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Charlie Sykes has long been a star of Wisconsin conservative politics, having built a kind of cottage industry mixing radio, television, books and his own peculiar brand of journalism.
Thanks to Donald Trump, however, Sykes is now a national figure and in serious danger of becoming part of what he seems to hate the most: the "mainstream media."
Ever since Rush Limbaugh became radio king and spawned hundreds of local market clones all over the country, the "mainstream media" has been the big bogeyman for conservatives. Never mind that radio ratings around the country show that conservative radio and television is pretty much the "mainstream media" itself. The phrase still trips with acid off the tongue of Sykes and his pals.
Sykes has become a true national figure because of his fiery commentary on the candidacy of Trump, leading up to a blistering interview with the candidate before the Wisconsin primary. The veteran WTMJ host is one of the national leaders of the "Never Trump" movement.
In the most recent past, Sykes has been written about and/or appeared on: ABC, NBC, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, The New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, NPR, Los Angeles Times, Weekly Standard, Washington Times, Bloomberg, National Review, Huffington Post and C-Span. And those are just the biggies.
I like Charlie Sykes. I consider him a friend. I knew and worked with his father, and I’ve known Sykes for better than 30 years all the way back to the time he was a liberal. We disagree on almost everything politically, but he has done a great job building his brand and becoming arguably the most well-known person in Wisconsin who isn’t an athlete or the governor.
I wanted to find out how he felt about his growing national profile so I called his radio show.
"He can’t talk to you," said the guy who answered the phone, after I called him back to ask if Charlie could spare five minutes.
I’ve been blown off before, and I can easily recognize it. I’m surprised, but not shocked. And I don’t take it personally.
Sykes is pretty busy this time of year. I mean, when Wolf Blitzer, Megyn Kelly or Lawrence O’Donnell call, you have to take their call. The race for president, including and especially that tumultuous Republican primary, is fertile grazing ground for Sykes.
And if there is one thing about Sykes that everybody will agree with, he is a smart man. He has refined his politics to the point where he is certain of what he believes and equally certain that what he believes is the right way for all of us.
Sykes is, above all, a wordsmith. On MSNBC the other night, he said that this year is "an election of fear and loathing."
He was on O’Donnell’s show with Peter Hart, perhaps the most respected pollster in the world, as well as Howard Dean, the former presidential candidate. As they say, Charlie is "walkin’ in high cotton."
"What you are seeing is that conservatives," he said, "not those listening to me (slight smile), are coalescing around Donald Trump because every time you bring up his demagoguery, his serial lying and the fact that he’s a con man, people say, ‘Yes, but Hillary Clinton is worse.’"
Not many people know this, but Sykes has a wonderful and acerbic sense of humor, like his crack over the conservatives who listen to him. He can tell a joke, and he gets it when you tell one. He can, and often does, use humor as a lightsaber swishing past you with speed.
I used to think, and research had shown, that talk radio hosts were only talking to the converted, that they didn’t have the ability to change minds. That may still be true, but Sykes has demonstrated that he does have the ability to motivate his listeners to action.
I feel very comfortable saying that his influence has grown significantly in the WTMJ listening area. In the primary in March, as unusual as it may be, every county in the listening area voted for a Republican, except for Milwaukee, Dane and Rock. Racine and Kenosha counties have always been stalwart Democratic strongholds, but they went for the GOP this year.
Many political experts say that in order for Trump to win, he has to take a state or two in the Midwest rust belt. And Wisconsin is high on that list.
What I wanted to ask Sykes was whether he was ready to go to the mat and try and deliver Wisconsin to Trump in November.
I wish Charlie had been willing to take a call from his old friend. But after thinking about it, I can guess his answer.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.