The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

What Happened to Charlie Sykes?

Posted on | March 19, 2023 | 2 Comments

Charlie Sykes in his talk-radio heyday at WTMJ

Jeff Goldstein has a long essay slamming #NeverTrump pundit Charlie Sykes, a well-deserved slam, in reaction to a very bad Bulwark column Sykes wrote about Republican critics of Biden’s Ukraine policy.

Although it’s not my main point, let me briefly address that subject: One of the basic principles of success in politics was distilled to its essence in the title of Phyllis Schlafly’s famous 1964 book, A Choice Not an Echo. That book was written in support of Barry Goldwater’s candidacy, at a time when liberalism was near it apogee of prestige, and the GOP Establishment was trying to foist moderate Nelson Rockefeller on the party as their presidential nominee. Although Goldwater lost in a landslide to LBJ, the choice of Goldwater proved decisive for the Republican Party’s future. There never would have been a Reagan presidency had it not been for “AuH2O” in 1964.

What does “conservative” mean, if it does not mean opposition to liberalism? Or to put it another way: Why should anyone vote Republican, if the GOP is going to support the same policies advocated by Democrats? Schlafly’s book clarified this point at a time when many Republican politicians (notably including Mitt Romney’s father) were responding to the liberal agenda by enthusiastically shouting, “Me, too!”

As it was in the Age of LBJ, so it is in the Age of Biden. Most conservatives, I believe, are in favor of Ukraine’s independence, and hope to see Putin’s invasion fail, but this does not mean — and should not mean — that the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy is off-limits to criticism. As a matter of fact, I have offended some of my friends (including colleagues at The American Spectator) by acknowledging the basic validity of John Mearsheimer’s critique of long-term U.S. policy toward Russia. Our Russia policy has been a mess for decades, going back at least as far as Clinton’s ill-advised intervention against Serbia in 1999 (the Serbs historically being a Russian ally) and Donald Trump at least ought to get credit for having tried to pause this bipartisan bungling.

Much of the problem has to do with the military weakness of our so-called “allies” in NATO. What good is an ally, if they can’t put a combat-effective armored brigade into the field? And the abysmal state of military readiness of our European allies has been notorious for many years because, as Trump repeatedly pointed out, most of them were not living up to their NATO agreement to devote 2% of their GDP to defense spending. (The U.S. spends more than 3.5% of GDP on its military.)

The weakness of our European allies makes a bellicose posture toward Russia problematic. If the Germans, French, Dutch, et al., wanted to confront Putin, why weren’t they doing what was necessary, in terms of defense spending, to create a credible deterrent to Russian aggression? The Europeans seem to have a rather one-sided view of the NATO alliance, with Uncle Sam playing the role of military Sugar Daddy. And when Putin made his lunge into Crimea in 2014, what was the response? Nothing but a lot of talk, talk, talk and economic sanctions, which Putin shrugged off. If the West was not willing to fight for Crimea, why should Putin expect them to fight for the Donbas? And so, by a combination of military weakness and diplomatic provocation, the West more or less invited the 2022 Ukraine invasion. Certainly, Biden’s disastrous pullout from Afghanistan was interpreted as a green-light signal by Putin.

Where is Charlie Sykes’ in-depth analysis of U.S. foreign policy? If he’s written one, I missed it, but what we get from him instead is a parroting of MSNBC talking points about Trump “channeling Kremlin propaganda,” as if it were impossible to criticize U.S. policy without being a pro-Putin stooge. But the real bottom line is this: Sykes voted for Biden, and is defending Biden’s policy in toto — to criticize Biden is tantamount to treason, according to Sykes’ brand of True Conservative™ principles.

Beyond the matter of Ukraine and Russia, aside from any consideration of policy, foreign or domestic, there remains the disturbing question: What the hell happened to Charlie Sykes?

Because of my long-term interest in education (being a Christian conservative homeschooling dad back in the 1990s), I was mainly familiar with Sykes because of his excellent 1995 book, Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write, or Add, which was largely an attack on the then-trendy “outcomes based education” (OBE) agenda. At that time, there was no difference between Sykes and, say, Michelle Malkin in terms of the basic issues facing America. He was a staunch conservative and, most importantly, was the No. 1 local talk-radio host in Wisconsin.

How much do you know about the business of talk radio? Well, during the 30-year reign of Rush Limbaugh as the king of the genre, there were a comparative handful of hosts — among them Sean Hannity, G. Gordon Liddy and Michael Savage — who were successful in national syndication. But most conservative talk-radio hosts were strictly local phenomena, and Charlie Sykes was one of these. Based at Milwaukee’s WTMJ, he was the morning host beloved by Wisconsin conservatives. He had begun his career as a print journalist, working his way up to editor of Milwaukee Magazine by the mid-1980s before subsequently getting into talk radio. His two-decade tenure as one of the most influential figures in Wisconsin conservative politics arguably reached its pinnacle in 2011, during the showdown over the state budget between Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the state’s powerful public-employee unions. Charlie Sykes was the loudest voice on the right during that protest carnival that attracted nationwide attention, but then things started going downhill. Barack Obama was reelected in 2012, carrying Wisconsin by a seven-point margin, 53%-46%, despite the fact that GOP candidate Mitt Romney had picked Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his vice-presidential running mate.

Meanwhile, the commercial viability of local talk radio was beginning a slow but inexorable decline, as online streaming services became more popular. Listening to local radio during the daily commute was a habit for many people, but younger audiences were downloading playlists to Spotify, and never got the car-radio habit. Of course, being a local conservative talk-radio host was always a less lucrative career than many listeners may have imagines. You heard your local host in the morning, then Rush Limbaugh came on at noon — both of them on the same station — and you might have imagined that your local host was making the same kind of money as Rush, but au contraire! One year at CPAC, I found myself sitting outside a pub with a crowd that included a talk radio host who had gotten some nationwide attention, but was then working at a local station in the South and, wow, how bitter he was! Limbaugh had signed a $50,000-million-a-year contract and was carrying on as usual, meanwhile this local talk-radio guy was scrapping for every dollar, fighting against advertiser boycotts, etc. He felt like he was getting screwed over, trying to make a living in a dying business.

We can imagine that things weren’t much better for Charlie Sykes at WTMJ during that era, circa 2013-2015, as conservative talk radio was beginning its slow, steady descent into oblivion. Politically, however, there was reason for conservatives in Wisconsin to be optimistic. Walker defeated a recall effort in 2012 and, in 2014, was reelected to a second term by a comfortable 52%-47% margin. Walker was highly touted as a 2016 presidential candidate. Meanwhile, Republicans expanded their majority in the Wisconsin legislature and, in Washington, Paul Ryan was emerging as a congressional leader, his national profile boosted by his campaign as Romney’s running mate. In fall 2015, when House Speaker John Boehner stepped aside, Ryan became the Speaker, and it looked like a great time to be a conservative from Wisconsin. But in June 2015, Trump had taken that ride down the escalator, and one of the first casualties of Trump’s rise was the presidential candidacy of Scott Walker. After two lackluster debate performances, Walker dropped out of the primary campaign, and called on other GOP candidates to follow his lead, to unite behind a single alternative to Trump. This effort failed.

And it was just around that time, in the fall of 2015, that Charlie Sykes shoved all-in on #NeverTrump. Like most of his comrades in that project, Sykes has ended up a de facto liberal Democrat. Trump Derangement Syndrome is incurable like that: Quos Deus vult perdere, prius dementat.

Ace of Spades long ago took to mocking Sykes as “Charlie Three Wives,” and when you become an object of Ace’s ridicule, your credibility as a conservative is pretty much over. Like most of the #NeverTrump crowd, Sykes cannot accept responsibility for his own choices — it’s Trump’s fault he committed career suicide, you see. Now 68, Sykes is apparently determined to spend his dotage in the role of Grandpa Simpson.

It didn’t have to be this way. All of these people who let themselves be sucked into the vortex of Trump Derangement Syndrome could have resisted that temptation. There is plenty of viable political terrain between being a True Believer in the Cult of Personality, on the one hand, and being Charlie Sykes, on the other. Byron York, for example, has maintained both his sanity and his integrity during the past several years when many of his former colleagues went over the deep end with the #NeverTrump crowd. But if you listen to Charlie Sykes (or David French, or Bill Kristol, or Rick Wilson) they never stop insisting that their core principles as True Conservatives™ required them to die on that particular hill, and they are such absolute fanatics as to make the Khmer Rouge seem moderate by comparison. Is there a lesson here, a “moral to the story,” so to speak? I dunno. Politics is a team sport, and some of these guys seem to be like superstar NFL players who sign a big contract and then start acting like divas (e.g., Antonio Brown). They think they can throw a tantrum and walk off the field in the middle of a game, without damaging their own prospects. I’m reminded of an old Persian proverb, “The dogs may bark, but the caravan keeps rolling.”

It’s a shame what happened to Charlie. But it’s his own fault.




2 Responses to “What Happened to Charlie Sykes?”

  1. Charlie Sykes, ever heard of him.....? - The DaleyGator
    March 20th, 2023 @ 11:35 am

    […] one. The Other McCain tells us about Charlie and his sad tale of becoming irrelevant of taking the Trump Derangement Express to complete irrelevance. Go read […]

  2. FMJRA 2.0: Die Macht Der Bilder : The Other McCain
    March 25th, 2023 @ 11:22 pm

    […] What Happened to Charlie Sykes? The DaleyGator EBL […]