How the Right Lost Its Mind

How the Right Lost Its Mind

by Charles J. Sykes


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"Bracing and immediate." - The Washington Post

Once at the center of the American conservative movement, bestselling author and radio host Charles J. Sykes is a fierce opponent of Donald Trump and the right-wing media that enabled his rise.

In How the Right Lost Its Mind, Sykes presents an impassioned, regretful, and deeply thoughtful account of how the American conservative movement came to lose its values. How did a movement that was defined by its belief in limited government, individual liberty, free markets, traditional values, and civility find itself embracing bigotry, political intransigence, demagoguery, and outright falsehood? How the Right Lost Its Mind addresses:

*Why are so many voters so credulous and immune to factual information reported by responsible media?

*Why do conservatives decide to overlook, even embrace, so many of Trump’s outrages, gaffes, conspiracy theories, falsehoods, and smears?

*Can conservatives govern? Or are they content merely to rage?

*How can the right recover its traditional values and persuade a new generation of their worth?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250199539
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/02/2018
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 177,886
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Charles J. Sykes is the author of several books on current affairs and education, including Fail U., A Nation of Victims, and Profscam. He has written pieces for the Wall Street Journal and among others, and in 2016 was featured for his critiques of Donald Trump and conservative media in articles on the front page of The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, and NPR. A longtime host of the #1 conservative talk-radio show in Wisconsin, he resigned that position and is now a regular contributor to MSNBC.

Read an Excerpt



The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.



How did the right wander off into the fever swamps of the Alt Right? How did it manage to go from Friedrich Hayek to Sean Hannity, from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump? How did it create an alternative-reality silo that indulged every manner of crackpot, wing-nut conspiracy theory? How did a movement that was defined by its belief in individual liberty, respect for the constitution, free markets, personal responsibility, traditional values, and civility find itself embracing a stew of nativism, populism, and nationalism? How did the thought leaders of the movement find themselves tossed aside as "cuckservatives"?

When exactly did conservatives start to lose their minds?

Was it the day the Drudge Report began linking to the fevered conspiracy rantings of a guy named Alex Jones? Was it when the GOP thought it might be a good idea to put Sarah Palin a heartbeat away from the Oval Office? Was it the rise of the Tea Party or when Rush Limbaugh called a young female law student a "slut," and his career began to implode? Was it when they outsourced their thought leadership to the perpetually outraged? Or when Ann Coulter began her rants about Mexican rapists? Did the Right's intellectual implosion begin when conservatives began to get their information from their Facebook news feeds? When conservatives replaced Bill Buckley with late-night Twitter rants? When they made fiscal promises they couldn't keep?

Was Stephen King right when he wrote: "Conservatives who for 8 years sowed the dragon's teeth of partisan politics are horrified to discover they have grown an actual dragon"? Or did it start long before that?

From the outside, political movements can look monolithic, even coherent — especially when there is a dearth of actual conversation with the people who comprise it. For years, progressives have indulged in hostile generalizations about the Right, a pastime made easier by the fact that they seldom read conservative books or magazines or listened with much attention to what conservatives were saying.

So the Right may have looked formidable, but the reality is that it was a mess — a contentious collection of disparate, often contradictory ideas and querulous and warring factions of libertarians, chamber of commerce types, traditionalists, and social conservatives. For years there have been deep fissures in a movement that calls itself conservative but supports an economic system that was designed to be creatively destructive, that supports traditional values but also a limited government. There are inherent tensions in a party that claims to be the party of "freedom" but also of national security and law and order. Consider that in recent years "conservative" had come to mean "radical change agent," and you see the difficulties. Those were very real tensions, but not necessarily contradictions.

Over decades, conservative thought leaders had sought to knit together those various interpretations of conservativism, carefully balancing culture, individual responsibility, and politics through the concept of ordered liberty. This was the essential equilibrium of modern conservatism that was shattered by the rise of Donald Trump.

Trump, we were told, "tapped into something." Yes he did; something disturbing that we had ignored and perhaps nurtured — a shift from an emphasis on freedom to authoritarianism and from American "exceptionalism" to nativism. The movement's slow-motion repudiation of the Reagan legacy has many dimensions, but none more so than the rejection of his optimistic agenda and its replacement by the darker paranoid side of the Right. Where Reagan had famously called on Mr. Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," Donald Trump was proposing to build one — a big, beautiful wall to shut people out from Reagan's "shining city on a hill." Those of us who pointed that out found ourselves increasingly isolated, disoriented, and ultimately disillusioned. It was, indeed, a clarifying moment for conservatism. The extent of the movement's abandonment of Reaganism was on full display at the first major conservative event of 2017, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), as the ideas that had animated conservativism — such as small government and free trade — were supplanted by the new cult of personality/entertainment politics that has gripped the Right. Trump aide Kellyanne Conway quipped that CPAC was becoming TPAC; with "Trump" replacing the word "Conservative." Indeed, noted one commentator, the conference revealed an "ideology conforming to an individual rather than the other way around. ... Anyone searching for a brand of conservatism independent of the new president would have walked away sorely disappointed."

The reality is that a genuinely "conservative" party would never have nominated a Donald Trump; a right-wing nationalist party or one without fixed principles would have no problem doing so. While Trump's nomination has been described as a "hostile takeover," it was not a complete outlier, as conservatives had long ago replaced rational policy discussions with the politics of lowest-common-denominator angry populism. A movement once driven by ideas found itself dominated by Kardashian-like talking point reciters, intellectually dishonest shills, cynical careerists, and Alt Right bullies. Recent debates among conservatives, one commentator gibed, "show[ed] the nuanced differences between a YouTube comments section and a chain email to your grandfather." Conservative "leaders" did not merely regurgitate "talking points" but became addicted to word salads of conservative clichés — "establishment," "globalist," "elites" — that became substitutes for actual thought. This has paralleled a surge in the anti-intellectualism in American life, perhaps facilitated by compromises among the people whose judgment and ideas I once relied upon and trusted.

In this environment, conformity was demanded — on language, attitudes, and even tactics. Since even the mildest of dissent was punished by withering fire on air and through social media — "RINO!" — it was not surprising that original, fresh thinking was discouraged. What creative public policy innovation occurred took place far from the increasingly populist, ranting heart of the movement. It is not as if we weren't warned. After years of carefully building an impressive intellectual infrastructure, conservatives thought they were poised to move ahead with a coherent philosophy of governing, only to have principled conservative ideas drowned out in a tsunami of misinformation and demagoguery. But even before the rise of Donald Trump, there were signs of deep dysfunction in the conservative ranks, raising questions about its ability to govern.

Critics on both the right and left warned that the GOP often seemed fat, lazy, and intellectually sclerotic — out of ideas and out of touch. With its increasingly shrill rhetoric and rejection of political compromise, the conservative movement was unable to adapt to changing realities and increasingly alienated from its own constituencies. It was not simply the conservatives chronically overpromised, it was that their message was often contradictory and incoherent. Even as the Republican base became more Southern, evangelical, and working class, the party's actual policies tended to focus on the entrepreneurial and business class. "Most traditional conservatives reliably serve large corporate interests, and can be counted on to ignore the basic interests of middle- and working-class voters," author Joel Kotkin writes. That is perhaps an unduly harsh indictment, but the gap between the Right's actual voting base and the world of conservative think tanks and Washington dealmakers, was widening. Indeed, while the rhetoric of conservatives was often libertarian, their agenda often focused on the use of government power to satisfy the needs of the donor and lobbyist class. In recent years, nearly every major spending bill has been a master class in the art of crony capitalism.

The tone and the language of the Right was also shifting, as columnist Peter Wehner noted, with many conservatives confusing "cruelty, vulgarity, and bluster with strength and straight talk." In the years before embracing Trump, the party flirted with the eccentric candidacies of Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, and Herman Cain, making each of them temporary presidential front-runners at one point or another.

Such quixotic, self-defeating strategies were often justified on the grounds that they "made liberal heads explode," or as Palin put it so memorably, "it's really funny to me to see the splodey heads keep 'sploding...." The result has been a compulsion to defend anyone attacked by the Left, no matter how reckless, extreme, or bizarre. If liberals hated something, the argument went, then it must be wonderful and worthy of aggressive defense, even if that meant defending the indefensible and losing elections. So conservatives embraced and defended figures like Christine ("I am not a witch") O'Donnell and lost winnable Senate races with candidates who said bizarre things about rape (Todd Akin) or were just too weird for the electorate (Sharron Angle).


All of this has taken place in the context of our radically divided politics. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that America, far from being "indivisible," has become two separate virtual nations, divided both intellectually and spatially. Increasingly, Americans have constructed what the Associated Press called "intellectual ghettoes," where audiences seldom intersect. But this divide is also increasingly geographical as well, reflected in eye-popping charts that divide the country into red and blue. As recently as 1997, 164 of the House of Representatives' 435 seats were considered "swing districts." Today, according to an analysis by the Cook Political Report, only about 72 seats are considered competitive. That is less than one in six congressional seats. While some of this can be blamed on gerrymandering, it also reflects the way that Americans are sorting themselves out by class and ideology. As political columnist Mike Allen noted, "We are increasingly moving next to people who share our political views — and then following and sharing like-minded news on social media when our doors are closed. This can't be fixed with better redistricting laws."

This division is also reflected in presidential elections, as Americans sort themselves out by lifestyle and politics. Author Bill Bishop, who documented the trend in his book, The Big Sort, illustrates the sorting out process by calculating the number of voters who live in so-called landslide counties, which were carried by 20 percentage points or more. In 1976, when Jimmy Carter narrowly edged Gerald Ford, only about one in four Americans lived in a landslide county. That proportion has grown steadily as the nation's political polarization accelerated. By 2004 that had risen to 48.3 percent; by 2012, a majority of Americans (50.6 percent) lived in a landslide county. In 2016, the portion of Americans living in deeply blue or deeply red counties surged to 60.4 percent. In rural America, more than three fourths of voters lived in counties that voted overwhelmingly red.

The result, says Bishop is that "any common ground between the two sides has nearly disappeared." Inevitably, that has meant that the worst tendencies of both the right and left have been magnified as we interact less and less with those with whom we may disagree. Our politics becomes less about compromise than confrontation and less about persuasion than about tests of tribal loyalty. "Cross-party friendships are disappearing," writes Jonathan Haidt. "Manicheaism and scorched earth politics are increasing." The loudest voices on the Right became increasingly strident as they stoked a mood of perpetual outrage. Long before Trump burst upon the scene, Conor Friedersdorf wrote in the Atlantic, "Hugely popular intellectual leaders abandoned the most basic norms of decency, as when Mark Levin screamed at a caller that her husband should shoot himself; stoked racial tensions, as when Rush Limbaugh avowed that in President Obama's America folks think white kids deserve to get beat up by black kids on busses; and indulged paranoid conspiracy theories, as when Roger Ailes aired month-after-month of Glenn Beck's chalk-board monologues."

Further cranking up the volume, charlatans and grifters sought to exploit the anger for cash and clicks, pushing the GOP into shutting down the government in a maneuver that was nearly as pointless as it was suicidal. And, of course, there were the crackpots, from the darker corners of the fever swamps. Many of us in conservative media brushed them off, because we felt that somehow we could control the crackpottery. How naïve.


In 2016, the various denizens of Crazytown who had made cameo appearances on the national stage were first emboldened, then empowered, gleefully crashing the party, overturning the furniture and settled hierarchies as they raucously dismissed traditional gatekeepers. Those who were slow to join the bacchanal were denounced as sellouts and traitors, or perhaps, even worse, elitists. This was all heady stuff that required extraordinary nimbleness: conservatives who had just five minutes earlier agreed that Russia posed a global threat pivoted to embrace Vladimir Putin as an exemplar of white Christian civilization; Tea Party activists who had railed against deficit spending now accepted calls for massive infrastructure spending; the party of free markets endorsed protectionism and an economic policy that seemed driven by personal fear and favor; constitutionalists watched silently as the rule of law was undermined and norms of public integrity ignored. Activists who had clamored to "burn it all down" suddenly pivoted to demand party loyalty and virtual lockstep support of policies, even when they conflicted with fundamental principles or contradicted what the dear leader had previously said.


We learned a great deal about "conservatives" in recent years; they were passionate in what (and who) they opposed, but they were evidently far less clear in what they supported or believed in. Birtherism resonated far more than Paul Ryan's patient, wonky analysis of the tax code. Hatred of the media substituted for a coherent governing agenda.

And, as it turned out, Americans were just not that into conservative values. Among conservative voters, principles like constitutionalism, entitlement reform, and even the belief that character mattered turned out to be pie-crust thin, leaving the movement vulnerable to cult of personality politics. Some of the same media figures who gutted GOP leaders for not adopting scorched-earth tactics on budget issues and were willing to read them out of the movement found themselves carrying water for a man who had actually funded many of the Democrats who advanced those policies. Their about-face reflected the degree to which conservativism has come to be dominated by careerists and opportunists for whom the professed beliefs in small government, fiscal restraint, and constitutionalism were merely means to an end (ratings, cash, clicks, power), and thus easily discarded.

"One of the things we learned this year is that the ranks of conservatives as you and I understand them — limited government, the rule of law, working against the new effort to destigmatize dependency on government ... that sort of conservative is pretty thin on the ground in the United States," George Will told me after the election. "Mr. Trump did not seek and therefore did not get ... a mandate for dealing with the most predictable crisis in American history: the crisis of the entitlement state that gets worse every day and is clearly unsustainable. ... That is because there is no constituency of any significant size for doing some of the kinds of things that this kind of conservatives know have to be done.

"So, the first thing we learned from this was that our numbers are smaller than we thought; that a number of people who called themselves conservatives (and they are free to do so) are not conservatives in the sense that we understand that — of genuinely wanting a smaller government, genuinely worrying about the separation of powers, and the grotesquely swollen president we have under both parties.

"In that sense," he told me, "what we have learned is that we are a smaller band of brothers and sisters than we thought."


There is, of course, another side to this story that also needs to be told; no account of what has happened to the Right would be complete without a discussion of what conservatives thought they were reacting against. For years, conservatives have felt that the Left has been at ramming speed, often ignoring the niceties of congressional action, public opinion, or tolerance of religious differences. There was the passage of Obamacare with the barest of partisan majorities, rammed through on Christmas Eve and a massive stimulus package that threatened to explode the national debt. That was followed (in the eyes of conservatives) by assaults on free speech and religious liberty; the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups, John Doe probes into conservative activists in Wisconsin, complete with predawn paramilitary raids; threats to bankrupt the coal industry; and the ongoing vilification of conservative activists and donors. On university campuses, activists began enforcing their demands for ideological conformity, complete with lists of microaggressions, trigger warnings, and "safe spaces."


Excerpted from "How The Right Lost Its Mind"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Charles J. Sykes.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Did We Create this Monster?

2. Confessions of a Recovering Liberal

3. The Attack on the Conservative Mind

4. The Conservative Idea

5. Storm Warnings

6. The Perpetual Outrage Machine


7. The Alt Reality Media

8. The Post-Truth Politics of the Right

9. Drudge and the Politics of Paranoia


10. The Fox News Primary

11. Limbaugh’s Flop

12. The Bigots Among Us

13. The Rise of the Alt Right

14. The Binary Choice

15. What Happened to the Christians?


16. Trolls and Flying Monkeys: The Right’s New Culture of Intimidation

17. The Contrarian Conservative

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