Review of How the Right Lost Its Mind
Charles Sykes’ book is important for anyone wanting to understand what drove many right-leaning folk to oppose Trump.
How did we get to President Trump, a man who holds a productive bipartisan meeting one day, and offends both parties with off-color remarks the next? That’s the question Charles Sykes asks in his latest book, How the Right Lost Its Mind. Sykes was a “NeverTrump” conservative in 2016. Since the election, this group has diverged. Some occasionally praise the president’s initiatives. Others maintain that “NeverTrump” means “never supporting Trump.” In the former camp, think David French or Amanda Carpenter. In the latter, think Jennifer Rubin.
From William Buckley to Ronald Reagan
Sykes traces the conservative movement back to the 1950s. Conservatives were a house divided. “One of the goals of National Review,” says Sykes, “was to somehow reconcile the competing schools of thought by bringing together traditionalists, libertarians, and anticommunists to hash out their differences.” Barry Goldwater’s 1960 book The Conscience of a Conservative sought to bring together the various factions. So did Frank Meyer’s 1962 book In Defense of Freedom.
It was an effort to balance personal freedom and moral responsibility. The idea was ordered liberty. Government was essential, but it was to be restrained by Constitutional guidelines. And the movement had to rid itself of “crackpots.” In 1962 William Buckley and Russell Kirk pushed out Robert Welch, the leader of the extreme anti-communist John Birch Society. That paved the way, says Sykes, “for the robust anticommunism of Ronald Reagan.”
Sykes points out that the Reagan conservatism which swept the country happened before the heyday of conservative media. That’s probably not a coincidence. Republicans had to communicate within the confines of mainstream media. They had to gain credibility by being winsome towards independents, moderates, and even Democrats. We didn’t yet have the echo chamber. That chamber is too often characterized by rant and slant. Rush Limbaugh can call Sandra Fluke a “slut.” And the Drudge Report elevates of conspiracist Alex Jones. Sadly, there’s a market for such vitriol.
Post-Reagan, Divisions Resurfaced
Some 25 years before Trump, Pat Buchanan emerged as a leading voice of the more populist, nationalist wing of the GOP. Like the Steve Bannon wing of today, Buchanan appealed to isolationist sentiments. Buchanan’s remarks even flirted with anti-Semitism. We’ve seen this recently from the likes of Richard Spencer. Once again, William Buckley pushed back hard.
A competing voice came from Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett’s Empower America. Sykes notes that there’s “a straight line from Kemp to Paul Ryan’s brand of conservatism.”
Then you had Sarah Palin, the tea party, and the big wins of 2010 and 2014. These were interspersed with the big losses of 2008 and 2012. The losses deepened the frustration between “the base” and “the establishment.” I would have liked to see Sykes spend more time discussing this disconnect, and the policy differences that caused it to grow.
President Bush’s TARP (2008), the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform (2013) and then TPP (2016) hardened the divide between the populist, generally working class base and the wealthier establishment. Illegal immigration, for example, and the lack of accountability measures like E-verify can benefit corporate America and the wealthy. But those things hurt the working class. The plight of these lower-income Americans was real — and growing. The establishment seemed at best detached and aloof. At worst, they seemed to mock the very people who elected them.
The idea was ordered liberty. Government was essential, but it was to be restrained by Constitutional guidelines. And the movement had to rid itself of “crackpots.”
Enter Donald Trump. Frustration with Obama and the establishment was sky high. Trump won the nomination with a variety of tools. He offered a bold, positive agenda, a staunch anti-establishment posture, his name recognition and “outsider” status, his doggedly loyal base of supporters, millions of dollars’ worth of free air time, and the relentless slander of his opponents.
I appreciated Sykes’ balanced discussion of evangelical support for Trump in the general election. Some of that support was of the “hold your nose” variety. The Supreme Court and religious liberty were at stake. There was a sense that 4-8 years of Hillary would take us off a cliff. Trump was the “lesser of two evils.” Even Russell Moore acknowledged that this view was respectable and defensible. Other Christian support for Trump, in contrast, seemed to normalize Trump’s long record of impropriety. Such fawning undermined the GOP’s “character matters” mantra of the Clinton 90s.
The Contrarian Conservative
Sykes’ final chapter is called “the contrarian conservative.” It’s filled with good suggestions like this:
Address the legitimate grievances that buoyed Trump with the white working class, but find a way to separate them from toxic elements of Trumpism, including its authoritarianism, racism, misogyny, and isolationism.
Sykes’ manuscript was likely submitted before the Trump presidency took shape. It now seems that “Trump” and “toxic elements of Trumpism” are not synonymous. Would Sykes have foreseen that Trump would appoint originalist judges? Cut personal and corporate tax rates? Slashed needless regulations? Grown the economy? Bombed Syria? Built up the U.S. military? And held North Korea’s feet to the fire? I didn’t. I’m glad I was wrong.
Other aspects of Sykes’ skepticism will be tested in 2018 and 2020. Has Trump “alienated Hispanics, Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, African Americans, and women for a generation”? Time will tell.
Sykes’ book is important for anyone wanting to understand what drove Erick Erickson, Jonah Goldberg, David French, Charles Krauthammer, Ben Shapiro, Ben Sasse, the National Review’s editors, and many other right-leaning folks to oppose Trump. Whatever you think of Sykes’ skepticism in 2017, Trump lovers would broaden their horizons by reading this book.
Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).