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.