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In a 'post-truth culture,' Charlie Sykes says it’s time for conservatives to push back

Charlie Sykes, who for decades was a popular right-wing radio host, spoke to students and community members at the Discovery Building Monday.

Image By: Noah Habenstreit

How does one balance being a conservative and being anti-Trump?

Charlie Sykes, perhaps Wisconsin’s most prominent conservative in the “Never Trump” camp, has no shortage of experience with this question. And in a talk with students and community members at UW-Madison’s Discovery Building Monday, he tried to relay some answers.

The popular right-wing radio host, now famous throughout the country, surprised some of his listeners when he refused to support Trump even after he earned the Republican nomination for president in 2016. Sykes remains staunchly opposed to the president’s ideology, which has alienated some of Sykes' base while also broadening his audience among conservatives grappling with the hard questions of life in Trump’s America.

But although Sykes’ talk was titled “Conservatism in the Age of Trump,” Sykes told the packed room almost immediately that he didn’t want to talk about Trump. Rather, he wanted to talk about “what Trump has done to us.”

“I’m not particularly horrified by Donald Trump,” Sykes said. “What is horrifying, though, is the acceptance in our culture of this post-truth culture that we’re in right now.”

In the talk, Sykes called the president a “serial liar,” “con man,” “narcissist” and “bully,” but he saved most of his criticism for so-called conservatives who he said abandoned their values to vote for Trump. He said those conservatives are the people to blame for the rise of the “post-truth culture” and the acceptance of conspiracy theories and lies.

“The Republican Party became prisoner to the perpetual outrage machine,” Sykes said. “Why were so many voters willing to believe lies, and why, even when they knew they were lies, were they willing to say ‘we don’t care’?”

Sykes was in Madison to promote his new book, “How the Right Lost Its Mind.” He said that in the book, he cautions that the impact of Trump’s rise will be widespread and long-lasting.

“The impact of Donald Trump will be beyond politics, beyond policy,” Sykes said. “It will be on the culture … the coarsening effect that we see on a daily basis of what he is done to our discourse.”

Although Sykes has been a voice for the conservative movement in Wisconsin for decades, at many points during his speech he sounded far removed from many conservative leaders of today. He said he no longer identifies as a Republican, and he praised the “outstanding work” from The New York Times and Washington Post as possibly “the best journalism ever.” He even quipped that Republicans “don’t need an autopsy, they need an exorcism.”

So what should “contrarian conservatives,” as Sykes called himself, do? Sykes stressed the importance of pushing back against conspiracy theories and against the conservative “delegitimization of the mainstream media,” but also acknowledged it will be hard to erase the damage that’s already been done.

“We outsourced our thought leadership to the drunk at the end of the bar … the loudest, crudest among us,” Sykes said. “And I don’t know how we get that back.” 

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