It’s Friday morning, and Charlie Sykes has just finished reading on air yet another newspaper editorial, this time by USA Today, excoriating the candidacy of Donald Trump. “Will that make a difference? What’s your reaction?” asks Mr. Sykes, a conservative radio host and kingmaker in Wisconsin’s partisan politics.
Two minutes later, the first caller is up. “Steve from the north side, you’re on the air.”
“Hey Charlie, I would love to say it won’t have an effect. But when you think of the low information voter, where do they get their information? They get it from the drive-by media….”
Sykes interrupts, noting that “low information voters” don’t read newspaper editorials.
Steve has another go: “They did a beautiful job of laying out all of Hillary’s arguments. They may as well be on the Democrats’ payroll.”
It’s an argument that Sykes has heard a thousand times – and had a hand in popularizing as an attack dog of conservatism, a truth-teller tilting against the media establishment, the Democrats, and any Republicans who go soft.
Then came Donald Trump.
After Mr. Trump tried and failed to woo the state’s primary voters in March – losing to Ted Cruz by a wide margin – Sykes got credit for dressing him down in a call-in interview. That was perhaps the high-water mark here for “Never Trump.” Since then, the Republican Party at large has largely coalesced around its candidate. Republican Gov. Scott Walker, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus – Wisconsinites all – have come aboard, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
But Sykes is holding out against the Trump tide. It’s a lonely rock. He’s losing friends and listeners; his inbox fills with screeds about betrayal; callers to his show seethe at Mrs. Clinton and ask how he can let her win. And Sykes wonders if he shares the blame for building a news media echo-chamber that blocks out any information or viewpoint that could undercut shared beliefs.
“I’ve long thought the alternative media was a positive development that would counter the mainstream media monopoly. It’s only this year you go, ‘OK, what have we done here? We’ve created this monster,’ ” he says.
“I’m not the same as Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, I make a distinction,” he adds, referencing two other stalwarts of the conservative media. “They’re different from me. But I’m not saying it’s not our fault. I think we all have to look in the mirror.”
Sykes announced Tuesday on air that he would step down from his show at the end of the year. He insists it was a personal decision taken long before the 2016 campaign, while conceding that it had “made this decision somewhat easier.” He told listeners he planned to write a book about “the crackup of the conservative movement.”
For Sykes, the conservative media’s disdain for “liberal” truths – the “monster” – allowed Trump to crash the GOP party and claim its mantle. He says his own listeners, like “Steve from the north side,” refuse to read conservative columnists in The New York Times because they prefer online sources that traffic in lurid allegations about the other side, just as Trump imbibes conspiracies and rumors and fashions them into a 24/7 media spectacle that can seem immune to fact-checking.
“This is the shock of 2016. You look around and you see how much of the conservative media infrastructure buys into the post-factual, post-truth culture…. I understand that we are advocates and defenders, but when do you veer off into pure raw propaganda?” he asks.
One of Sykes’s biggest beefs with Trump is that his views on race and gender have confirmed all the stereotypes applied by liberals to conservative politicians and made it even harder for future GOP leaders to broaden the party’s appeal among minorities. His other complaints about Trump are familiar ones: unqualified and intemperate, inconsistent on issues like abortion and gun control, shaky on constitutional principles.
Sykes refuses to consider Trump as the lesser of two evils for the job as president, as so many fellow Republicans have done in recent months. “It’s painful for me to listen to conservative media folks who think it’s their job to rationalize and justify everything that he says,” he gripes.
At a Trump rally in Waukesha, a Milwaukee exurb and Republican stronghold, few show much sympathy for Sykes’ position.
“He’s the establishment Republican,” says Jim Reifenrath, the manager of a car dealership, shaking his head. Another supporter, Michael Barnes, a self-employed builder, says he listened regularly to Sykes’ show but was tired of his finger-wagging toward Trump. “He’s raw. He’s not a politician. We need an agent of change,” Mr. Barnes says of Trump.
Kris Eastman, a paralegal, says she is hopeful that Sykes will come around. “He’s moving. You can tell. His tone is getting softer” on Trump, she says.
A liberal turns to the right
Sykes, the son of a Democratic professor, began his career as a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal. “He was a liberal back then,” says John Torinus, a former editor at the newspaper who hired him. (“Yeah, you can say that,” says Sykes.)
In 1992, he moved into talk radio and never looked back. The 1990s was the era of Rush Limbaugh, the Drudge Report, and Fox News. Sykes’ morning show became a platform for rising Republican politicians, including Governor Walker, who was a regular call-in as chief executive of Milwaukee County. Sykes championed Walker’s campaign for governor in 2010 and subsequent recall battle after he revoked collective bargaining for most public employees. Walker was later among the failed challengers to Trump in the Republican primaries, dropping out before the Iowa caucuses.
Sykes was merciless in mocking Wisconsin Republicans who didn’t back Walker’s controversial reforms, says Dale Schultz, a senior state senator who stepped down in 2014. The on-air attacks were personal and partisan, making it harder to find common ground in the legislature because Republicans feared being labeled as turncoats. Referring to Sykes and his fellow conservative and crosstown talk-radio rival, Mark Belling, Mr. Schultz says, “They don’t channel the anger. They feed it and nurture it.”
Mr. Belling has left the Never Trump movement behind: He criticizes Trump’s missteps in his daily show but backs him as candidate.
At WTMJ-AM, where Sykes has his morning show, he has a fellow Trump skeptic in Jeff Wagner, an affable counterpoint who hosts the midday slot. Sykes also hosts a weekly TV show at the station.
Last Friday, as Sykes is wrapping up his show, Mr. Wagner slides into an adjacent chair inside the gray, dimly lit studio. Sykes sits at his console in shirt-sleeves, an arc of styrofoam cups on his desk. In the corner, a desiccated pot plant sheds its remaining leaves on the dark carpet.
After some on-air banter, Sykes goes to commercials and stands to chat with Wagner about the fallout from the presidential debate. Wagner, a former attorney, muses on what might have been done to stop Trump during the primaries, to make sure a true conservative was on stage. “Didn’t you get the memo? Nothing matters,” says Sykes, with a weary smile.