Naming and Shaming the Pro-Trump Elite

The Bulwark’s writers are the new outlaws of conservative media.

Roc Canals / Getty / The Atlantic

Charlie Sykes is sitting behind a desk in a sparse, disheveled office—blank walls lined with empty filing cabinets, windows covered with crooked blinds—as he tries to conjure the perfect metaphor for The Bulwark, the anti–Donald Trump conservative news site he recently helped start.

“We are the ultimate wilderness!” he declares to me.

But that doesn’t sound quite lonely enough for the political niche they’re occupying, so he tries again: “We’re on a desert island.”

Sykes continues to riff like this in his chirpy, midwestern accent, comparing The Bulwark’s writers to a band of “Somali pirates,” and then to a contingent of “guerrilla fighters.” He’s so enthusiastic about the exercise that before long I am tossing out my own overwrought suggestions. Perhaps, I muse at one point, they are soldiers on the final front of the Republican Civil War—making one last stand before the forces of Trumpism complete their conquest.

Sykes nods eagerly, and for a moment he seems caught up in the romance of this imagery. But then reality reasserts itself.

“The analogy [I’m] really afraid of,” he confesses, “is that we’re the Japanese soldiers who don’t know the war is over, and we’re still hiding out in the cave.”

A certain quixotic quality pervades The Bulwark. Launched last month by former staffers of the defunct Weekly Standard magazine, the site is headquartered in a rented cluster of cubicles in downtown Washington, D.C. To keep overhead low, the team is small—fewer than 10 full-time writers and editors—and many of them work remotely. “We’re basically camping here,” says Sykes, a former talk-radio host who edits the site while commuting back and forth from Wisconsin.

The modest trappings have not kept them from grandiose ambitions. In the site’s founding manifesto, Sykes wrote that The Bulwark would stand in defiant opposition to President Trump, and “push back against the moral and intellectual corruption that now poses an existential threat to conservatism as a viable political force.”

This kind of righteous Never Trump flame throwing has been a regular feature of intra-GOP debates for years now. But The Bulwark is entering the fray at a moment when the war seems all but finished. Republican voters overwhelmingly support the president. Party leaders have followed suit. And while Trump once faced a noisy chorus of detractors in the conservative media, most have either quieted or converted since he took office. Glenn Beck dropped his long-held opposition and donned a red MAGA cap on his radio show last May. National Review, which crusaded against Trump’s nomination, now routinely publishes pro-Trump writers. Most recently, Erick Erickson, the conservative blogger who helped popularize the #NeverTrump hashtag, announced that he would vote for the president in 2020.

These developments have helped crystallize a consensus in the center-right media: For a conservative outlet to hang onto its audience—let alone any influence in Republican politics—it must plant itself firmly in Trump’s camp.

But The Bulwark is pursuing a different kind of relevance. Rather than crafting coverage that aims to turn rank-and-file Trump voters against the president—an effort that would almost certainly fail—it wants to shame and stigmatize the “bad actors” in the conservative elite, as Sykes puts it.

Scroll through the home page on any given day, and you’ll find one lively polemic after another calling out Trump-friendly politicos by name—often in witheringly personal terms.

In recent weeks, the site has run a scornful piece on the former White House official Sebastian Gorka (“a ridiculous figure”), and another on the high-profile #MAGA activist Candace Owens (“not a serious person”). When Trump failed to secure funding for a border wall with his government shutdown, The Bulwark compiled a meticulous list of conservative commentators who had cheered on the strategy. And in a particularly biting essay, the writer Andrew Egger examined how a radio interview between Milo Yiannopoulos (a “loathsome and tiresome egotist”) and Eric Metaxas (a “pop theologian”) highlighted “the political corruption of the modern evangelical movement.”

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.”

The Bulwark receives funding from the Defending Democracy Together Institute, a nonprofit group that Kristol helps lead.* According to Sarah Longwell, the site’s publisher, it has also received checks from individual donors ranging in amount from $10 to $70,000. With no plans to sell advertising, Longwell says it has already raised enough money to keep the shoestring operation funded for more than a year.

The publication has attracted both fans and enemies early on thanks to the involvement of Kristol and Sykes—two high-profile Republicans whose Trump bashing has earned them plaudits from the left in recent years. Kristol, a prominent neoconservative, helped lead an effort to recruit an independent challenger to Trump during the last election. (He ended up voting for the former CIA officer Evan McMullin.) Sykes, a longtime host on Milwaukee talk radio, became a national figure in 2016 after sparring with then-candidate Trump on air. Since then, he has left radio, written a book criticizing the conservative movement, and joined MSNBC as a contributor. At The Bulwark, he hosts a daily podcast that he says generated more than 500,000 downloads in its first month. By its own count, the site racked up 1.4 million page views in January with 680,000 unique visitors.

The audience is comparatively small, but staffers say they are pleased with the impression they’ve made so far in political and media circles. Bulwark stories are often seen bouncing around Twitter and newsroom Slack channels. For its project to work, it doesn’t need the massive reach of a Fox News or a Rush Limbaugh—it just needs to make D.C. dinner parties and greenroom visits uncomfortable for the Trumpist elite.

Even so, it’s not yet clear that it wields that kind of power. When I emailed Hewitt to ask what he thought of The Bulwark targeting him, he wrote back, “I worry about the business model built on the politics of personal destruction, but not about the impact they will have on my reputation.” Thiessen was similarly dismissive when I reached out: “What is The Bulwark?” he asked.

The site has also come in for its share of criticism from the broader right, including mockery of its earnest tagline (“Conservatism conserved”) and accusations of moral vanity. Meanwhile, The Bulwark’s editors have continued to assert their commitment to what they consider “principled conservatism,” publishing wonky center-right policy articles and critical looks at the leftward lurch of the Democratic Party. They also dabble in lighter partisan fare: The site’s most-read story in its first month was a humorous critique of Kamala Harris’s campaign logo, written by Jonathan V. Last.

One thing The Bulwark doesn’t have is a coherent vision for what conservatism should look like after Trump. This has led some critics to dismiss the site as an exercise in myopia—focused obsessively on what it’s against instead of articulating what it’s for.

Kristol acknowledged this view when I asked him about it, but defended the staff’s open-mindedness about the future. “Everyone understands the post-Trump conservative agenda is a very big task,” he said. “But you can’t be everything. I think The Bulwark is focused on the immediate emergency.”

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the current “emergency” will never end—that the Trumpification of the Republican Party outlasts Trump himself, replacing the old guard for good, and forcing the small band of bomb-lobbing Bulwarkers into permanent exile. What will happen, I wondered, if they emerge from the cave one day to discover that the war is over and they’ve lost?

Before leaving the office, I bumped into Jim Swift, a 35-year-old Weekly Standard alum who now writes for The Bulwark. An outspoken Trump critic who has spent his brief time at the new site firing away at influential Republicans, Swift spoke excitedly about the work it is doing.

I asked him if he worried that he was limiting his future job prospects in the conservative press, but he seemed confused by the question: “Where is someone like me going to go?”

* A previous version of this article misidentified the nonprofit group that helps fund The Bulwark.