I don’t normally insert politics into this blog but this book felt different because of the questions it asked. I won’t make a habit of it. Promise.
A longer time ago than I care to admit, I asked a professor I greatly admired to take a look at a paper I was writing. I admit, I was expecting him to praise it and was basically fishing for a compliment. He glanced at my handiwork, looked up at me and asked, “Do you know what question you’re asking?” I rattled off something I had heard or read other people say and he shook his head impatiently at me. “No,” he told me, “those are answers. The right questions are far more important.”
I remembered that when I read Charlie Sykes’ book. Because it is a book that asks a lot of questions and I think many of those questions are the right ones. And look, Charlie Sykes and I are not aligned politically. I am left of center and he is a Wisconsin conservative who until recently was also a renowned radio talk host. But he is conservative in the old sense; he is not a Trumpian and this book examines how a conservative movement which used to believe in small government, small business, free trade, and internationalism has become some weird mix of cult of personality, isolationism, racism, and lies. How did the people who were once consigned to the fringes—the so-called alt right—all of a sudden become the GOP?
And when he started looking, Sykes found plenty of culprits. The entertainment industry chasing after ratings, the so-called intellectuals and politicians who decided that they could use the people’s anger to achieve their own ends, the scam Tea Party PACs, the talk radio hosts who peddled lies, Fox whose Rupert Murdoch announced that he wants to choose the next president, the pastors who did not share their concerns about Trump with their congregations (Sykes notes that when pastors did so, support for Trump plummeted), the evangelical “leaders” who in the words of Russell Moore (whom Sykes quotes extensively) did the exact opposite of St. Augustine who “wrote the City of God in the context of Rome’s collapse, and did not repurpose the Gospel to prop up a falling regime.” Above all, though there was hysteria. Every election became a contest between Good and Evil and in that environment it was simply impossible for conservatives to come up with ideas that work today.
Sykes briefly mentions the “reformicons” who attempted to introduce new ideas to the GOP in 2005, such as lowering taxes for people who are entering the workforce and preparing to have children but those ideas were drowned out in the noise that accompanies perpetual outrage. And that meant that the GOP was left without ideas. Except of course for opposing everything that people on the Left proposed.
That and intimidation. Sykes spends several chapters describing the intimidation that people on the Right who refused to back Trump were and are subjected to. I was shocked. Many of the people who were targeted in this brutal way are people whom I chose to follow after the election. And before reading Sykes’ book, I had no idea they had to live through that.
None of this is to say that Sykes holds the Left blameless for this mess. He blames the Left too. He notes (for example) that liberals have accused conservatives of being authoritarian racists for so long that when a real authoritarian racist came along, no-one listened. He points out too that many of the conservative critiques of (say) the mainstream media had at least a grain of truth to them.
All of which is part of what makes the ending so poignant. For in the end, having spent a book talking about our polarized even poisoned politics, Sykes asks if the sane liberals and conservatives can unite around core principles. For the good of the country.
And that I think is the right question.
Product Name: How the Right Lost Its Mind
Product Description: How the Right Lost Its Mind by Charles J. Sykes