Sykes seeks to explain new identity, impact on conservatism in Trump era

November 16, 2017

Lisle, Illinois ~ In 2016, Charlie Sykes was one of the first conservatives to openly criticize Donald Trump, calling him a “serial liar” and “con man” who would not earn his vote for Office of the President.  

But on Tuesday evening, he told the crowd of more than 300 gathered in Benedictine University’s Goodwin Hall Auditorium that he didn’t come there to talk about what he thought about Trump’s latest tweet or behavior as president of the United States.

“My confession is that I am not at the moment particularly appalled by Donald Trump because everything he is doing now was completely predictable,” Sykes said. “I am actually more concerned about what he is doing to us as Americans, what he is doing to our culture, our political life and, obviously as a conservative, what he has done to the conservative movement.” 

Sykes was one of the top conservative voices on Wisconsin talk radio for more than 20 years. He is currently an MSNBC/NBC News contributor and author of “How The Right Lost Its Mind.” 

In the wake of his criticism of Donald Trump, Sykes was called a traitor and ostracized by many in his party, leaving him to question why so many conservatives of his generation sided with the GOP front-runner.

“I thought I understood what the conservative movement was about. I thought I understood who conservatives were, but clearly I was mistaken about some things because a generally conservative movement would never have nominated and embraced Donald Trump, and yet here we are today,” Sykes said. “Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that the dysfunction in the Republican Party was a pre-existing condition. That Donald Trump isn’t merely a cause, but something else that has happened to our politics.”

Sykes was invited to speak by Benedictine’s Center for Civic Leadership, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving discourse and the political culture in Illinois by encouraging civil, open dialogue across political boundaries.

In his presentation, “Identities and Belonging in the Trump Era: One Conservative’s View,” Sykes examined some of the possible events and causes that paved the way for Donald Trump’s presidency and led to a severely polarized electorate.

One of those causes, Sykes said, was the rise of so-called “tribal politics,” and the tendency for certain groups to adopt a “win-at-all-costs” and “us-against-them” mentality, disregarding both truth and morality in a sort of blind party loyalty.  

“I think what is happening in Alabama is the perfect template for our politics today,” Sykes said, referencing former State Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore and the controversy that has surrounded his campaign for a U.S. Senate seat.

“I am old enough to remember when conservatives used to say ‘character mattered,'” Sykes added. “What is happening now is we have an entire political generation that says, ‘The ends justify the means.’ There are no fixed standards. The right has adopted a kind of moral relativism that it used to be defined as being against.” 

Other issues plaguing the Republican Party included a failure to pay attention to and reject the alt-right movement and the flood of false information that continues to divide communities across the country. 

“We have succeeded in creating these hermetically sealed universes that you cannot penetrate, where half of Americans have a different reality than the other half of Americans,” Sykes said. “You cannot talk to one another if you do not have a shared reality. You can’t have a functioning healthy democracy unless you have a shared reality.” 

So what can be done to keep the party moving farther from its founding values?

“If we are going to come back from this, it is only going to be coming back from the tribalism,” Sykes said. “If you made a Venn diagram of left and right right now, there would not be a lot of overlap. But the overlap does exist. It is small, but it is very important. 

“The Democrats after 2016 needed to have an autopsy to figure out how they blew that election, but if the Democrats need an autopsy, I think Republicans need an exorcism, and I think that is going to be much more difficult to do.”

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Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois, and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls more than 5,000 students in 59 undergraduate and 23 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the seventh consecutive year in 2017. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (hlcommission.org). For more information, contact (630) 829-6300, admissions@ben.edu or visit ben.edu.

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