When I was first approached about a then-upcoming episode of the PBS show “The Firing Line,” the main topic of which would be “whether conservatism can be redeemed,” I scoffed at the suggestion that I watch it for later discussion — with a liberal friend.
PBS suggests the program is a modern-day version of the original “The Fire Line,” which was created by conservative stalwart William F. Buckley, Jr. (who also founded “The National Review” in 1955), and ran from 1966 to 1999. “Shockingly,” the current iteration is anything but.
While in the middle of a two-hour drive on Saturday, I began to think about the program in an intriguing sort of way, so I decided to watch it and follow up with a searing op-ed.
As I suggested at the top, my first impression after hearing about the show’s topic was that it would be typical PBS left-wing drivel about whether the fundamental tenets of conservatism can be “redeemed” — by the elitist left, of course — along with those who adhere to conservative principles. But as I began to watch, I discovered that at least some of my preconceived notions were wrong.
Hoover’s guest was former conservative Charlie Sykes, founder and editor-in-chief of the website The Bulwark. Sykes was a conservative talk show host in Milwaukee when Donald Trump announced his first presidential bid in June 2015. He refused to support Trump’s effort and instead endorsed independent candidate Evan McMullin.
Sykes then announced in late October 2016 that he had decided in late 2015 to quit his long-running radio show, for “unspecified reasons.” However, his intentions soon became clear enough: Charlie Sykes was no longer a conservative. More precisely, Sykes would later say, he wasn’t a fan of Trump-style “conservativism” — Trumpism, if you will — which we’ll entertain in a minute.
Let me first say this, which anyone who’s read me through the years clearly knows, because I’ve said it and written it multiple times in multiple places. For those who prefer echo chambers, I’m not your guy. I don’t write for the number of views and I don’t go with the flow. Constitutional conservative is far more important to me than any one politician.
Anyway, as I began to listen to Sykes, two things were clear: he’s not a fan of Donald Trump, and the topic was about whether constitutional conservatism can be restored after Trump leaves the stage.
Today’s definition of “conservatism,” held by many on our side, shares little in common with the tenets of Buckley of Edmund Burke. Trumpism is an iteration of populism — in the “us against them” sense — with all roads leading to unquestioned loyalty to Trump.
The transformation from conservatism to Trumpism is not unlike the transformation of classical liberalism to today’s “liberalism” — so-called “progressivism,” that is — which bears no resemblance to the “classical liberalism” of old.
Hoover kicked off her discussion with Sykes with this lead-in:
Do Republicans who don’t support Donald Trump have a plan — or a prayer — for 2024? After an insurrection on January 6 … Donald Trump is still the GOP frontrunner, and a repeat of 2020 seems all too possible. But does it have to be this way?
As Hoover aired a short clip of Sykes interviewing Trump on his talk show in early 2016, she noted that he “took a stand against Trump,” and “launched ‘The Bulwark,’ an anti-Trump centrist news site. She then introduced Sykes to the show by asking him to describe his politics and political affiliation, which he answered thusly:
That’s a surprisingly tough question because I describe it as being a political orphan. I knew that we were going to be in the political wilderness after the election of Donald Trump [but] I didn’t realize that the wilderness was going to be such a tiny island and that there would be so few people on it.
Stop the tape. I was among those on that “tiny island” — initially, anyway — and to dismiss the 2016 election in that manner is simply incorrect. As history has shown up innumerable times, the right political figure comes along at precisely the right time, catches lightning in a bottle, and pulls off a seemingly impossible win. Donald Trump was one of those politicians — and yes, Trump was a politician, the nanosecond he began to seek the presidency.
I didn’t want to go from one tribe to another tribe. I am politically homeless and politically agnostic, on many things.
Fair enough. I’m not particularly fond of politicians, myself, and neither was Trump — when he made his initial decision to run.
Sykes said he considers himself to be a “contrarian,” because he’s “not sure what it means to be a conservative, anymore.”
The word conservative in the modern context — in the Age of Donald Trump and … MAGA — certainly doesn’t mean conserving anything. And you look back to what American conservatism was since William F. Buckley founded ‘National Review.’
There are elements of it there, but it’s a rejection of much of the entire intellectual tradition. Conservatism has a rich history, going back to Edmund Burke, a very thoughtful individual. And now, what is it? It’s … a series of irritable gestures and tribalism. I understand what the right wing is, right now, but I’m not sure that the right wing is conservative.
Rather than blast Syke’s comment without the slightest attempt to understand what he said and meant, simply because he’s Charlie Sykes, or instantaneously dismissing everything he says because one rejects it out of hand, is not a game I play.
As I see it (and so did Rush Limbaugh), it’s only by listening to those with whom we disagree that we’re able to understand what they think and why they think it — and expose them, when we’re so inclined. The left refuses to do so but in my mind, true conservatives shouldn’t follow their lead.
Sykes also offered his take on the state of the media.
I think it’s important to understand what the economics of right-wing media are [sic] … in many ways, they are chasing their audience. We saw that with Fox News — how afraid they are of losing their audience. So they say things, and they feel they must do things in order to keep that audience, but after a while, that becomes a vicious circle; that becomes a doom loop.
Hang on. While it’s hard to rationally disagree with Sykes in terms of several Fox News political pundits, it’s hard to include Brett Baier, for example, and his “Special Report” in that category. But here’s the real thing: Don’t CNN and MSNBC chase their respective audiences, as well? Lying by omission doesn’t cut it, Mr. Sykes.
Here’s more from Sykes about the emergence of Trump:
I thought I understood what conservatism was. I thought I knew who my fellow conservatives were. And up until 2016, I was pretty comfortable with that. Donald Trump comes along, and people that I had known for two decades — that I had been friends with for two decades — suddenly, you look in their eyes and you go ‘Oh my God —’Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’
Watching the whole party go that direction, I just realized that I was no longer in sync with the audience. I didn’t want to play that role … the Republican Party changes; the conservative movement changed, into something that was almost unrecognizable for me.
“If we’ve learned anything in the last few years,” Sykes opined, “it’s that [constitutional democracy is] much more fragile than we ever imagined.”
Sykes ripped the media for being unable to cover Trump, suggesting that Donald Trump is unlike any other political figure in America, and later in the show criticized Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, including his battle with Disney, for being Trump Light, if you will.
The entire show is in the clip at the end, so in the interest of time — and an overabundance of words — I’ll wrap this one up.
As I listened to Sykes, it occurred to me that there exists what I’ll call an inverted parallel between the straying of BOTH parties from their original roots. While “conservatism” has been transformed into “Trumpism,” top-down, from the former president to a sizable bloc of the Republican Party.
Likewise, “liberalism” has been transformed, bottom-up — from radical leftists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, et al., who virtually hold the Democrat Party hostage. Some might recall that former Speaker Nancy Pelosi at first fought to neuter “The Squad,” before eventually giving up, as Trump Derangement Syndrome further riddled her brain.
Even worse, we’re now stuck with addled Joe Biden, whose mental decline leaves America at the mercy of his radical left-wing handlers who tell him what to say, what to sign, what to support, and what to oppose.
So here we find ourselves: staring at a possible 2020 presidential rematch. As a constitutional conservative, that reality blows my mind.