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Radio Host Charlie Sykes On Being A 'Contrarian Conservative' In The Age Of Trump


We're going to hear now from a leading voice in conservative radio who's actually stepping away from the microphone at the end of this month after nearly a quarter century. But Charlie Sykes isn't leaving quietly. He was and remains an outspoken critic of President-elect Donald Trump, and that has outraged some of his listeners and led to some serious backlash including a boycott led by conservatives. Although, he says, that isn't why he's leaving. We thought this would be a good time to speak with him. He's with us now from Milwaukee. Charlie Sykes, thanks so much for joining us.

CHARLIE SYKES: It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: Remind us again of what it is that you found and continue to find objectionable about Donald Trump, particularly from a conservative perspective.

SYKES: Well, I would break this into two parts. Number one - during the primary, you know, I recently made the case that I did not believe that he was a conservative. I believe that basically he's a man without any principle whatsoever who had adopted certain positions because he thought that this was necessary to seal the deal.

But, fundamentally, my objection to Donald Trump was as the man, as somebody that I thought was fundamentally unfit to be president, you know, as somebody who was narcissistic, bombastic, vindictive, not terribly interested in learning his serial cruelty to other people, the way that he became really, I thought, a caricature of what a lot of people had said conservatives would say about minorities or foreigners or women.

MARTIN: One of the points that you made throughout the campaign writing in both kind of local Wisconsin media and also in national media is that you thought that the Wisconsin approach was really focused on, you know, policy. You said that in The New York Times, for example, that even focusing on policy led to this kind of a backlash, for example, that Twitter trolls sent you pictures with your face photoshopped into a gas chamber. Are you shocked by that? I mean, were you prepared for that?

SYKES: Any time you do, you know, a show like I do, you have to have a thick skin, and you realize that politics has been very divisive for some time here. This didn't just happen this year. But having said that, yeah, I had never seen anything like the level of vitriol that was experienced. There would be nights when I would appear on a cable show and open up my Twitter feed, and there would be 500, 600, 700 reactions. And to say that, you know, many of them were intense is putting it mildly. The level of blowback, I think, that people got, the level of anger was something not totally unprecedented, but it's just I think in tone and volume was something that I had never seen before.

MARTIN: This is where you say you fault the right that, you know, part of the problem here is that the politics have become so binary. It's either you're right or you're wrong, and it's not just that you're wrong, you're evil. And you say that this is in part because conservatives didn't hold up their end. You said for years we ignored the birthers, the racists, the truthers and other conspiracy theorists. So do you feel you, perhaps, share some responsibility for that?

SYKES: Yes. I did participate in that. And, yes, I do bear some responsibility. And I think that this is one of those moments where I think everybody who has been part of American politics and journalism needs to step back and look in the mirror and ask that question. OK, did I feed this monster? How did we get to this point where we did it? Now, obviously...

MARTIN: Well, stop just one second though. Give me an example of where you think you participated in it.

SYKES: I think it was more of the sins of omission where, you know, I knew that there were these conspiracy theories in the crackpot (unintelligible). You know, and I would try to send back emails saying, you know, this is not true. This is not true. You know, but did I go out strongly enough and say draw this line? Or was I one of those who figured, OK, you know, whatever, it's the crazy uncle at Thanksgiving, and we'll just, you know, give him another gin and tonic and ignore him? And also I talk about the criticism of the mainstream media, which, by the way, much of it is justifiable.

I mean - and I hope the people in the mainstream media as well engage in some introspection - but our criticism had gone on so long and so intensively that we had succeeded, I think, in de-legitimizing all of those media voices. So one day, I wake up, and I'm pushing back on some bogus story. And I say, well, look, it's been debunked in this fact check here on The Washington Post or The New York Times or NPR. And the response I will get - well, those are just liberal outlets.

And we'd gotten to the point where if it was not from the bubble, if it was not from within our alternative reality silo, people were just not going to pay attention to it. They were not going to do it.

MARTIN: If you had to do it over again, what would you do differently?

SYKES: I think, in part, it would be to - in the 1990s, I encouraged more dialogue, more debate. And as things became more intense, I think I let that slide. One of the things that's happened in America is - you mentioned - is the - is this binary politics. And it's the increased tribalization - our tribe versus your tribe. And since they never talk with one another, it's very easy to demonize the other person. But the reality is that that becomes very, very easy then to become more extreme, more polarized. Whatever your guy does, whatever lies he tells, whatever gaffe he commits, you are going to overlook because, well, at least he's not that other person. He's not Hillary. He's not that other tribe because the other tribe is always, always worse.

MARTIN: Does this change your sense of yourself of what it means to be a conservative?

SYKES: You know, it does in this respect. I'm still a conservative, you know, someone who believes in limited government and balanced budgets and the Constitution. But I don't feel that I'm going to be part of a movement anymore. So if I'm a conservative, I will be a contrarian conservative, but certainly not a team player.

MARTIN: Well, you say that that isn't why you're leaving, though. With everything being said, that's not why you're leaving your talk show - that your reasons are personal. Do you mind if we ask even though it is personal what are your reasons?

SYKES: No. Well, no, I don't mind that at all. My father who I was very, very close with passed away. He died at the age of 63. And this year, I turned 62. And so I have always circled this date because, you know, if I was going to make a change, I was going to make a change then.

And, you know, even though I've been doing a radio show for a quarter of a century, I'm still really at heart a print guy. And I want to go back to writing. I want to - I don't want to have to get up every morning and have an opinion on everything in the world. I think it will be an incredible luxury to step back and actually think about things before I have to opine and express an opinion. But I feel like I've done this long enough, and the example of my father who underlies the fact that we are all mortal and that we don't - we can't take for granted that we're going to be able to do this forever.

MARTIN: Well, good luck.

SYKES: Thank you. I think we'll all need it.

MARTIN: That's Charlie Sykes speaking to us from Milwaukee. Charlie Sykes, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SYKES: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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