Charlie Sykes admits he was wrong. And it took Donald Trump to make him realize it.
Sykes has been Wisconsin’s most prominent “never Trumper” and perhaps one of its first, starting with a combative radio interview in March 2016 ahead of the state’s presidential primary.
Since then, he’s been a consistent critic and because of that fell out of favor with some Wisconsin Republicans after spending 23 years on the radio promoting conservative causes through the self-proclaimed “biggest stick in the state,” WTMJ-AM in Milwaukee.
With Trump now out of office, Sykes told WisPolitics.com he feels vindication as well as frustration that the country had to go through the past four years because “folks didn’t see how this was inevitably going to end.”
The former journalist also has done some introspection. During those years on the radio, Sykes helped promote figures like former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke and U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, who have become figures in Trump’s orbit.
“There’s no question I got sucked into the hyperpartisanship of Wisconsin politics and really did buy into the us-versus-them models. I’m certainly not proud of that,” said Sykes, a contributor to MSNBC. “Unfortunately, it’s one of the hardest things to admit is that you were wrong, that you may have wasted years promoting people and ideas that turned out to be deeply flawed. But that’s the reality.”
That’s not Sykes’ only revelation after the last four years.
He now believes politics is less about specific policies and programs and more about the person. If you’re “an honest, empathetic, compassionate, decent human being, we can do business,” Sykes said. He says he will disagree with Joe Biden — whom he voted for in November — on most issues. But he also says he’s rooting for Biden’s success and believes the new president represents a “sea change in his approach to government and to our political culture.”
Sykes added he’s been asking himself hard questions during the Trump presidency, including what values he’s not willing to compromise. His conclusion: human decency and the rule of law.
He now bemoans a Republican Party he says sacrificed its interest in fiscal conservatism to follow Trump and an anti-abortion movement that “apparently was at least willing to go along with children in cages.”
“I really believe that Republicans at one point believed that character matters and apparently they decided that it didn’t when Donald Trump came along,” Sykes said. “They decided that they were going to go along with a man who is a serial liar, a con man and a fraud, a narcissist with the emotional vocabulary of a 9-year-old.”
Sykes now considers himself a “political orphan,” saying he doesn’t belong to either party. He was a member of the Young Democrats in the 1970s and ran for Assembly against then-GOP state Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner as an anti-abortion Dem in 1974. He later worked a series of jobs in newspapers and magazines before starting in talk radio in 1989 and then landing his show on WTMJ in 1993.
As Sykes has continued as a vocal opponent of Trump, some Wisconsin Dems have been mystified at the attention he’s received as a principled conservative after years of what they listened to while he was the state’s leading figure in talk radio, prompting some to ask if he’s a political opportunist.
Sykes understands why Dems view him suspiciously. He’s also asked himself whether he bears some of the blame for what’s happened to the Republican Party in Wisconsin.
In 2016, the Wisconsin presidential primary was considered the last stand of those trying to prevent Trump from winning the GOP nomination, and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, won with 48.2 percent of the vote, besting Trump by 13 points.
Sykes notes when people ask him what’s happened to the state party, he points to Waukesha County, which he considers “the beating heart of the Republican base.” Pre-Trump, GOP women’s groups would host Paul Ryan at their events. Now, he says, they invite conservative commentator Michelle Malkin to serve as master of ceremonies and give standing ovations to the mother of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teen who shot three people during the violent protests in Kenosha.
What’s more, 15 members of the state Legislature signed a letter asking former Vice President Mike Pence to delay accepting states’ electoral votes for 10 days — “something that no rational human being really thought that he had the power to do.” And GOP U.S. Reps. Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Tiffany voted to sustain objections to the electoral votes of Arizona and Pennsylvania “based on many of these completely bogus conspiracy theories.”
Sykes says he hopes some Republicans, such as U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher of Green Bay, continue to speak out amid what he sees as the “wreckage” of a deeply divided GOP.
“I’m willing to ask that question about how much of Trumpism and the willingness of the Republican Party to embrace Trump reflects a pre-existing condition,” Sykes said. “Donald Trump is a cause as well as an effect. And so I’m willing to ask the question how much of that did we contribute to? How much was there all along? How much was below the surface? What were the things that I said that might have led people to think that Trumpism and that kind of hyper-tribalism was the way to go?”
Since leaving WTMJ, Sykes has joined MSNBC as a contributor and created The Bulwark media outlet that includes a collection of conservatives who opposed Trump. Sykes, 66, says he plans to continue both endeavors in the next couple of years, including the podcast he does for The Bulwark, which he said was created not just to oppose Trump, but to “stand against a political world gone crazy.”
“This fight for the soul of the conservative movement is going to go on,” Sykes said. “You’re seeing it right now, the attempts to purge anyone who committed an act of heresy against the church of Trumpism.”