- Do Republicans who do not support Donald Trump have a plan or a prayer for 2024?
This week on "Firing Line."
[crowd shouting] After an insurrection on January 6th, bruising midterm elections for the GOP, a civil judgment, an indictment, and multiple criminal investigations.
- [Donald Trump] I just want to find 11,780 votes.
- [Margaret] Donald Trump is still the GOP frontrunner, and a repeat of 2020 seems all too possible.
But does it have to be this way?
- Joining me on the line is the National Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump.
Good morning, sir.
- [Donald Trump] Hi, Charlie.
- [Margaret] Charlie Sykes was a prominent conservative talk radio host.
- Welcome to Wisconsin, and I know that you realize that here in Wisconsin, we value things like civility, decency, and actual conservative principles, so.
- [Margaret] Who took stand against Trump and launched "The Bulwark," an anti-Trump centrist news site showing there is room in the media ecosystem for independent voices.
- The word conservative in the modern context in the age of Donald Trump, in the age of MAGA, certainly doesn't mean conserving anything.
- [Margaret] What does Charlie Sykes say now?
- [Announcer] "Firing Line" with Margaret Hoover is made possible in part by Robert Granieri, Charles R. Schwab, The Fairweather Foundation, The Margaret and Daniel Loeb Foundation, The Asness Family Foundation, Jeffrey and Lisa Bewkes, The Beth and Ravenel Curry Foundation, Peter and Mary Kalikow, and by Craig Newmark Philanthropies, The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, Damon Button, The Center For The Study Of The International Economy Inc, The Pritzker Military Foundation on behalf of the Pritzker Military Museum and Library and The Marc Haas Foundation.
Corporate funding is provided by Stephens Inc. - Charlie Sykes, welcome to "Firing Line."
- Thank you.
- You grew up a democrat, you became a prominent conservative talk radio host, and then you started "The Bulwark," an anti-Trump news site and podcast quote, "Free from the constraints of partisan loyalties or tribal prejudices."
How do you describe your politics and your political affiliation today?
- That's a surprisingly tough question because I describe it as being a political orphan.
I knew that we were going to be in the political wilderness after the election of Donald Trump.
I didn't realize that the wilderness was gonna be such a tiny island and there would be so few people on it.
But, you know, this is an interesting question because I don't wanna go from one tribe to another tribe.
So I am politically homeless and politically agnostic on many things.
- Do you still consider yourself a contrarian conservative?
- I consider myself a contrarian.
The problem with the word, this is a surprisingly difficult question, because I'm not sure what it means to be a conservative anymore.
The word conservative in the modern context, in the age of Donald Trump, in the age of MAGA, certainly doesn't mean conserving anything.
And you look back to what American conservatism was since William F. Buckley founded "National Review," and, you know, there are elements of it there, but it's a rejection of much of the entire intellectual tradition.
I mean, conservatism has this very rich history going back to Edmund Burke, very thoughtful individuals.
And now, what is it?
It's a series, gone back to a series of irritable gestures and tribalism.
I understand what the right wing is right now, but I'm not sure that the right wing is conservative.
- When you announced your departure from "Milwaukee Talk Radio" in 2016 after 23 years of hosting, you said it was to pursue other opportunities, but you have admitted that you would've lost audience if you had remained as a principled anti-Trump host.
- But explain why you couldn't have remained a talk show host that came from a principled anti-Trump perspective.
- Well, I would've, if I had stayed, I would've lost my audience, but also I think would've lost my mind, which was actually my main concern here.
And I think it's important to understand what the economics of right wing media are.
Not just radio, I mean talk radio, but you see with cable television, you see it in all the other media.
You know, in many ways, they are chasing their audience.
And we saw that with Fox News, how afraid they are of losing their audience.
So they say things and they feel they must do things in order to keep that audience.
But after a while, you know, that becomes a vicious circle.
That becomes a doom loop.
- So did you leave because you could see that that would be demanded of the person who stayed as that host?
- Well, you know, I'd done this for 20 years, and I really thought that I understood who our audience was.
I thought I understood what conservatism was.
I thought I knew who my fellow conservatives were.
And up until 2016, I was pretty comfortable with that.
Donald Trump comes along, people that I had known for two decades, I had been friends with for two decades, suddenly you look in their eyes and you go, oh my gosh.
It's like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
You know, one after another, and you make these compromises.
Paul Ryan is a very good close personal friend of mine, and watching him go from being solidly anti-Trump to saying, "Well, maybe I can compromise, maybe I can make a deal with him," and watching the whole party go that direction, I just realized that, you know, I was no longer in sync with the audience, that I didn't want to play that role with them anymore.
The Republican party changed and the conservative movement changed into something that was almost unrecognizable for me.
- You launched "The Bulwark" in 2018, and you said, quote, "We have to truly find out if there is a market and a need for independent non-Trumpian conservative voices."
- Five years later, what have you found?
- Five years later, we found out that it's still an experiment.
It's still a work in progress to believe that there is still room for a vital center in American media and politics.
Right now, where we're sitting in 2023, are things getting better, are things moving toward the center, or are they spinning out of control?
We don't know the answer to this.
So I mean, some of our folks are center left, and some of them are actually quite left, and we also have people on the center right.
But what we're committed to doing is having this continuing dialogue, and we share one principle.
We share the principle that we need to defend democracy, that Donald Trump and what he represents is an existential threat to our society, and that we need to raise that alarm.
But we're also trying to defend this, the concept of being, not just liberals or being in favor of democracy, but understand that what we're talking about is liberal constitutional democracy.
And if we've learned anything in the last few years, is those are much more fragile than we ever imagined before.
- Liberal in a classical sense.
- Liberal in a classical sense.
I mean, we thought that America was immune from history.
We thought that all of our institutions would hold.
We thought of all these checks and balances.
And so this has been a vertiginous time, I mean, a disillusioning time and we wanna talk to one another, you know, about, okay, you know, have we taken the crazy pills?
Have we lost our minds?
Or is America, you know, on the wrong track here?
- You cited William F. Buckley Jr. And just now you were talking about the unifying theme of defending democracy.
When Buckley launched "National Review" in 1955, in his famous cover initial edition, he wrote that the magazine would quote, "Stand athwart history yelling stop."
Is "The Bulwark" in it's own way- - Oh, yes.
- Standing athwart history yelling stop?
- I actually- - Standing athwart the GOP and yelling stop.
I was thinking of that exact quote when we wrote our first statement of like what "The Bulwark" would be.
That we would be standing athwart history saying, "You can't be serious."
[both laughing] That was was our thing.
You can't be serious.
Are you really gonna take this seriously?
Are you really gonna engage in this kind of conduct?
Very much inspired by that moment.
- Former President Trump continues to present a unique threat to the country.
- But he also presents a unique challenge to media and to how the news media and print media cover him.
He is the GOP frontrunner right now for the Republican nomination.
He consistently lies.
He degrades our political discourse.
He displays dangerous authoritarian tendencies, including invoking an attack against the Capitol in order to overturn the 2020 election.
What does the media, such as it is, get wrong about covering Trump?
- Well, and to add to this, I mean, he tried to overthrow the government, has been indicted now, and a jury has found that he's sexually abused a woman and then defamed her.
- I mean, there's so much I have to put it in multiple questions.
- Well, and the reason it's important because the fundamental point though is that he is not a normal candidate, he is not a typical candidate.
And if the media sets out and says, "We are gonna cover him like any other candidate, well, he's the frontrunner," why don't we apply the same rules that we apply to everybody else?
He is not like everybody else.
That is the fundamental problem, not to understand that Donald Trump is not normal, that he is unique, and you cannot...
Journalism was broken, I think, in many ways by Donald Trump.
And unfortunately, I'm not sure that many media outlets have figured out, even after all these years, how to deal with somebody that lies with the fluency of Donald Trump, who will, if you turn the camera on, will subject you to a fire hose of disinformation.
And I think that we saw that with the "CNN Town Hall."
- Can I just follow up on that?
You said don't think in terms of winning and losing.
- One of the things you have to do is you have to get the, you have to get- - Mr. President, can I just follow up on that, because that's a really important statement.
- Which was predictable.
And this is gonna be an ongoing problem to deal with Donald Trump.
But I think the key thing is that you cannot apply the normal rules of journalism to a figure like Donald Trump, because that will create a radical asymmetry.
- One of the pioneers of conservative talk radio, or the pioneer of conservative talk radio is Rush Limbaugh.
- Who, of course, you admired earlier in your broadcast career.
He fundamentally changed and created the medium, and then ultimately changed the modern American conservative movement.
- He was on the original "Firing Line" with William F. Buckley Jr. in 1992.
- I didn't know that.
- [Margaret] Take a look at this.
- My success is not determined by who wins elections and my success is not determined by what issues dominate.
My success is determined by how many people listen to my radio show, how many people watch the television show.
There's an entertainment characteristic here.
And I am, I view myself as courageous.
I'll go against the tide.
Many people view my radio program as the only one of its kind.
- As a purgative, yeah.
- Yeah, and I'm gonna hear from people who are naturally disposed to be celebratory over the fact that it exists.
- What is your reaction watching Buckley and Limbaugh together?
- My main reaction was watching Buckley watching him, because I wonder whether he realizes this is the future of conservatism, or this is the danger posed by conservatism.
Because Rush Limbaugh was actually quite honest in that clip.
Where he basically said he didn't care about ideas, he didn't care about policies.
It was all about ratings and everything.
And I think this was something that people missed, that he said, "I am a showman.
I will say what I need to get the biggest possible audience."
He was fundamentally a man without principle who would then become a champion for politicians without principle.
- And it strikes me as such a passing of the torch, maybe even unintentional in that moment where- - Oh, yes.
That was exactly, and I thought here's William F. Buckley who spent his entire adult life creating this intellectual super structure, driving out the crack pots and the cranks from the conservative movement, creating an intellectual respectability for conservatism, and now you're sitting across from the carnival barker who is about to transform everything you had created.
- And then ultimately, with the end point being Donald Trump.
Do you credit Limbaugh with the deterioration of the modern American conservative movement?
- I think you have to.
I think we are living in the world that Rush Limbaugh created for us.
And you see all of that, you know, conservatism as entertainment, but also that that sense of being willing to, you know, say things that are completely not true and laugh it off.
Donald Trump has this reptilian instinct that I think that he honed listening to conservative talk radio.
And if you listen to a lot of conservative media before Trump came along, you understood what Trump was echoing.
And Rush Limbaugh played a tremendous role there.
- You've written extensively, including in your most recent book, "How the Right Lost Its Mind" about how the conservative movement quote, "Devolved into a new tribalism that valued neither principle nor truth."
How do you understand that assault on truth?
- Well, I think this is one of the most difficult questions we have.
Is the assault on truth... And by the way, the assault on truth is not simply telling lies.
It's what Hannah Arendt described as the attack on all of your critical sensibilities.
So that there comes a point where you doubt your ability to even know the truth.
So we have millions of people in this country who are being lied to, who either do not know they're being lied to, or, and I think this is more disturbing, they know they're being lied to and they don't care.
- It becomes irrelevant that the lie only exists as whether it is useful to your tribe and to your connection to the tribe, and to creating liberal tears.
And Donald Trump has just fully immersed himself into this stream.
And that's why when we say that shamelessness is his superpower, there's part of him, I think, that's a little bit shocked that he gets away with what he gets away with.
Can I really say this?
Could I really shoot somebody?
Could I really actually, you know, attack a woman and get away with it?
Can I really say these things and have the entire Republican party say, "Yeah, we're okay with that?"
But it is an extraordinary moment that we're in.
And again, it's not just that we face a lot of lies.
If we use the phrase like post-truth, it means that that whole concept of truth and lies may be irrelevant to much of the political class.
- Is it really the entire Republican party or is it just enough of the base?
- Well, this is the interesting thing.
No, it is the base.
But, and I have this discussion all the time with many of my former friends who will say, you know, say, "Charlie, most Republicans, 60% of Republicans are normies.
We get all of this stuff."
But the problem is you enable and you empower the crazies.
You may not be the crazies, but you are part of an infrastructure that has advanced Marjorie Taylor Green, that is right now prepared to perhaps renominate Donald Trump.
So part of it is you may not be that, but you allow it and you tolerate it.
- A recent "ABC News Washington Post" poll showed former President Trump leading President Biden by six percentage points.
You have said this poll should be a wake up call.
- Wake up and then what?
- Well, I think the poll's an outlier.
I wanna make this clear.
But I also worry about complacency and I worry about people who think that because something is unthinkable that it can't happen.
But we've already lived through this.
- We've lived through this.
So there's a very real possibility that Donald Trump could become President again.
And I think that people need to imagine what Trump 2.0 means when, I think it was David Frum who said, when the Velociraptors figured out how to open the doors, this time when they figured out how to do all the things they're going to do.
And so that's where you realize that there is a sense of urgency.
And I think particularly for Democrats and anti-Trump folks, it's like we may have a lot of differences or a lot of other things in our agendas that we're concerned about, but we need to recognize that right now we can't sit around and have another seminar.
We can't indulge ourselves in all of the, you know, ideological goodies that we would necessarily like.
A lots on the line.
And so that's why I think the complacency, you asked, "And do what?"
It's like, don't allow anything to take your eye off the ball of this existential choice that America will make in November of 2024.
- Presuming that Donald Trump is the nominee.
Let's go through the Republican field.
You are not a fan of Republican Governor Ron DeSantis.
"The Wall Street Journal" editorial board recently assessed DeSantis legislative record in Florida saying that he had, quote, "A notable record of conservative governance in action."
They applaud his school choice initiatives, his immigration and abortion restrictions.
What are they getting wrong?
- Well, they're getting wrong the fact that Rod DeSantis is not really a conservative.
I mean, he's sort of a wannabe MAGA guy, but I mean, I guess I've been around long enough to know when conservatives would not have used the power of the government to attack a private company or engage in this vendetta.
This war with Disney ought to be a kind of a wake up call.
It is one thing to push back against political correctness and education.
It is something else to be passing book bans or restrictions on what people can talk about here.
I'm not sure whether or not Ron DeSantis believes all of these things, but he thinks that he has to, and there's something fake about him, something inauthentic, that he wants to figure out what is the most extreme right wing punitive position to take and then do it.
But he is not a small government, pro-free market conservative by any stretch of the imagination.
- And yet he still is doing better than anybody else in all of the polls.
Would he be better than Donald Trump?
I could spend half an hour telling you how bad Ron DeSantis is, but I'm gonna make this very clear.
He is not worse than Donald Trump.
I mean, no one is worse than Donald Trump.
I think most Republicans want to move on from Donald Trump.
They lack the collective will or the strategy to do it.
I think the strategy is sort of like something, something, something unicorn.
Maybe he dies.
- That's right.
- So there's a lot of magical thinking about it.
And we lived through this in 2016 where everybody in the Republican party knew that Donald Trump would not become the nominee, but nobody was going to be the one to make it, to actually stop it.
- Well, former Governor Nikki Haley is in the race.
Former Governor Asa Hutchinson is in the race.
Senator Tim Scott is anticipated to announce his candidacy in the coming weeks.
Glenn Youngkin may also be doing the same.
Ron DeSantis may be doing the same.
Who have I left out?
The only one who has been willing to draw a contrast with former President Trump and condemn his unconstitutional behavior and his inappropriate behavior is former governor Asa Hutchinson from Arkansas.
- And Chris Christie.
- [Margaret] Who is not on the race yet.
I left him out.
I left him out.
- All right, so does actually anyone stand a chance if he remains in the contest?
- Well, there's a couple of known unknowns.
How many indictments are there gonna be and will that make any difference?
I don't know that that has an effect.
- Don't they help him?
- They might.
How many candidates will get in the race?
From Donald Trump's point of view, the bigger the field, the better it is for him.
- Yeah, 2016 all over again.
- The only way... Yeah, exactly, it's 2016 all over again.
The only way that you can conceive a scenario where he is defeated is if there is a strong one-on-one who becomes the embodiment of all of the not Trump votes out there.
Now, as much as I admire what Asa Hutchinson has been saying and agree with what Chris Christie has been saying, they have no shot.
That is not gonna happen.
- The Republican base is never going, the Republican party is never going to go with somebody who is perceived to be that anti-Trump.
The formula is to be non-Trump without antagonizing the Trump base.
Ron DeSantis thought that he had the formula.
Clearly he has not figured it out yet.
So you have to have that field winnowed down and it has to winnow down pretty quickly.
If there are eight or nine candidates in that field going into the primary season, hard to see that Donald Trump doesn't win.
- But if there's a winnowing of the field early- - Yes.
- Is any one of them better than Donald Trump?
- They're all better than Donald Trump.
Every single one of them is better than Donald Trump.
But having said that, there's the one big caveat.
Is Donald Trump gonna allow anyone else to be the nominee?
Donald Trump has made it clear he never loses.
He never loses general elections, and he never loses primaries.
And on the way out the door, he's gonna burn the whole thing down.
So one of the things that Republicans are dealing with is, can we afford to move past Trump if he will blow the place up on the way out because he's the world's worst loser?
- What happens in a general election then, if it is Trump versus Biden?
- Then I think the election becomes a referendum on Donald Trump.
And I think this is the decision the Republicans have to make.
- A referendum on Trump.
Because I think that under normal circumstances, the general election is a referendum on the incumbent president.
And if it's any other Republican other than Donald Trump, the 2024 election will be a referendum on Joe Biden and his record and his agenda.
But if it's Donald Trump, it becomes completely reversed.
That election becomes about Donald Trump, and that will determine what the turnout is, that will determine the levels of enthusiasm.
Joe Biden does not need to gin up enthusiasm among the Democratic base if Donald Trump is on the ballot.
The formula shifts.
- In 2020 you voted for Joe Biden.
- In 2024, if it's Joe Biden versus not Donald Trump, another Republican, do you know who you vote for at this point?
- I don't know, but I'm pretty certain I'm gonna vote for Joe Biden because in order to get that Republican nomination, you will have had to make so many compromises, so many moral compromises with a Republican party that has become so extreme.
The problem the Republicans have is not just Donald Trump.
When Donald Trump leads, the dysfunction of the Republican party does not go away.
And the extremism of the Republican party, it's willingness to accept the conspiracy theories, it's willingness to accept the authoritarian is still going to be ongoing.
- You don't think any candidate who gets the Republican nomination will have the ability to break the fever?
- I would sure like to think they would.
I don't think this fever's gonna break for a very long time.
- This week two members of Democratic representative Gerry Connolly's staff were attacked with a metal baseball bat in his district office in Virginia.
The attacker was reportedly looking for the congressman.
Political violence is a very real concern.
How do you diffuse this?
How do we diffuse this?
- I mean, I think we should not at all underestimate the danger of rising political violence because the amount of rhetoric, the intensity of the emotions is ratcheted up.
We have had a number of mass shootings and a number of tragedies that should have caused people to sober up and say, "We need to lower the temperature."
That has not happened.
Everybody is raising the temperature.
So first we need to understand this is a real threat.
It doesn't mean that 10s of millions of people are gonna be coming to these offices with baseball bats, but you only need a handful.
You'll only need a very small number of people with guns who decide that they're gonna go after people that they have been told molest children and hate God and hate America.
This is a very, very dangerous, dangerous moment.
I would like to say that this would be the moment where the thought leaders on both the right and the left, particularly on the right at the moment, actually think and then lead and encourage people to listen to the better angels of their nature because I think that would be influential.
There has to be this understanding that conservatives used to universally have that ideas had consequences, and that if you spread toxic ideas, they can have toxic and tragic consequences.
- Charlie Sykes, thank you for joining me on "Firing Line."
- Thank you.
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