trump’s Phoenix rant, twitter storms, attacks on the “fake news,” and on his fellow Republicans. It’s all there as if nothing has changed: the politics of division, paranoia, anger, with Trump always as the victim – the “fighter” who is being betrayed by an opposition that is simultaneously weak, low energy, and yet “dark and collusive.”

 In defeat, Trump’s campaign would have evolved into an ongoing “grievance movement.” But in victory, the result has been the same thing, a president unable to lead, but determined to stoke a deep sense of alienation and grievance among his base. For Trump, that may be enough.



We Are Not Immune To History

My interview with Ana Marie Cox appears in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine. You can read the whole thing here. 


Q: How do you think the elevation of hard-liners has affected the party?

A: I wake up every day in disbelief. It’s not that just that Donald Trump is president. It’s
that he has empowered the worst people in the world: people who would’ve been
regarded as misfits and crackpots just a few years ago. We’re being tested in a
fundamental way, and I think we operate in a system that simply assumes that you
have honorable people who will be constrained within political norms. Now they’re
being violated on a daily basis. I don’t think America comes out on the other end of
this unaffected. We’re not immune to history.


Bannon's Departure Doesn't Change This Presidency

Like so many others on the Right, Steve Bannon thought he could ride the tiger. Instead, he and his allies have become the latest road kill in this shambolic presidency. Just another Friday in August.

While it’s tempting to see Bannon’s fall as an inflection point, the reality is that his departure does nothing to change the fundamental nature of this presidency, which continues to be shaped by Donald Trump’s erratic character and impulsivity

Ironically, though, Bannon’s firing comes just days after what may have been Peak Bannon: Trump’s full-throated embrace of much of the Alt Right agenda. In his final days, Bannon openly relished the escalation of a racially-charged culture war:  “Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it,” told The New York Times.  Trump agreed, channeling Bannon as he tweeted support for maintaining monuments to Confederate heroes. 

So Bannon’s firing creates a new dynamic on the Right, with an uncertain outcome, especially as it comes in the midst of other cracks in Trump’s shrinking base.

Trump’s loss of support from the GOP mainstream, including members of the business community and congressional Republicans, was damaging enough, but a break with the Bannon-Breitbart wing could lead to bitter divisions within the hardest of the hard core wing of the president’s base. 

Last year, Trump beat the establishment, but he relied on the populist, nativist movement that Bannon had cultivated for him. Simply put, he can’t afford to lose the base that elected him in the first place.

Bannon has already declared that he going to “war” with the forces he believes have stymied Trump’s populist agenda. With Bannon back at the helm, expect Breitbart and its allies to attack against “the Democrats, globalists, generals, bankers, and hawks,” who now dominate the White House and are plotting to undermine and the populist/nativist movement.

Already, they are warning that Trump’s presidency is in danger of being derailed by RINOS (Republicans in name Only).  Within minutes of his firing, a headline on the Breitbart website declared: “With Steve Bannon Gone, Donald Trump Risks Becoming Arnold Schwarzenegger 2.0,” a reference to the action star turned liberal-leaning governor of California. 

"Bannon won’t go straight at Trump,” observers Ben Shapiro (himself a former Breitbart staffer). “That would be foolish. Instead, he’ll pretend to be Trump’s ally in fighting the swamp from the outside.” That means that “Bannon will pretend that Trump’s foibles are really just Trump being misled by others. Until, that is, Bannon finds a convenient way to turn on Trump himself."

But Bannon may also find that he is reaping what he has sowed. For the last year, he imagined that he could control, shape, and use Donald Trump. (In that sense, he was much like Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, and Mitch McConnell.) But he helped create something else: a cult of personality that may be immune to the attacks he is about to launch.

Bannon and others helped create the persona of Trump as the great leader and perpetual victim – a man who’s every falsehood, slur, blunder, and fraud had to be rationalized and defended at any cost. For months, it has been obvious that Trump cannot be controlled (even by himself) and is not going to pivot to anything remotely presidential. It has been obvious that his ignorance and indifference to policy runs deep; that he is a man without any deep principles and little loyalty to even his closest allies. But despite all that, his base continues to rally to him and will likely continue to do so. 

Voters who swallowed the multiple indignities of the last year are unlikely to break with him because Bannon thinks that Gary Cohn is a globalist. 

But do not expect a more modulated or moderate Trump. Instead expect the president to attempt to insulate himself against Bannonite attacks by throwing out even more red meat for his base, and escalating the culture wars that Bannon has done so much to foment. 
In other words, don’t expect much to change.  Bannon may have helped write the ill-fated travel ban, but it was Trump who denounced “Mexican racists,” and called for a Muslim ban. It was Trump, not Bannon who rode to prominence by spreading Birther conspiracy theories. It was Trump, not Bannon, who retweeted white supremacists and refused to distance himself from white nationalists during the campaign; Trump, not Bannon, who attacked a Mexican-American judge, demeaned women, and mocked a disabled reporter.

Firing Steve Bannon doesn’t fix what is wrong with this presidency. The cancer at the heart of this White House isn’t the staff. It’s the man in the Oval Office and he is not changing.


What Trump Is Doing To The Conservative Character

Curious minds want to know: how would conservatives react if Donald Trump fired special prosecutor Robert Mueller? If he issued sweeping pardons of his family members and cronies, or even himself?

Would that cross a red line for movement that once claimed to care about the rule of law? Would there be a backlash among the folks who once insisted that character mattered and rushed to buy books like the Book of Virtues?

Or would they go along, once again shifting their standards to accommodate the need to defend Trumpism?

Obviously, this would be a defining moment. As David French wrote recently:

If he does any one of these things — much less several in combination — the GOP will have to decide, once and for all, if it is an American political party or a craven, fearful instrument of Donald Trump’s personal brand.

We may already know the answer. Trump, who remains unbowed and unchanged by the presidency, continues to transform the party that last year capitulated to him. Or more accurately, the conservative movement continues to transform itself into his image.

I’d written about this earlier this year:

[In] the right’s new media ecosystem, a willingness to accept and rationalize lies has now become a test of tribal loyalty.  Unfortunately, the effects run even deeper as Trump’s acolytes in politics and social media model their behavior on his, combining the worst traits of the school yard bully, the thin-skinned nastiness that mimics confidence; the strut and sneer that substitute for actual strength, vindictive smash mouth attacks have replaced civil engagement. …Think of it as trickle down boorishness

Now comes Ben Shapiro, with an insightful analysis of how conservatives have come to fully embrace Trump’s character and its most loathsome manifestations. A year ago, many conservatives rationalized their support for Trump because the “ends justified means — and that the end was the implementation of conservative policies.” And, indeed, there have been some significant wins, most notably the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and some of his environmental policies.

But, writes Shapiro, “now that Trump isn’t actually implementing conservative policies, the truth is coming out: For most conservatives, the ends don’t just justify the means, the means are the ends. All that matters is the punching, even if the punching is both counterproductive and immoral.” 

For many conservatives, Trump's character is no longer a glitch… it’s what they love. “Trump’s character is now a thoroughly accepted positive good,” writes Shapiro.

All of which suggests that Trump isn’t the engine, he’s the hood ornament for a certain movement that now feels liberated from traditional rules of decent behavior. Trump allows us to indulge our id and feel righteous while doing it. We grew up believing that decent behavior made you a decent person — but then we realized that breaking the rules not only makes victory easier, it’s more fun than having to struggle with the moral qualms of using moral means to achieve moral ends.

Shapiro describes the “backwards logic” that many on the Right now use “to absolve ourselves of moral responsibility.”

 The first premise: The other side, which wants bad things, cheats and lies and acts in egregious ways.

The second premise: It requires cheating to defeat them.

The third premise: If they are not defeated, the country will be destroyed.

 Conclusion: It is morally required to cheat and lie and act in egregious ways.

In other words, we have become precisely what he hated and claimed to stand against. Add in the ways the Right has succumbed to cult of personality politics and you have the toxic stew in which we now find ourselves marinating.

All of this is a logical extension of the binary politics that drove many conservatives to embrace Trump last year. In a piece I wrote for The New York Times earlier this year, I described it this way: 

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.

So it is perhaps not surprising to see how many conservatives have been corrupted by the need to keep pace with the vertiginous reversals, rationalizations, outrages, and deceptions of Trumpism. Jonah Goldberg writes:

 Put on your hip boots and wade into the swampier recesses of Twitter, Facebook, online comment sections, or Sean Hannity’s oeuvre and you’ll see riots of rationalization. Trump’s lying is celebrated. His petty vindictiveness is redefined as leadership. Cheating is strength.

Trump will not, of course, always be with us. But he will leave a mark on the culture and character of conservativism for a very long time.

Memo to the Media: Get It Right

My latest, from the Nieman Reports:

Donald Trump and the GOP may lack a coherent governing agenda, but they have no doubt about their electoral strategy: Run against the media.

The campaign against the media is not simply a reflection of the president’s notoriously thin skin or a sideshow distraction; it is central to Team Trump’s political style and his agenda. Trump needs an enemy and in the absence of a polarizing figure like Hillary Clinton to run against, the “fake news” media will do just fine. Even though the national press corps won’t be on the ballot in 2018, the GOP will run against it as aggressively as it runs against the Democrats. This is, after all, how you motivate your base.

To see Trump-era politics simply as matter of dueling policies is to fundamentally misunderstand the current dynamic. Actual achievements are less important than striking the right pose and attacking the right enemies. The New York Times’s James Poniewozik explains that politics today “is attitudinal, not ideological. The reason to be for someone is who is against them. What matters more than policy is your side’s winning, and what matters more than your side’s winning is the other side’s losing.”

Indeed, as Republican health care reform efforts floundered, Washington Post reporter Robert Costa tweeted that most Republican elected officials were not fearful of a primary challenge if they opposed the repeal of Obamacare. “They see [the GOP] base,” Costa tweeted, “as grievance/fake news obsessed, not [Obamacare] obsessed.”

And for Trump, the media is the perfect foil. The president himself tweeted out a GIF depicting him body slamming a figure labelled “CNN,” after the cable network admitted it had published an erroneous story and fired three of their journalists. For Trump and his supporters, it was a triumphant moment, and a taste of what is surely to come, especially if Trump’s political position continues to deteriorate.

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, notes, “It’s all they know. They aren’t prepared for anything else.” For Trump, running against the media also “makes good sense, what with the Republican base in a permanent state of rage at ‘cognitive elites,’” he notes. “It makes even better sense for a President with a base-only strategy.”

Not surprisingly, the campaign against the media has become the one consistent, permanent feature of this White House. Charlie Warzel and Adrian Carrasquillo of BuzzFeed observe: “Trump has been clear on one issue: the untrustworthy ‘fake news’ purveyors of the media. As he’s struggled to even put into motion the kind of sweeping legislation he promised on the campaign trail, Trump’s relentless focus on the media has been the only constant amid the disorganization. Six months in, it seems clear that Trump’s only real ideology—and the only true tenet of Trumpism—is to destroy what he believes is a deceitful mainstream media.”

Early signs suggest that the strategy is working, at least among Trump’s hard-core supporters. The relentless attacks, they write, have convinced much of Trump’s base “that the mainstream media is corrupt and reckless.” “Trust in the media has been steadily declining for years in public opinion polls,” they note, “but Trump weaponized it during his campaign and now uses the full influence of the White House to promote the anti-media agenda.”


Why the Case for Transparency Must Be Made Anew

Of course, not all of this is new. Years before Donald Trump derided the media as “fake news,” Vice President Spiro Agnew famously labelled journalists “nattering nabobs of negativism.” But that was a very different era and the media need to understand that the challenges they now face are broader, deeper, more complicated as they become central players in the election campaign rather than simply observers.

All of this increases the pressure for the media to get it right.

This has always been important, but now that errors are weaponized by partisans to discredit the “fake” media, the pressure to avoid self-inflicted wounds has intensified. Even routine mistakes are seized upon to discredit the entire enterprise of journalism. This is the harsh reality check: No matter how good American journalism is, much of the electorate has been conditioned to reject it as “fake.” The last campaign saw an explosion of hoaxes, fabrications that often seemed to overwhelm legitimate news on social media.

This ought to be have been the canary in the coal mine for conservatives, but in a stunning demonstration of the power and resiliency of our new post-factual political culture, Trump and his allies in the right media quickly absorbed, disarmed, and turned the term “fake news” against its critics, draining it of any meaning. Now any news deemed to be biased, annoying, or negative can be labelled “fake news.”

Trump and his supporters now routinely conflate journalistic errors or lapses with intentional distortions; and many voters seem willing to accept the president’s chronic falsehoods or are indifferent to the deceptions.

The result is a toxic and challenging environment for journalists. They can answer the challenge with reporting that is aggressive, accurate, thorough, and fair. The next few years will be a referendum on whether they succeed.

Kirkus Reviews: "How The Right Lost Its Mind"

From Kirkus Reviews: 

A “contrarian conservative” tries to come to grips with what his side of the political aisle has become, and he loathes much of what he sees.

Sykes (Fail U.: The False Promise of Higher Education, 2016, etc.) is a “Never Trump” conservative who has maintained that position after Trump’s presidential rise revealed many in that cohort to be opportunists. The author is an earnest conservative who is truly heartbroken and angry about how conservatism has degraded in recent years, and he lays out in clear and honest prose the many problems with a conservative movement that has been taken over by angry white nationalists. “Sometime in the last decade,” writes Sykes, “conservative commentator Matt Drudge began linking to a website run by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. By doing so, he broke down the wall that separated the full-blown cranks from the mainstream conservative media, injecting a toxic worldview into the Right’s bloodstream. The conservative movement never recovered.” The author also asks whether or not he was partially responsible, through his conservative talk radio show, myriad media appearances, and prolific writings, for the current situation. Except perhaps on this last question of his own culpability and that of pundits like him, the author has written a largely convincing, compelling book. He tends to romanticize a golden age of conservatism, that of William Buckley and Ronald Reagan, both of whom on more than one occasion revealed elements of white nationalist thought. Buckley delivered plenty of screeds against the civil rights movement in his National Review, and Reagan, who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, had his fair share of racism-tinged gaffes, including his statements about “strapping young bucks” buying T-bone steaks and “Welfare Queens” as well as how “humiliating” the Voting Rights Act was to the South. Still, the author’s points about our current state are solid.

A courageous book destined to make Sykes a target among many of the worst elements that he eviscerates, which will, sadly, just confirm the strength of his thesis.

What Have They Got to Hide?

My latest piece from the Nieman Reports

The Trump administration’s penchant for secrecy is not a media issue; it is a democracy issue. And that makes it the weak spot in Trump’s otherwise successful jihad against American journalism.

Ponder this irony: A political movement driven by populist fervor is now aggressively shutting the public out of the business of government. The proclivity for concealment extends from White House briefings to federal agencies to Congress’s taste for hiding the legislative process from the prying eyes of taxpayers.

The Danger of Ignoring Alex Jones

Alex Jones, the conspiracy trafficker who runs the website Infowars, believes that Sept. 11 was an “inside job” and that the massacre of children at Sandy Hook was faked. These are cruel falsehoods that most people don’t want to confront on broadcast television. Megyn Kelly’s decision to interview him, for a show to air Sunday night,has been roundly criticized by people who suggest that we would be better off denying this fringe extremist exposure.

Indeed, when Mr. Jones was merely a marginal figure on the paranoid right, the case could plausibly be made that he was better left in obscurity. But now that, at least according to Mr. Jones, the president of the United States has praised him and thanked him for the role he played in his election victory, it’s too late to make that argument. We can’t keep ignoring the fringe. We have to expose it.

Everything That’s Happening That is Bad is About to Get Worse

This last year was just this really soul‑crushing, disillusioning slog for me, because I really did think I understood what the conservative movement was about. In Wisconsin, we had a very robust conservative movement, a lot of success, and I really thought that this was a movement based on concepts of freedom and individual liberty, small government, constitutionalism. When Trump came along, I kept expecting that the conservative movement would stand up and say, “This is exactly what we aren’t.”