Author, How the Right Lost its Mind
Charlie Sykes is a conservative talk-radio host who rose to national attention during the 2016 presidential primaries as part of the “Never Trump” movement. A Wisconsin native, Sykes has written several books, including “How the Right Lost Its Mind.”
This is the transcript of an interview with FRONTLINE’s Michael Kirk conducted on Dec. 21, 2017. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Let’s go backward now and get at how this happened, at least in the near term. We’ll do a little backstory in just a second. But first, let’s set up the moment that Donald Trump is elected president. So you’ve got the—give me the state of the party before Trump is elected, when [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch [McConnell] (R-Ky.) and [Speaker of the House Paul] Ryan (R-Wis.) believe that they’re going to be dealing with Hillary Clinton probably, with their majorities. What are they thinking about the landscape then?
Well, you have to understand how 2016 was, you know, this constant rolling occurrence of things that were unthinkable. So, beginning the year, going back a little bit further, nobody thought it was possible that he was going to be the nominee; that of course the center would hold; of course the party wouldn’t lose its mind and actually nominate a Donald Trump. And so you did have a lot of—most of the Republican establishment, the vast majority of elected officials, you know, wanted nothing to do with Donald Trump. They may not have actively opposed him, but very, very few Republicans lined up, Republican officials lined up behind Donald Trump’s candidacy.
Then he seizes the nomination, and there’s this long period of “OK, are we going to get behind Donald Trump? Can we actually swallow the prospect of running in a campaign with Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, much less as president of the United States?” And you recall that Paul Ryan was very reluctant to do this. And he paused, because he had repeatedly shown a willingness to call Trump out. When Trump called for a Muslim ban, he held a press conference and said: “This is not what conservatism is about. This is not what the Republican Party stands for.” When he attacked the Mexican American judge, Paul Ryan said, “This is a textbook case of racism.”
But ultimately they decided, “All right, it’s for the good of the Republican Party; we have to support him,” never expecting that he’d be elected president. So I think that you come up to the election—remember, in October, you know, a month before the election, the night of the Access Hollywood video’s release, Donald Trump was supposed to speak in my home state of Wisconsin at a rally sponsored by Paul Ryan, and Paul Ryan disinvited the nominee of his own party from coming to this rally and then basically said, in a conference call to other Republicans, that “We’re basically cutting him loose. We’re going to run our own campaign, and we’re not really going to have much to do with him.”
So you can imagine the shock of actually having to deal with the prospect of a President Donald Trump. I don’t think that anyone in Congress had any Plan B for what would happen if he won. What happens if the Republican Party is the dog that actually catches the car, and that we would have to legislate with somebody who is this untested, unreliable and erratic? I think the entire Republican Party assumed that he would go through the election, Hillary Clinton would be elected, and that the party would reunite and heal its wounds by doing what it does best, which is being in opposition; that Hillary Clinton would be the uniting factor, and instead, they got Donald Trump.
Now give me the sense of what is the shape of the GOP just at the beginning of this administration? Who’s in there? Where are the fractures? Where are the potential hot spots that McConnell and Ryan need to manage?
Right. I think at the beginning of this administration, nobody knew what the landscape looked like. There was no roadmap for all of this. You didn’t know, would Donald Trump—I think one of the big concerns was that Donald Trump easily could have picked up the phone and cut deals with the Democrats; he could have completely cut the Republican leadership out. I think there was a great deal of fear of that.
I think the same Republicans that were afraid during the campaign that Donald Trump would run as an independent candidate were afraid that Donald Trump as president might actually govern from a more liberal point of view. I think that was one of the main fears. Then, of course, you also had the problem of the base, which was clearly far more loyal to Donald Trump than it was to the Republican leadership. [Chief strategist] Steve Bannon, sitting in the White House, had made no secret of his agenda to destroy Paul Ryan and to destroy Mitch McConnell, so you could almost not come up with a formula that would be more dysfunctional than what the Republicans faced in the first months of that campaign, of that presidency.
Why health care right away, right out of the chute?
You know, I’m probably not the person to definitively answer that. I mean, I think that was one of their biggest blunders, to go for the most complicated possible issue as opposed to something like, for example, the tax cuts, which you would think would be more popular, or infrastructure, that you would think would be more popular. But this was something that I think the congressional leadership talked Trump into, because they had promised it so many times.
But again, if you follow the details of how that came out, they were going to repeal it first, and then Trump said, “No, I want to repeal it and replace it.” They kept changing the strategy, you know, in a way that they were feeling one another out. You could tell that there was no strategy. The real problem, of course, is that in order to—at the heart of a lot of these issues is the fact that Donald Trump is neither a liberal or conservative, right-wing or left-wing. He’s a man with no fixed principles whatsoever, who has not thought long or deeply about any of these things, who basically is governed by his desire for praise and for victory.
So no one knew where he was going to go. And clearly, on these issues, he was not engaged, did not understand the issues and made it much, much more complicated for them to get it. Now again, as they work through the year, now I think they’ve developed more of a working relationship. But in order to do that, that has required Republicans like Ryan and McConnell to figure out one of the key parts of the formula, which is that you must lavish Donald Trump with praise. You must never criticize him. You must always give him credit.
I think it was Ronald Reagan who said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets credit.” Donald Trump is the complete opposite of that, because he doesn’t care what happens, as long as he gets the credit.
That’s right. It’s an interesting backstory about how Trump rises and how health care becomes the seven-year itch for the party. Let’s go backward to the summer of ’09. Obama has—there’s been the stimulus package. There’s been a lot of economic problems in the country. Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act, has passed without a single vote from the Republican Party. It’s August. The members are home for recess, and town halls and everything, the hollering and the screaming and everything. And the way the conventional history is written, that is in many ways the birthplace of the Tea Party movement, the corralling of that anger that eventually will grow into the base.
Tell me the story of that summer, why that group of people was so angry, and what the implications were for where we are now.
Yeah, the Tea Party is a complicated story. And you know, clearly, you start off in 2009 with the massive stimulus bill and then immediately moving to Obamacare, and this set off a reaction. And the reaction, I think, was in the beginning largely spontaneous. And again, considering how great the financial crisis was, it shouldn’t be that surprising that there would be this kind of anxiety that had been created.
So the Tea Party actually represented something that I had not seen before, which was, you know, a large grassroots conservative movement. Up until 2009, it was the left that was able to turn out people for these rallies and these protests. Conservatives generally didn’t do this. They were more quiet. They would turn out, and they would vote, and they would write checks, but they didn’t turn out for big rallies. So something had happened, and this really touched a nerve; there was no question about it.
The problem with the Tea Party, though, was that what began as a spontaneous grassroots movement was later co-opted by organizations, and many of them were, I think, scams. They were the grifters. They figured out a way to monetize this. There were other organizations that figured out that, “Hey, maybe we can use the Tea Party movement to create a perpetual outrage machine,” you know, constantly ginning up opposition to everything that was going on in Washington. So to a certain extent, the early Tea Party needs to be distinguished from, I think, some of the later iterations of the Tea Party, which I do think were—a lot of them were rackets, were rackets.
But clearly, that was the energy that led to the 2010 election and into 2012. And throughout all of this, as the conservatives built up the perpetual outrage machine—and that was very much part of the conservative media, when we’re talking about this, and these were major issues that were talked about on a regular basis—I think that the one thing that became less clear was, so what are we for? We knew what we were against. Conservatives knew who they hated, but were they actually united by any shared principles? But you couldn’t tell, because it was this constant ginning up of anger and of opposition.
And what was the anger to? And what was the opposition of?
Well, the anger, ostensibly, was about the government spending, the deficit spending, allegedly, which again seems ironic now, looking back. But a lot of these things look very different in retrospect, going: “OK, what was that about? I mean, we were concerned about the deficit then, but we’re not concerned about it now.”
And of course health care is a very emotional issue on both sides. But I also think that conservatives—and this is something that [journalist] E.J. Dionne has I think pointed out very accurately—the Republicans, the conservative Republicans consistently overpromised their base. They incited the anger; they promised them things that they could not possibly deliver, which created this cycle of disappointment, disillusion and more anger. And I think that, more than anything else, contributed to the rise of Donald Trump.
The rise of the class, the freshman class of 2010 and then the class of 2012, the gathering of them by Ryan, [Rep. Eric] Cantor [(R-Va.) and [Rep. Kevin] McCarthy (R-Calif.), the Young Guns, building that up, building the hopes and expectations up and kind of hoping to corral it, because they needed the energy jolt of a new kind of Republican, too, forms a group that becomes eventually, the way we tell it, uncontrollable by the traditional establishment, [Speaker of the House John] Boehner (R-Ohio) and others. Tell me that story.
Well, I think that’s part of the pattern, is that you have these forces that are unleashed, that then turn out to be uncontrollable, whether it’s the Tea Party or whether it is Trumpism, because you go back to 2010. 2010 was a major turning point, because you did have the rise of back-benchers like Paul Ryan and the other Young Guns, who had been very much outsiders, but now had the potential to be able to drive the Republican agenda.
What’s interesting is that that generation then was seen as the establishment in 2016. They were the people who were ultimately rejected by the base in the 2016 primary, so there’s a problem in drawing a straight line from the Tea Party to Donald Trump. The Tea Party might have led to a [Sen.] Ted Cruz (R-Texas) or might have led to a [Sen.] Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) or to a Paul Ryan. But how does it lead to a Donald Trump? That was one of the things that came as a big surprise to me, I think, was part of the puzzle. How did a movement that was aimed in that particular direction end up going with somebody who had spent most of his life as a liberal Democrat, and he was talking about issues that, frankly, were not front and center, or did not appear to be front and center, during the initial phase of the Tea Party?
Well, some of the people we’ve talked to say, you know, that roiling, that promising [that] we’re going to get Obamacare, we’re going to cut the deficit, we’re going to stop government spending, we’re going to knock Washington on its rear end, when that wasn’t successful—in fact, some people were utterly co-opted when they got into Congress—that there was a building anger out there.
That’s exactly right.
And if he could reap anything, it would be tapping into that anger vein that existed inside that group.
Right. And that disillusionment. And this, again, goes to the role of conservative media, which, you know, within the world of conservative media, of course you know one of the main goals is to attack liberals, but increasingly, [it] also became attacking Republicans who failed to deliver these promises, the promises that were impossible to actually deliver.
So a huge amount of energy was expended attacking Republicans in Washington for failing to do things that they were never going to be able to do. But again, this is where the energy came from. So, for example, when [TV and radio commentator] Laura Ingraham decided that she was going to go after Eric Cantor, because Eric Cantor had become a symbol of the establishment, that was an interesting turning point, because you then began to have the base turning on the folks who at one time had been the Young Guns. I think that might have been an early indicator of the sort of freeform anger and outrage that would eventually end up with the Trump nomination.
What causes somebody like Laura to do that? You were part of the machine for a while. What happened? Why did it activate itself in such an effective way at the time? Was it that the audience was ready for it, or you all were caught up in the swim of it?
Well, I was never caught up in that. And see—you know, it’s funny. I don’t know why Wisconsin was different. We didn’t get caught up in it. You know, I’ve asked myself that question a lot without trying to make it too personal, except for somebody like [TV and radio commentator] Sean Hannity—
—or somebody like that. I—You know, I’d almost separate it out into the people who were pushing an issue versus the ones who went along with Trump, because that was more difficult. I think that some of the folks in the conservative media played around with Trump because it gave them a chance to bash the establishment. What they really wanted to do was they wanted to beat Jeb [Bush]. They wanted to show the establishment that they could take them down a notch, that Washington had ignored some of the grassroots.
So Trump was sort of the summer date to be able to do—he was the summer fling, figuring that maybe they were going to pivot to somebody more reasonable or acceptable at some point. But then they never did, so—
Did they never do it, or they never could?
Well, that’s a really interesting point. I think at a certain point, when you say “could,” you mean?
They couldn’t help themselves. There it was. He was on his way, and he was closer to whatever they believed in than—in fact, they loved him at some point.
Well, this goes back to the pattern of you unleash something you can’t control, and suddenly you realize, “Oh, my goodness, this is where the base is going.” And the conservative media, which would like to think of themselves as thought leaders, are often thought followers, which is manifested in the fact that they don’t want to be crosswise with the audience, if the audience suddenly decides: “Hey, we want this guy from Manhattan. We don’t want to hear you criticize him. We don’t want to hear about this Marco Rubio guy or [Wisconsin Gov.] Scott Walker. We want more Trump.” And so what happened? They gave them more Trump, and here we are.
And they got captured by him in that way.
But also I think there was this—and I mix my metaphors. I haven’t actually worked out the—I watched a lot of figures in the conservative world who were outspoken and influential, but it was almost as if they were caught. That makes them like victims, so that’s not the right word. It was—there was this tremendous gravitational pull to become more bombastic, more populist and more extreme, and nobody wanted anyone to get to the right of them on it.
So I think that [commentator] Rush Limbaugh initially probably would have preferred somebody else. But he was not in a position where he could allow himself at that stage in his career to have other younger, more vital voices out there making him seem like he was out of step. So there became this kind of groupthink mentality that was going on.
And there was a variety of political figures, like from my hometown, [Milwaukee] Sheriff David Clarke—have you encountered him? You know, always somewhat bombastic, but, I mean, oh, my God, to watch what happened in 2016, how a lot of these folks figured, in order to be part of this new movement, in order to be relevant, in order to get my hits or my clicks or my ratings, I have to take the most extreme positions; I cannot be out of touch with what’s happening.
And it does feel a little echo chamber-like, as you go back and you look at the Cantor race and then eventually the Freedom Caucus and what happens with Boehner. It’s happening inside. But we’ve listened to lots of [attorney] Marc Levin and everybody else bombing the airwaves around Washington and America, and certainly Hannity, and even [former Fox News host] Bill O’Reilly in some ways, really pushing a kind of agenda that was seemingly aimed at the Republican establishment, what used to be the Republican conservatives who then become the Republican establishment, because there’s an even more intense group inside there.
Right. And it became this point where anything that was mainstream was derided as establishment. It almost became this desire to tear things down. I mean, how many times during 2016 did we hear people talk about, “We just need to blow it up; we need to tear it down”? And there was that real sense of anger and blowing things up, and even people who thought that Donald Trump was a chaos candidate thought this was a good thing, because we need more chaos. Of course those same people then, you know, have demanded absolute loyalty and fealty since then, but there was that sense of blowing it all up.
But, you know, you talk about the echo chamber, and then maybe we’re going to get into this. But, you know, there was always—there’s always an element of an echo chamber, you know. There’s been an—there’s always been an element of an echo chamber on the conservative media. There is on the liberal media as well.
But what happened and accelerated very, very quickly was the way that echo chamber really became an alternative reality silo, and this was something that I felt happening in very, very real time, because for years, I would always push back against people who would email me or call in or send me something that was untrue or misleading or just completely bogus. And I would send them back material and saying: “Well, here’s what the true story is. Here is the accurate information.” And most of the time they would say: “Hey, thank you. You know, we still dislike this person, and we still like this person, but we don’t want to be using false stuff.”
In early 2016, I started noticing that I could no longer successfully break through. First of all, the volume of fake news, of this misleading propaganda, was spiking up dramatically. People that I had known for 20 years were suddenly forwarding me stuff from websites that I had never heard of or information that was just bizarre and inaccurate. But anything I sent them to refute the false information was immediately rejected if it came from something outside the alternative reality. If I sent them something from The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times or NBC News, it was like, “Well, that’s the liberal media.”
And that’s when I had that moment of—that that was kind of the shocking realization that all the years of criticism of the media, much of which was justified, had actually been so successful that we had succeeded in delegitimizing much of the fact-based media. And you could not break through it.
So there was obviously—you can go back and talk about the rise of the conservative media over many, many years, and there’s a long story, but a lot of the developments in the conservative media and the creation of this alternative and media ecosystem is actually a very recent development, and I think that’s really what took a lot of Republicans by surprise, the extent to which people like Steve Bannon and Breitbart [News Network] and Donald Trump could drive the debate in a way that would have been inconceivable even a couple of years earlier.
That man becomes president of the United States. Bannon becomes his chief strategist. They realize they’re not interested, really, in policy; they’re not interested in the details of the health care bill or anything else. They have big ideas, and, as you said, they want to get wins on the board and move as fast as possible toward the win column. But governing is dealing with a Republican Party, thank God, from their point of view, [with] a Republican majority, because they can get some stuff done, I guess. They don’t really like Ryan for all the reasons you have articulated, and I guess Mitch McConnell represents a kind of orthodoxy. Do you know how he would have felt about Mitch?
Oh, yeah, they would have despised him, probably not quite as viscerally as despising Ryan. And remember, you know, Trump did put Mitch McConnell’s wife, [Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation], in his Cabinet, so—
This is true, yes. So it is a matter of governing. But it feels like, to get the health care bill through—it didn’t, as we know, eventually make it—but to get it through, he decides to be a sort of a cheerleader, a salesman, whatever, and work with Ryan and try to move it along. He’s a novice. He doesn’t really even have anybody in his government who can say, “This is how you’re supposed to do this.” And clearly, it doesn’t work.
From your perspective, what was the impact of the failure of the health care bill on Trump and on the party?
Well, I mean, it obviously threatened to overshadow his entire first year. You know, this is something that the Republican Party had been talking about for seven consecutive years, and then when the lights go on, it turns out they don’t really have a plan. They didn’t have any way to get from here to there. And that was kind of a revealing moment. But also, I think it did expose several things about Donald Trump. Number one, he couldn’t be the chief salesperson, because he didn’t understand the issue. He did not take the time to understand the details. Every time he spoke to members of Congress about it, he revealed his ignorance. Plus, he and his administration sent conflicting signals.
Remember, after the House passed the repeal, they had that big celebration at the White House for the repeal of health care, but then, a few weeks later, Donald Trump is giving interviews, where he’s describing that as “mean,” how “mean-spirited it was.” So he was undermining his party, you know, throughout the—
Why? What happened?
Again, you know, Donald Trump’s lack of political experience, his lack of knowledge, his lack of interest in working with Congress I think was obvious there. Now clearly, they learned from that with the tax reform bill. They moved on from that, and they figured out, “OK, we’re going to have to stay very, very, very close.” But also, I mean, there’s a price to be paid for all of this. I think that at the beginning of 2017, the one thing that was most likely to happen was a tax cut. Repealing Obamacare was always going to be a heavy lift, but this is what Republicans do; Republicans are born to cut taxes. It’s something almost impossible.
So the question is, what price would the Republicans be willing to pay to get those tax cuts? What would they be willing to swallow? What would they be willing to overlook? What would they be looking to enable? And I think we saw the story of 2017 watching this Republican Party moving toward cutting taxes, but also showing its willingness to continue to capitulate and to acquiesce and to cajole and jolly along Donald Trump, culminating in the day after, of course, the tax bill being finalized. You had this sort of chorus of sycophancy, where you’ll, one Republican after another, gave their “Thank you, dear leader” speeches. But that’s one of the lessons I think that both of them learned on all of this, is that they are sort of locked in this morbid codependency.
When you witnessed the Charlottesville moment with Trump, with the health care had failed. He’d gone to Bedminster, [N.J., the site of the Trump National Golf Club]. He was angry. He was tweeting about McConnell. He was “fire and fury” against North Korea. Then Charlottesville happens, and he has these alternating sets of responses for a while in the face of the Republican establishment saying, “You’ve got to clean this up.” What did you think when you saw that happening, and what did you think the implications were?
I don’t know how many times I’ve said this this year, but there are things that are shocking but not surprising. I mean, it is shocking that the president of the United States cannot denounce white supremacists who are involved in a demonstration like that, that takes a young woman’s life. That is shocking. However, his response is not surprising if you were paying attention to Donald Trump at all during 2015 and 2016. Donald Trump had looked the other way. He had winked at, and he had enabled the alt-right, the white nationalist movement, again and again and again. This is a—he’s tone-deaf on this particular issue. And he was tone-deaf again. I mean, Donald Trump is somebody who will gratuitously stoke racial and cultural divisions for political advantage. This was the most extreme example.
What I thought was extraordinary about it was how dramatically it was on display, but also, ultimately, the way it was not a deal breaker for Republicans. And again and again, you’ll have these moments that are, you know, violations of accepted norms, but then are accepted or acquiesced in by a Republican Party that has figured out that in order to get what it wants from him, it is going to have to look the other way.
So among the stories of 2017 was, of course, what happened in Charlottesville, the reaction to what happened in Charlottesville, but also the reaction that did not happen, because Republicans may have tut-tutted, but ultimately, they did not break with him. Their criticisms didn’t amount to anything. And so they have, in some ways, incorporated that as acceptable behavior in the Republican Party.
We started off by talking about [Alabama Judge and candidate for U.S. Senate] Roy Moore. You think about the way the Republican Party has normalized Trump’s behavior, has normalized the kind of extremist, erratic, irresponsible rhetoric of a Roy Moore. This is one of the legacies. This is one of the legacies of 2017 and 2016, is that the Republican Party is transforming itself, bit by bit, perhaps not even consciously doing it, but by again what it’s willing to accept, what it’s willing to tolerate.
He’s also—he’s intensely disruptive as a kind of personality. So it’s possible that when he does this, when he talks about the NFL, when he does things that all feel mildly racist, and it’s just kind of terrifying—more than mildly in some cases—and even when McConnell and the other senators go public, and they’re sort of critical of him, he fights back. He flies into Arizona and takes on [Sen. Jeff] Flake and [Sen. John] McCain right there in their own turf, and he takes no prisoners when he goes in there. Maybe they’re afraid of him.
I think a lot of them are afraid of him. I think there’s a certain Stockholm syndrome quality to it. It’s that people, you know, they just—they don’t want to be criticized. They don’t want to have him attack them on Twitter or unleash the hordes of supporters. Understand that when Donald Trump tweets about somebody, it’s not just Donald Trump tweeting. He will activate hundreds of thousands of other people on social media to do the same thing, so I think a lot of elected Republican officials just basically shrug their shoulders and say, “It’s not worth it; it’s not worth it to push back.” I mean, we did have that extraordinary moment, you know, a couple of months ago, where you had the former President George Bush, former Republican nominee John McCain, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee [Sen.] Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Jeff Flake all within like a seven-day period make statements or give speeches where they talked about the danger that Donald Trump posed to our political culture. That was an extraordinary moment.
It was also extraordinary what happened afterward, which was, even though a lot of other Republicans said privately, that “Yes, we agree with you,” no one joined them publicly. There was not a peep out of the Republicans. And of course, what did they do? Of course they went along with him, ultimately on the tax cut bill. So again, I think there was a fear.
I could offer you also the alternative, which is, I think during Charlottesville, he had 67-65 percent approval ratings while that’s happening. Eighty-some percent of the Republicans—of the Republican voters, at least in the polls, like what Donald Trump is doing.
Well, and that’s part of the fear, is that the Republican elected officials are not going to break with Donald Trump until the base breaks with Donald Trump. They are not going to go against them. And there is this odd loyalty that the Republican base has to Donald Trump, which is ironic, because I remember when conservatives used to mock the Democrats and Barack Obama for their cult of personality, and then here we are, where the Republicans now have their own cult of personality.
What does it do to the Republican Party, this very fact that you’re talking about? What is it doing? And I’m not talking about the Republican Party out in America, although I am, but I’m really talking about in Washington, in the seats between Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell’s houses of Congress.
Well, I think that they have decided that politics is very strictly transactional. They want to blank out all of this that’s going on; that Donald Trump’s behavior, his character, these comments that we’re talking about, that these are not relevant; that all that’s relevant is policy.
That Flake and Corker, especially there’s Corker’s back-and-forth with the president of the United States, these tweets with the adult day care—speaking of lack of decorum, this is what we, in some ways, if there’s a single event, if Alabama is the microcosm of the whole thing, the micro-microcosm of the whole thing is Corker versus Trump in the Twitterverse.
Well, and think about it. I mean, this is a senior member of the United States Senate making these comments and raising the prospect about the fitness of the president to serve. And there was no question about it that Corker was speaking for a lot of other members of his caucus who were not willing to say this in public and who have lined up behind Trump again and again on various votes. So that’s one of the dynamics, is that there was always the possibility that you would have a Republican Party, particularly a congressional Republican Party, that would really distinguish itself, set itself apart from the Trump presidency, but so far that that has not developed.
No, in fact you could have stood at the precipice, as Trump was being elected, at the Hilton Hotel, and you could have said, “The battle is going to be—is this going to be the Republican Party owning Trump, or is it going to be Trump owning the Republican Party?” And I think, in one year, we’ve seen it land on the side that Trump owns the Republican Party.
Well, yes. But actually, it’s more complicated than that. There’s no question [that] the Republican Party has been thoroughly Trumpified and that they’re bowing the knee to him … But the Republican establishment has gotten an awful lot of what it wants from Donald Trump, so that is at the heart of the bargain, this kind of Faustian bargain, that the Republicans have made with Donald Trump. Now, in a Faustian bargain, remember, you often get what you want. No, you get to judges; you get regulatory reform; you get tax cuts. But then you find out that the price is way more than you were expecting.
What is the price?
The price is your soul. It’s accepting things you would have never accepted before, aligning yourself with somebody who, I think, has violated many of the most fundamental democratic norms and conservative principles that had once been taken for granted, including respect for the rule of law.
So when you look at the tax bill passed, it doesn’t say to you what a lot of people say it is, [that] it is the healing of the Republican Party. They’re healed. I know this is what Mitch McConnell likes to say out loud. This proves that all that stuff about a war in the Republican Party and a war with President Trump is baloney. This is us all getting together to do something important for America, and look what we did this year.
Well, look, I find a number of things remarkable about that tax bill, including the fact that it’s likely to add $2 trillion to the national deficit. I mean, I’m old enough to remember when Republicans talked about the looming debt crisis, when deficit spending was the kind of thing that started the Tea Party movement. And then for them to pass a tax cut bill that may add trillions of dollars to the national debt without any public hearings, without much debate, is kind of shocking. It is disconcerting.
But this was the win. You know, in the era of Trump, it’s more important to get something done than to get it done well or to do it right. They were more concerned about getting this done before Christmas of 2017 than they were in going through any sort of regular order. When Ronald Reagan did this back in 1986, he had lots of Democratic support. This was not something that was done on a strict partisan line. And it was also revenue-neutral. So you really do get a sense of how things have changed.
But, you know, my sense is, right now, that this is the one thing that unites the Republican Party under Donald Trump, that all wings of the party are satisfied with the idea of tax cutting. The number of Republicans who are serious deficit hawks is vanishingly small. Those of us that actually do care about the national debt, we are in a minority of a minority these days.
When you think about your former business and all the hosts that we know, all the voices we hear in this moment, can they in good conscience be happy with what has actually turned out—what the results for the Republican Party might be as they look at the midterm elections in 2018?
At the moment you and I are sitting here right now, you have a lot of conservative hosts who are telling themselves that they are justified in supporting Donald Trump, because of Neil Gorsuch, because of the Supreme Court, because of the regulatory reform, because of the tax bill, because of a variety of other policy wins. So they’re telling themselves that this was all worth it.
Now the question is, what is the long-term ramification going to be? You know, yes, you’ve won some of these fights, but what is the price in—particularly in toxifying the conservative movement? I mean, this is one of my concerns, is that by aligning yourself with somebody as toxic as Donald Trump, what you’ve done is you’ve basically tainted conservative ideas and conservative wins for an entire generation. And I’m not sure that many of the media folks have fully understood the implications of all of that; that they’re so caught up in winning today, winning this cycle, that they’re not fully recognizing the demographic time bomb that they’ve planted in their own party.
When you look at the primaries that are coming, and then the midterms are in the fall, what’s the future for the Republican Party, if everything sort of stays the same? It doesn’t get any worse, but it doesn’t get any better either.
No, I get the sense that right now, there’s a perfect storm building for a Democrat wave and that Donald Trump is going to be a—he’s going to be a boat anchor for the Republicans; that if they honestly think that they’re going to be able to go to the country with their policy wins, their tax cuts, with Donald Trump as the symbol of their party, I think it’s going to be a very, very disappointing year for all of them.
And I think that they’re—what we’ve seen so far is several things, number one, that Donald Trump has succeeded in pulling back together much of the Democrat coalition. Democrats appear to be excited; they appear to be mobilized; they’re turning out at the polls. Republicans appear to be somewhat depressed and divided, and I think that that’s going to manifest itself in 2018. It’s hard to make predictions past all of that.
But I think there’s this longer question, is how long is it going to take Republicans to wipe the taint of Donald Trump and Trumpism off? How long will it be before they can go back to women and young people and Mexican-Americans and African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Muslim Americans and say: “By the way, that wasn’t us. We are much more inclusive. We’re much more aspirational”? I think it’s going to take a generation or more for them to do that, because the reality is, is they can’t say, “That’s not us,” because that is who they are. That’s what they have become.
So much for the [Republican] “autopsy,” huh?
Well, they need an exorcism now.
That’s very much along the line of a question I wanted to ask you, was about Trump’s rise in the Republican Party. He starts as the birther, and the Judge [Gonzalo] Curiel, the Muslim ban, all of those racial issues that are part of his rise. What role do they play in his rise inside the party?
By the way, all that’s crucial. Well, that raises the fundamental questions about what was going on in the conservative movement that we didn’t recognize. You know, I think that part of the disillusion that I experienced, people like George Will experienced, we thought we knew what the conservative movement had become and to who [sic] the conservative—our conservative allies were. And then you see Donald Trump exploiting issues like birtherism, these racial dog whistles, and using that to propel himself to the nomination, which would suggest that there was something going on that we had perhaps ignored. And I think this was one of the moral tests.
You look back on this, and let’s just take the issue of birtherism. I mean, that’s kind of the conspiracy theory on the right, but it’s also, you know, a fundamentally—it’s a racist myth that the Republican Party should have rejected, should have pushed back on harder, but did not. And as a result of that, you not only had Donald Trump rise to the presidency, but you also had the failure of a moral test.
I mean, I think it was fundamental moral test for the right. What are we going to do about the bigots among us? And this, I really wrestled with this, because, I mean, you always knew that it was there. You always knew that you had the drunken uncle at Thanksgiving, but he was a member of the family, and it was like, “Oh, that’s Uncle So-and-so, and he believes these things.” So you rolled your eyes, you shrugged your shoulder, but you didn’t push back, because you figured—we figured, I think naively—that the center would always hold, that these bigots were always going to be—you know, this kind of bigotry, this kind of throwback racism, was in conservatism’s past.
But because we failed to call it out and push back, it turned out that it could be exploited, and it was a much bigger problem and a more fundamental problem than a lot of us admitted. I think a lot of conservatives had felt, over the years, that—well, they had gotten sick of liberals accusing them of racism all the time. You have to understand that in the conservative world, whoever you were, you were going to be accused of being racist. George Bush was a racist. John McCain was a racist. Mitt Romney was a racist, right? If you were for tax cuts, you were for a racist. Whatever it was, you were a racist.
It became—it felt like a little bit like crying wolf, to the point where conservatives began to shrug it off, saying, “OK, if we’re all racist, whatever.” So when the real thing came along, and I would go on the air and say, “By the way, the alt-right, these are the real racists. OK, did you see what Donald Trump just said? This is…”—the reaction I got was: “This again. This is what they always say about us.”
So you had this denial on the part of many conservatives that this was a fundamental problem. But obviously, it was a fundamental problem that we had not confronted, and I don’t think we’ve confronted to this day.
Yeah. And was it just that Trump had a willingness to go where others wouldn’t, to go beyond the dog whistle? Or how did it contribute to his—?
Well, what Donald Trump—and this was obvious from the moment he announced his presidency; that he was willing to blame the problems of America on a group of scapegoats, all of whom happened to be brown or foreign or otherwise a member of a minority group. It was not subtle, and it was not—it was central to his appeal. And the fact that it resonated so powerfully, I think, took a lot of conservatives by surprise, and perhaps it ought not to have.
You said in your book, in the beginning of your book, that it was [commentator] Ann Coulter who first talked about the rapists, the migrant rapists.
Yeah, she was on my show. I still remember the show. She’s on my show talking about—she was promoting one of her books, how we need to restrict Mexican immigrants because they were sending over so many rapists, and I remember looking at my producer, thinking, I can’t imagine making that kind of stereotype about any other ethnic group.” And I think I said something to her like, “Well, you’re painting with a pretty broad brush,” which was pretty weak.
But then, a few weeks later, when I heard Donald Trump using the exact same line, my first reaction was, “Oh, he got that from Ann Coulter.” So you go from some of the most extreme rhetoric that really—I mean, Ann Coulter had been kind of pushed out into the fringes of the conservative movement, and here you have a presidential candidate who is willing to use the exact same kind of rhetoric, and Republicans all over the country, or at least Republican primary voters all over the country, decided they were going to applaud all of that.
One of the things you write about is the Roy Moore story and after he loses. You looked at that as the moment when the GOP sees the full range of choices they have made. Explain that.
Well, I think the Roy Moore campaign made it very clear exactly how far the Republican Party had descended, that here you had the Republican National Committee and the elected Republican president of the United States that was willing to support not merely an accused child molester, but somebody who was clearly homophobic, who had talked about—who did not think that Muslims should be able to serve in public office, who trafficked in the most bizarre sort of racist conspiracy theories. And yet here the Republican Party was, with the support of much of the conservative media, cheerleading for this candidate.
So if you’re drawing a line of where the Republican Party was going, Donald Trump was not necessarily the endpoint, that it extended beyond Donald Trump. And here you had much of the conservative infrastructure in this country supporting a candidate as toxic as Roy Moore, and Roy Moore is not the only candidate, and he’s not the last candidate to be out there, trying to exploit some of those forces unleashed by Donald Trump.
Especially if Steve Bannon is out there ginning up candidates to primary others around the country.
Right. I have an active theory that one of the strongest arguments in favor of the tax bill was to marginalize Steve Bannon, was that when they were behind closed doors [they said], “You understand that if Mitch McConnell can deliver this, you cut Steve Bannon off at the knees; that you will not be able to run these primary challenges, these wacky primary challenges against incumbent senators if we can accomplish something.”
But again, you know, Roy Moore is not the only one. He’s not the last one. And there’s a long tradition. I mean, you know, as you trace how the right lost its mind, you go back to the Sharron Angle candidacy in Nevada, Christine O’Donnell’s candidacy in Delaware, the Todd Akin candidacy [in Missouri], where the Republicans had found themselves with an absolutely toxic candidate and this impulse to defend them. But we never saw anything quite like the rallying around Roy Moore. Again, the Republican Party [was] incredibly lucky that it dodged the bullet of him not winning that election.
And the fact that moderate Republicans are jumping ship, how does that apply in the GOP at war with itself, and what does that say? And what does that say about the future?
Well, you know, I know it’s become a cliché to quote [the poem “The Second Coming” by William Butler] Yeats—you know, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” This is part of a problem, when you have, you know, moderate, thoughtful Republicans who decide there’s no longer any place for them in a party that is willing to embrace a Roy Moore or a Donald Trump.
You do wonder whether or not the party is going to become more extreme as a result of all of this. And I think what you’re seeing is, you’re not just seeing a generational shift. You’re seeing an entire group of political leaders and veterans looking at the Republican Party and saying: “You know what? There’s no future for me in this party anymore. I don’t belong in this party anymore.” And you do wonder, you know, where that’s going to lead us. What would the country look like if you have a Republican Party that is dominated by Trump and his acolytes, who are people who are comfortable with the kind of toxic partisanship that’s become endemic; if we lose that entire generation of thoughtful moderates who are willing to look for common ground? So as bad as things have become in terms of hyperpartisanship, they in fact could be worse.
And personally for you, what does this mean for you and your future?
Well, I’m a political orphan. You know, this is—I guess perhaps I don’t have the gene for tribalism that some others have. My father was always a contrarian, and I guess I’m a contrarian. But it’s a strange experience to be part of a movement and to think you understand that movement, and then to find yourself excommunicated from that movement because you’re not willing to accept someone like Donald Trump. It was extraordinary to me the number of people who decided that this was the hill they wanted to die on, loyalty to Donald Trump, and that none of the other issues, none of the other things actually mattered. If you were not willing to be a supporter of Donald Trump, then there was no place for you in the Republican Party.
So again, I knew that I was going to be in the political wilderness. I didn’t expect it was going to be quite so—you know, such a small desert island or there were going to be so few of us.
Just one last small thing. You write about it; I like the way you defined it. You talk about Trump coming down the golden escalator and the fact that outrage was already there. Just tell us that thought.
… One of my main questions when I wrote the book is I tried to—you know, at the end of 2016, I wanted to figure out what the hell just happened to us. Was this a hostile takeover of an otherwise healthy movement by an outsider? Was this a “black swan” event, or was it a sign of something deeper and more of a pre-existing condition? And ultimately [I] decided that Donald Trump was really a symptom rather than a cause, and that long before he came down that golden escalator, the stage had been set by the perpetual outrage machine for years. The conservative media had been ginning up this freeform anger addressed at Washington, aimed at the so-called establishment.
So Donald Trump did not create that, but he was able to exploit it. Of course, I don’t think anybody fully realized the extent to which he’d be able to exploit it. But again, he didn’t create those conditions. They were there waiting for him.