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

It’s like ‘What Happened,’ but for conservatives

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.
The result is a political environment that “has coarsened the culture as a whole,” Sykes writes. In his eyes, the election marked “the abandonment of respect for gradualism, civility, expertise, intelligence, and prudence — the values that were once taken for granted among conservatives.”

It is a sanitized image of conservatism, no doubt, but Sykes seems heartfelt in his lament. The insanity he purports to chronicle — on the book cover, the title is stitched across a red baseball cap — did not begin in 2016 or 2015, or even during this young millennium. Sykes reminisces about the mid-20th century, when his hero, William F. Buckley Jr., was casting out Birchers and Ayn Rand devotees from the conservative movement, and when Barry Goldwater’s “The Conscience of a Conservative” sought to balance, as the senator wrote, “the maximum amount of individual freedom that is consistent with the maintenance of social order.”

But today’s conservatives have failed to do the same. They have tolerated the ruminations of Pat Robertson, for instance, whom Sykes dismisses as “Christianity’s crazy uncle,” and embraced the more extreme elements among the tea party movement. “For years, we ignored the birthers, the racists, the truthers, and other conspiracy theorists,” Sykes writes. “We treated them like your obnoxious uncle at Thanksgiving.” (Yes, he seems to have uncle issues.) Throughout the book, Sykes assails Republicans and conservatives for not pushing back hard enough against the crackpots — and he points to moments along the way that only emboldened them.


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