Buckley Jr., Milton Friedman, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz, but “most important for me was that conservative ideas simply made more sense; they took the world as it was rather than seeing it through the lens of wishful thinking and ideology.”In the decades that followed, Sykes would become a conservative force, particularly on education matters (his books include Fail U: The False Promise of Higher Education, published last year).
But then came Trump, supported by many conservatives who viewed him through the lens of wishful thinking and abandoned ideology.“How did a movement that was defined by its belief in individual liberty, respect for the Constitution, free markets, personal responsibility, traditional values, and civility,” Sykes writes, “find itself embracing a stew of nativism, populism, and nationalism?
Sykes takes us through the Barry Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964—a failure at the ballot box, but a seminal moment in conservatism—and the 1970s rise of the New Right, which disdained modern conservatism’s intellectuals as elitist accomplices of the Republican establishment.
At every stage of this story, Sykes notes the tumorous elements lurking in conservatism that would ultimately erupt in full-blown Trumpism.
At the other end were Trump’s early advocates, a group that included media valets like Sean Hannity but was most grotesquely manifested by the racist, anti-Semitic trolls of the alt-right.
Sykes performs a public service by recording the exact wording of the vileness visited on Trump critics like writers David French and Bethany Mandel.
In 1976, he writes, the New Right edged toward supporting Alabama Governor George Wallace, a lightly reformed bigot, for the presidency, until “some of the calmer heads realized that would have meant an alliance with a coterie of crackpots, including anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers.
But the flirtation with Wallace served to expose a soft underbelly of conservatism.”Ronald Reagan pulled together conservatives and Republicans and plenty of Democrats with buoyant themes of individual freedom and economic dynamism.
The book makes clear that as the Obama-era economic recovery limped along—and as the “perpetual outrage machine” of Tea Party political-action-committee fundraisers and their conservative-media soulmates worked overtime—the political scene was ripening for a candidate who could stoke resentments with a combination of freewheeling bellicosity, economic nostrums, and nationalistic pandering.Sykes recounts how Buckley routed from modern conservatism much of the “crackpotism” that then characterized the movement, epitomized by the fevered anti-Communist paranoia of the John Birch Society.(Decades later, Sykes notes, Buckley would perform a similar act of intellectual hygiene by calling out Patrick Buchanan’s anti-Semitism.) The publication of Frank Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom in 1962 was another essential development, proposing a balancing of personal liberty and moral responsibility that came to be known as fusionism.As Sykes notes, Douthat and Salam wrote that “the party isn’t just out of touch with the country as a whole, it’s out of touch with its own base.” Sykes also credits David Frum, who raised an alarm in 2008 about “tired and confused” Republican conservatism.Chronic overpromising and under-delivering would have disastrous consequences.There should be no illusions about the nature of the threats and insults, and no illusions about Trump’s reluctance to criticize the alt-right.