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Spurning Trump, Self-Styled Conservative Gatekeeper Finds Himself On The Margins

Sep 20, 2016
Originally published on September 20, 2016 1:43 pm

From his studio in the battleground state of Wisconsin, talk-radio host Charlie Sykes — like other influential conservative talk-radio hosts across the country — has held the mantle of modern conservatism for more than two decades.

Every day, he goes on the air for three straight hours, vetting rising stars and inviting Republican leaders and listeners to hash out the issues of the day.

"I think it's fair to say that there's been no conservative leader in Wisconsin who hasn't been a regular guest on my show," Sykes said. "If you wanted to be introduced, you needed to go through conservative talk radio."

Sykes, 62, views himself as one of the gatekeepers for the conservative movement — but, in recent months, he has found himself increasingly on the margins. That's because he has refused to get behind Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

#NeverTrump

Sykes has emerged as one of the leading voices against Donald Trump's bid for president. He is bothered by the nominee's record of donations to various Democrats over the years, as well as his past positions on issues like abortion or universal healthcare, which he says don't square with traditional conservative values.

Most of all, he's afraid that the Republican nominee's rhetoric will hinder the party's efforts to reach new demographics.

"We have spent years ... trying to refute the stereotypes of what conservatives were about," Sykes said. "Trump then comes along, and he represents every stereotype the left has ever had of conservatives, whether it's his misogyny, whether it's his xenophobia.

"It's going to be very, very difficult after this is over to come back and to say to women, to minorities, to young people, 'That wasn't us. No, that whole thing that just happened? That's not us. We are something else. We, in fact, are open and we are inclusive.' "

How we got here

Sykes finds himself wondering how the conservative movement he belonged to could have chosen Trump as its leader. In part, he blames himself for not recognizing signs from his own audience, which he says has grown "more intolerant of views outside of their particular world view" over the last decade.

It's a reality that has, on occasion, played out live on air:

Sykes said he's noticed listeners becoming increasingly dogmatic in their rejection of mainstream sources of information and simple facts. They've increasingly cited sources like InfoWars, a show launched by radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Listeners have quickly dismissed any attempt to correct misinformation, especially if his source for those challenges are sources like The New York Times or The Washington Post.

"Rather than ... saying 'Well, thank you for correcting that,' many people actually pushed back, and said, 'Well, no, the source you're citing comes from the mainstream media," Sykes said. "We've been conditioned over the years not to take anything the mainstream is saying seriously, at all.'"

This leaves Sykes wondering whether he and others in conservative media helped created an environment in which a Trump nomination was possible.

"Maybe we have been undone by our success a little bit," Sykes says. "At some point, we went from being the counterweight to creating our own alternative reality."

Looking back, Sykes regrets the way he spoke about certain issues on his program, including immigration and Islam. He says that, after this election, he wants to do a thorough self-examination.

"I want to spend some time going back to see: were there things I said, thinking they meant one thing, that were heard in a different way?" Sykes said. "I may have made points that I don't think were racialized, but which may have been internalized by people in a very, very different way."

One example, he says, is to a music video he ran on his show back in 2011. It depicted a young African-American woman using her food stamp card, or EBT card, at various fast food and liquor stores in Los Angeles.

"While I thought of that as a light parody, I don't think that it was necessarily received that way," Sykes said. "Knowing what I know now about the divisions in society, I don't think I would do that again. I think it certainly could have been perceived as a racial stereotype of a welfare mother."

The rise of conservative media

In 1992, when Sykes began his show, Rush Limbaugh was paving the way for a surge of conservative radio programs with a collective mission to provide an alternative to the mainstream media. Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham reached a national audience while Sykes did his piece as the most influential conservative on radio in Wisconsin.

"We have a lot of people who, I think, turn to us as trusted voices," he said.

But, Sykes said, too many of these media personalities seem to have decided that their ratings are more important than their conservative values.

"I think among the things that have been the most the disheartening is to watch other people who do what I do decide that they are merely entertainers," he said, "or willing to surrender some of the principles, willing to go from being gatekeepers to being cheerleaders to being outright flacks."

Some listeners would agree with Sykes, like this recent caller to The Rush Limbaugh Show:

Sykes looks at these moments as a sign of what's to come.

"I think there's going to be a reckoning in conservative talk radio," he said. "The illusion that conservative media was about ideas has been shattered. The idea that there was a unified message in conservative media, I think, has been broken. I think that the trust that a lot of people put in conservative media over the years is going to be very, very hard to restore."

Regardless of the outcome of this election, Sykes says it will be important for conservative media to do as he plans to next year: reflect on whether there's still a line that divides information from entertainment.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And we turn now to one of conservative talk radio's earliest voices. For more than two decades, Charlie Sykes has helped shape the Republican Party from his home base of Wisconsin. The rise of Donald Trump has left him feeling on the margins of his party. It's an uncomfortable place for Sykes, but not one that's terribly unfamiliar.

CHARLIE SYKES: I grew up in a liberal family. My father was a well-known Democratic Party activist. He was a university professor. He was the president of the Wisconsin Civil Liberties Union. And I became active in Young Democrats. I actually was a page to the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABRAHAM RIBICOFF: And with George McGovern as President of the United States, we wouldn't have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.

SYKES: In 1970, my father, despite the fact that he was a vocal, principled opponent of the Vietnam War, he was targeted by, you know, many of the anti-war activists. And they demanded that he shut down his classes, that he go on strike. My father said, look, you know, I don't care who you are. You're not going to bully me. You're not going to, you know, shut me down. And it was during that period that I remember beginning to think that this movement had become more strident and militant.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYKES: There was a moment where they tried to tip over his car. And I'm thinking, here's a World War II veteran who has been an outspoken liberal Democrat, has been an outspoken opponent of the war, and yet they have decided that he is a target for them. And so I got a preview of what happens when you break from the tribe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SYKES: It is 8:35. Good morning, Wisconsin. You're listening to news radio 620, WTMJ. We live in insane times. We actually live in insane times.

I'm incredibly proud of having built a constituency of really smart, savvy voters who were able to distinguish between the fakes and the real reformers, who really were attracted to reform-based conservatism.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SYKES: Joining me live on the line is the Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan. Good morning, sir. How are you?

PAUL RYAN: I'm doing fine. Good morning, Charlie. How are you doing?

SYKES: To the extent that there has been a conservative movement in Wisconsin, I've always been part of it, and I've been an advocate for it. But I've always thought that my role wasn't to advance their ambitions. It was to advance these ideas and these principles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Ladies and gentlemen, I am officially running for president of the United States, and we are going to make our country great again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYKES: I was never Trump from the moment he came down that gold escalator. From that moment on, I made no secret of the fact that I was not a party loyalist. Donald Trump is not conservatism. Donald Trump does not represent what we have been talking about for years. Donald Trump represents every stereotype the left has ever had of conservatives. If that was the direction the Republican Party was going to take, well, then I was out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYKES: I'd gone to an Easter brunch and was taking a nap in the basement when my producer texted me, are you ready for this? I said, OK, what? He said, Donald Trump, 8:35 tomorrow morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SYKES: Joining me on the line is the national Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump. Good morning, sir.

TRUMP: Hi, Charlie.

SYKES: How are you?

TRUMP: I'm good.

SYKES: I started off trying to be as polite as I could.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SYKES: First of all, congratulations, grandpa. Congratulations on the birth of your grandson yesterday.

TRUMP: That's right. Thank you. That's so nice.

SYKES: And then we - and then we dived into it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SYKES: You know, I want to talk about your record. I mean, you've given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Clintons, to Harry Reid, to John Kerry, Chuck Schumer, Charlie Rangel. In your book, you insulted Ronald Reagan. You praised Obama - Obama's stimulus as terrific. You've called for the largest tax hike in history. You've endorsed universal government-run health care. You've endorsed abortion on demand, gun control. So my question is, why shouldn't conservatives here in Wisconsin think that your claim to be a conservative now is just a giant fraud?

TRUMP: Well, first of all, let me just explain that, as a businessman, I'd never even thought of many of the things you're talking about. I was never even asked...

SYKES: I did feel like I was a man on a mission, and my mission was to not allow Donald Trump to sweep Wisconsin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: And when you do that...

SYKES: But you're not - you're not answering my question.

TRUMP: Well, no, I am answering. You have to get along with everybody.

SYKES: But when Donald Trump lost the Wisconsin primary, I felt incredibly proud to be a Wisconsinite. And it was very gratifying to watch that, while the rest of the country was falling all over as Donald Trump was sweeping one primary after another, he came here and we just did not buy what he was selling.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SYKES: Donald Trump, thanks so much for joining me. I appreciate it very much.

TRUMP: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SYKES: I certainly was hoping that Wisconsin was going to be the firewall of rationality in the primary. Instead, we turned out to be a speed bump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Friends, delegates and fellow Americans, I humbly and gratefully accept your nomination for the presidency of the United States.

SYKES: I think among the things that have been the most disheartening is to - to watch other people who do what I do decide that they are willing to go from being gatekeepers to being cheerleaders to being outright flaks. That's been extremely disillusioning.

My father died in 1985, actually pretty suddenly. He died at the age of 63. And this year, I turn 62. So I've always had that age circled, and it means a great deal to me to realize that, you know what? If you're going to make choices, you have to make some now. I'm looking around at what purported to be the conservative movement saying, you know what? I'm not sure that you people actually have the answers. I don't want to follow your path intellectually. And so, for me, it's kind of the breaking out again that I'm - I guess I'm kind of on my own again. And, you know - and you know what? I will say this - that I really do hope that my - that my father wouldn't be proud that, really at the end of this, that I did something that I think he might have done.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: That was Charlie Sykes, a conservative talk radio host who's feeling on the margins this election year. That segment was produced by Arezou Rezvani and Barton Girdwood. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.