Sykes admits that some of these early targets have constituted “low-hanging fruit.” But in the coming months, he tells me, The Bulwark will home in on a specific class of “grifters and trolls”—those opportunistic Trump enablers who still get invited on Meet the Press and write for prestigious newspapers. To Sykes, these are the true sellouts, and he wants to ensure that their public flirtations with Trumpism leave a stench on them.
“A lot of folks have had a free shot to get in bed with some of the most disreputable [people] out there, and they still have a veneer of respectability,” Sykes says. “We want to raise the opportunity cost.”
Asked for examples of prospective targets, Sykes doesn’t have to think long before rattling off a list of high-status commentators (Marc Thiessen, Hugh Hewitt), think tankers (Henry Olsen, Victor Davis Hanson), and politicos (Bill Bennett).
“The Sean Hannitys to me are not that offensive,” Sykes says of the Fox News Trump booster. “Because Sean Hannity is dumb as a box of rocks—he doesn’t know any better.” (Through a spokesperson, Hannity responded, “If Charlie and the rest of the sore-loser, establishment Never Trumpers had their way, Hillary would be president … I wish them well supporting the next radical socialist that runs for president.”)
Sykes says he is much more bothered by the writers and thinkers he used to respect—and he holds out hope that they can still be “salvaged.”
“This sounds naive, but I quite frankly feel they know better,” he tells me. “And at certain points of moral clarity, I could see them coming back to the faith of their fathers.”
Yet when I ask if he really believes The Bulwark’s coverage could be the catalyst that leads them back to the light, Sykes seems to second-guess himself.
“For me to think I’m going to psychologically change them … ” he pauses, and then shrugs wearily. “I don’t know. They may double down.”
Originally, The Bulwark was meant to be a simple news aggregator, a sort of Never Trump Drudge Report that compiled headlines and links from around the web. But that changed in December, when The Weekly Standard—the venerable conservative magazine that had emerged as a leading voice of the anti-Trump right—was abruptly shut down. Phil Anschutz, the Republican billionaire who owned the publication, had reportedly grown frustrated with its constant needling of the president.
Recognizing a void left in the conservative-media landscape, the Standard co-founder Bill Kristol—who had tried unsuccessfully to save the magazine—charged Sykes and a handful of laid-off writers and editors with beefing up The Bulwark with original content.
Kristol told me that he didn’t want to build a “Weekly Standard 2.0.” For all its esteem, it also carried a certain amount of baggage. “I think being a fresh upstart website, and not a magazine with years of relationships, has been a real asset,” he said. “At The Weekly Standard, we didn’t want to look like we were sniping too much at individuals … We didn’t want to waste our readers’ time worrying about various grifters. We liked to think we were publishing more important stuff.” In retrospect, Kristol conceded, “that may have been a mistake.”