Charlie Sykes does his final program on 620 WTMJ today.
It's the end of an era.
Sykes was instrumental in Wisconsin's conservative movement. He's been reflecting on that as he looks back on his 23 years doing his WTMJ show. I've heard him take ownership of his role in assisting Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Ron Johnson, and Reince Priebus become prominent political players.
The last couple of weeks, Sykes has played a lot of highlights from his time on the air. There have also been many special surprise guests honoring Sykes. (Scott Walker declared December 20th Charlie Sykes Day in Wisconsin.)
Listening to the show as it draws to an end, I'm reminded of all the hours I spent with Sykes over the span of years. Looking back is always kind of a bittersweet exercise, and this has been.
There's a lot to celebrate, and I do, but it requires some compartmentalization.
Sykes is celebrating his impact on the community and his role in Wisconsin conservatism. He has also decided to be vocal about abandoning it and apologizing for his "contributions."
For example, Sykes wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times that appeared in the print edition on Sunday.
One staple of every radio talk show was, of course, the bias of the mainstream media. This was, indeed, a target-rich environment. But as we learned this year, we had succeeded in persuading our audiences to ignore and discount any information from the mainstream media. Over time, we’d succeeded in delegitimizing the media altogether — all the normal guideposts were down, the referees discredited.
That left a void that we conservatives failed to fill. For years, we ignored the birthers, the racists, the truthers and other conspiracy theorists who indulged fantasies of Mr. Obama’s secret Muslim plot to subvert Christendom, or who peddled baseless tales of Mrs. Clinton’s murder victims. Rather than confront the purveyors of such disinformation, we changed the channel because, after all, they were our allies, whose quirks could be allowed or at least ignored.
We destroyed our own immunity to fake news, while empowering the worst and most reckless voices on the right.
This was not mere naïveté. It was also a moral failure, one that now lies at the heart of the conservative movement even in its moment of apparent electoral triumph. Now that the election is over, don’t expect any profiles in courage from the Republican Party pushing back against those trends; the gravitational pull of our binary politics is too strong.
I’m only glad I’m not going to be a part of it anymore.
So now Sykes is happily turning his back on us, glad to be through with the sick and twisted world of talk radio, and asking forgiveness.
My problem: How do I celebrate someone while he sort of is spitting in my face?
I wish Sykes would acknowledge that not all conservatives and Trump voters are birthers, racists, misogynists, truthers, etc. Not all conservatives and Trump voters have difficulty distinguishing between reliable news stories and propaganda.
Sykes also did a recent NPR radio interview, again decrying the conservative movement.
Here's a portion of the transcript:
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST: If you had to do it over again, what would you do differently?Sykes says, "if I'm a conservative."
CHARLIE 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.
To a real extent, he's backing away from his identity as a conservative. Of course, he has every right to believe what he wants to believe, do what he wants to do, and say what he wants to say. We all do.
I disagree with Sykes' generalizations about "where the right went wrong." I know it's the topic of a book he's writing, so he has reason to promote that theory.
However, it is indisputable that the election was a binary thing. Not supporting the Republican nominee meant supporting Hillary Clinton. That has nothing to do with tribalization or polarization or demonization. It was the reality.
I don't like being lumped in with this "tribe think" he's selling just because I, like Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Ron Johnson, and others, voted for Trump. I don't like being dismissed as a loon because I made the choice to use my vote to keep Hillary out of power.
I took a principled stand, to do all I could to prevent a Hillary presidency, solely based on factual policy matters and facts about her corruption and lies. I wasn't swayed by fake news or goofy conspiracy crap. It was a completely rational choice that should be accepted as such, not insulted.
I understand how horrible it must have been to take the abuse he did for being Never Trump. I have sympathy for Sykes, for being bombarded with really ugly stuff. Of course, supporting Trump has been no picnic.
I wish Sykes would understand that supporting the Republican nominee doesn't necessarily mean one has lost one's mind. It doesn't mean conservatism is broken.
Compromising is often the only rational course of action given a set of circumstances. I am comfortable with my choice. I didn't lose my mind. Moreover, I don't feel the need to reject being labeled a conservative. I don't need to add qualifying adjectives like "contrarian" to my political identity.
So, when it comes to Sykes' last show, I have mixed feelings. There's an unfortunate awkwardness to the timing of the New York Times piece and the NPR interview, coloring things a bit negatively on the day of his last show.
Time to compartmentalize.
Like the act of compromise, it can be appropriate, even wise, to compartmentalize.
I can put Sykes' rejection of conservatism as well as his disparaging remarks about the talk radio audience aside and focus on the many years of great radio and intelligent conversation that took place on Midday with Charlie Sykes. It was a forum that brought out the best in many of us. I can celebrate Sykes' role in promoting the Honor Flight. It was a highly successful and important project.
For that and more, I am sincerely thankful for Sykes' time on the air and all that he shared with his audience.
We had a good time and we accomplished good things together. That exists as truth. No change of heart or change of perspective can alter the reality of what took place with Sykes on the radio and with his listening audience for over two decades.
Today, with the departure of Charlie Sykes from his program on 620 WTMJ, the metro Milwaukee area loses a voice that made a difference.
With respect, gratitude, and heartfelt appreciation, I celebrate that voice.