October 5, 2017
5:38:00 PM Eastern
CHUCK TODD: In his new book How the Right Lost its Mind, former longtime conservative radio host Charlie Sykes dives into whether conservative media and rhetoric help make Donald Trump. And he also explores his own exile from what the conservative movement has become, calling it a painful book for him to write. He says, quote, “There is no mincing words. For me, 2016 was a brutal, disorienting, disillusioning slog. There came a moment when I realized that conservatives have created an alternative reality bubble and I had perhaps helped shape it.”
Charlie, welcome back to the show sir. Congrats on the book. But it is a — — it is a tough thing to say you were part of this problem. And there is some people that are going to watch this as conservatives and say, “this wasn’t a problem. You’ve sold out.” So explain what you mean when the right lost its mind and how it began.
CHARLIE SYKES: Well, this is why I wrote the book because I’m trying to figure out what just happened to us? How do we go from the party of Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump? You know, how did we go from William F. Buckley Jr. to Sean Hannity? What happened here? Was this a hostile takeover or a black swan event? Was this an otherwise healthy party that was seized upon by Donald Trump, or was it a pre-existing condition? And so, those are the tough questions. And you know the — losing its mind, truly chronicles how conservatives have really outsourced much of the thought leadership to crazy town. The attack on the conservative intellectual tradition and asking what did we miss? What did we do, did we contribute to this?
TODD: Well what did you come to? Do you believe — you said you think you contributed to it. What are some ways you did?
SYKES: And I think everybody needs to engage in this kind of introspection. I think I certainly contributed to the growing tribalization of American politics, the creation of alternative reality media silos. But I think the real thing what we don’t do, we did not push back hard enough against the crackpots, against the folks who later became the alt right. Back in the 1960s, William F. Buckley Jr. drew a line and exited the John Burch Society from the conservative movement, not because he was a rino or he wasn’t an anti-communist, but because he said: “You know, this has got to be a healthy intellectually honest movement.” We did not do that. We don’t have those gate keepers anymore.
SYKES: The reality is, that the Republican Party would never have nominated Donald Trump had it not cultivated a certain indifference to these racial issues, if it had not tolerated this sort of thing. And you know, to –again– what we are now paying the price for is all of the things we ignored.
TODD: Is there one person above all though? I think about the fact that we had a news organization run by a political operative, in Roger Ailes. And Roger Ailes was a culture warrior and he a specific way he knew how to get at gut level, when he was a campaign consultant and used the same tactics to market “news and commentary.” [Makes finger quotes] And so how much did that contribute, for instance to your audience?
SYKES: It contributed a great deal. I mean obviously Fox News is a major player here. The rise of conservative talk radio which I was part of, you know a major role in this. And then also the explosion of the complete alternative reality eco-system centered on Breitbart.com and what social media did. So you had a trend line where you had many of the voices that I think shape the narrative but then they were amplified in ways that I think took a lot of people in the mainstream very much by surprise.
TODD: It also seemed, for some reason, that it just became easier to get at culture – You know, it’s easier to talk about a war on Christmas, it is easier to talk about people going into a bathroom, when those aren’t serious issues. I mean, let’s be realistic. These are were not serious crises that American was dealing with.
SYKES: I think at some point and part of this recognition is that guys like you and me, we think the politics is about ideas an about policies and about accomplishments, when increasingly politics has become about attitude. It’s become about tribal loyalty. These culture wars that substitute for substance and that’s been a transformation that we’ve seen over the last several decades, it has led to us to where we are. And again Donald Trump is certainly a cause of some of this but he’s primarily a symptom. There is no question about it. Even if you take Donald Trump out, this is a party that nominated Sarah Palin. This is a party that flirted with a lot of some whacky candidates, this is a party that has cranked up a perpetual outrage machine that they are now finding out they cannot control.
TODD: But let me ask you a question that Roger Ailes might ask if he were still around. Isn’t a failure of conservative intellectuals that it was so easy to essentially hijack the movement?
SYKES: Yes, it was. Well, it turns out that the conservative intellectual movement was — we were a much smaller brand of brothers and sisters than we thought we were. But this is a failure of ideas, it was a failure of courage, it was a failure of principle and that is why there are some of us who are now in the wilderness and have to figure out is there some way back from the wilderness.
TODD: You’ve found a home here. We’ve got a nice big tent right here.
CHARLIE SYKES, MSNBC CONTRIBUTOR: The Democrats have to find that sweet spot between hysterical opposition with which the Trump folks feed upon and being boring and vanilla as Jon Ossoff was. And they haven’t really figured out how to do that. And, by the way, you know, how many elections are you going to put up, you know, a party led by Nancy Pelosi. That is kind of the definition of insanity, isn’t it? I mean, she — all the wonderful things that she’s done — 77 years old. What the Democrats miss is they thought they were going to make this a referendum on Trump — Republicans made it a referendum on Nancy Pelosi. Look, every party needs some fresh blood, some fresh faces at some point.
BILL MAHER: Only 10 percent of Republicans did not vote for Donald Trump, and they’re still pretty much with him. What do you guys have to do to get your party back? Can you get your party back? Do you have hope?
SYKES: Less every day — 65 percent of Republicans don’t even believe this took place, this Russian hacking. I mean, remember Linda Blair in The Exorcist? I honestly think that if Donald Trump came out and his head spun around 360 degrees and exploded with green projectile vomit, that 65 percent of Republicans would say it was brilliant performance art. (audience laughter and applause) And this is the challenge that we’re up against. You were talking about, you know, the alternative reality of Fox News.
The reality is, is that you have a lot of Republicans that do not read these stories, do not read about this, and have quite frankly just decided that they’re going to — they’re going to dismiss all of this. So this is the real challenge, that if you had Watergate with this media ecosystem, I’m pretty convinced that Richard Nixon would have survived, would have had Sean Hannity talking about the witch hunt. They would have all of that cover that would have allowed him to get away with the coverup.
BRADLEY WHITFORD, ACTOR: Republicans understand that their party affiliation is like a union membership — “Well, I may not agree” — I think a lot of them think Trump’s an idiot, but “Well, I’m going to stick with my group.”
SYKES: No, no, no, it’s way worse than that. … I used to say it was, you know, tribal politics. Now, it is a cult. It is a cult of personality. And there’s almost no other way to interpret it. I mean, I want — and I’ve stolen this line, by the way, from Jonah Goldberg — for me, watching the last few years has been like watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where people I’ve known for 20 or 30 years — decent people who used to argue that character mattered and all of these things — suddenly, they get them.
And they start, you know, figuring that, “No, we have to follow the Dear Leader — whatever the Orange Deuce believes, we have to go along with.” And so it makes it very, very difficult because the Democrats can come up with any line, but understand that, for the Right right now, you don’t have to be pro-Trump, you just hate the Left and the media more.