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How The Right Lost Its Mind by Charles J Sykes

Why Trump? How did the land of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln end up with him? Why did American conservatives allow this crude, rude, mendacious braggart to become their leader?

This question greatly pains Charles Sykes, an American conservative writer and broadcaster who has refused to fall in behind Trump, and is aghast at what has taken place:

“The gleeful rejection of established norms of civility, tradition, and basic decency played well in an era of reality television, but was the antithesis of what conservatism had once represented… Like a number of other conservatives, including talk show hosts, I have to step back and ask uncomfortable questions. There’s no point in mincing words: for me 2016 was a brutal, disorienting, disillusioning slog. There came a moment when I realised that conservatives had created an alternative reality bubble and that I had perhaps helped shape it. Somewhere along the line much of the echo chamber turned on the very principles that had once animated it, replacing ideas of freedom, limited government and constitutionalism wth a crude populist nativism that fed into the Right’s media zeitgeist.”

Sykes laments how Trumpism “has coarsened the culture as a whole”, and made it very difficult to bring up children to treat others with respect, avoid name-calling and tell the truth even when inconvenient. For the young, and especially for young men, there is Trump as an alternative role model:

“He may be a bully, a fabulist, a serial insulter and abuser of women, but our alpha-male president is a billionaire, who has been elevated to the most powerful job in the world.”

America is more and more separated into two nations. People interact less and less with anyone with whom they disagree. And conservatives chose to close their eyes and ears to what was going on:

“For years we ignored the birthers, the racists, the truthers, and other conspiracy theorists who indulged fantasies of Obama’s secret Muslim plot to subvert Christendom, or who peddled tales of Hillary Clinton’s murder victims. We treated them like your obnoxious uncle at Thanksgiving. Rather than confront them, we changed the channel because, after all, they were our friends, whose quirks could be indulged or at least ignored.”

Trump represents a strain in American life which has always existed. From time to time, Sykes touches on this point. He refers with admiration to Richard Hofstadter’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, published in 1964, remarking that it “seems eerily prescient”.

For the paranoid spokesman sees the world “in apocalyptic terms”, with America in danger of immediate subversion and defeat by its enemies. The end of the world is nigh. While Ronald Reagan wanted the Berlin Wall torn down, Trump wants to build a wall to keep the Mexicans out.

For most of his book, Sykes concentrates on contemporary manifestations of boorishness, including Fox News and the Alt Right. As a report from the front line –  where many conservatives, including many members of the Christian Right, persuaded themselves that in order to beat Hillary Clinton, any number of low blows were permissible – this works well.

But Sykes is too disgusted by these disreputable proceedings to be able to see the wider picture. Conservatives usually feel pessimistic about the all too palpable decline in many of the things which they hold dear.

Yet the American Constitution – that magnificent 18th-century edifice, built on ancient foundations – has outlived some third-rate presidents, and will not be destroyed by Trump. Indeed, his career may end in abject failure, and become a warning to future generations.

Even if (as seems to me likely) Trump does not by his disgraceful conduct bring about his own destruction, he is not immortal, and will create a desire for someone better, or at least for someone different.

His opponents were at first baffled by him. For the more agonised they were by his behaviour, the better pleased his supporters were. Trump’s bunch of deplorables had found a showman who on Twitter could each day, indeed each minute, enrage and embarrass the ruling class, Republican as well as Democrat.

Outsiders who felt they had long been taken for granted by Washington could revel in Trump’s impudence. Barack Obama had risen to the top by knowing, on almost every occasion, how to strike the right note.

Many Americans decided they would like, as a protest against the baffling good manners of the first black president, to put in a white man who knows, on almost every occasion, how to strike the wrong note.

For reputable characters like Sykes, this is a fearful blow to conservatism. But be of good cheer. The night is long that never finds the day.

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