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Monday, December 29, 2014
Most Powerful Man In Tea Party: Conservative Anger Is Now Toxic And Self-Defeating
Erick Erickson built his career stoking populist rage. But now the man who steers the Tea Party says conservative anger
has grown toxic and self-defeating.
Is The Most Powerful Conservative In America Losing His Edge?
Erick Erickson—the editor in chief of RedState.com, a right-wing pundit whom Democrats loathe and Republicans fear, a man known for his intemperate remarks, and arguably the most powerful conservative in America today—eats his chicken wings with a fork and knife.
To be clear, the wings Erickson ordered when I visited him in Macon, Georgia, last May were boneless wings, which are really glorified chicken nuggets. Erickson, a fastidious man who dislikes getting his hands messy with finger food, apologized for not taking me to a more authentic local restaurant—“one of Macon’s meat-and-three places” (where you get a choice of three sides to go with a serving of meat). But he had promised his 5-year-old son, Gunnar, a serving of the smiley-face fries at the Wild Wing Cafe. So there we were, at a beer-and-wings chain in a characterless exurban mall. “Father, we ask you to bless this meal,” Erickson said, elbows propped on the table, hands clenched, head bowed as we prepared to dig in.
Over the past decade, Erickson, who is 39, has emerged as a driving force behind the Tea Party. In addition to serving as RedState’s editor, he is a paid contributor to Fox News, a syndicated newspaper columnist, and the drive-time host on Atlanta-based WSB, the nation’s fourth-largest talk-radio station. He was a CNN contributor from 2010 to 2013, and he occasionally guest-hosts Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated radio show. Limbaugh, in turn, often cites RedState.
When I visited Erickson in Macon, he welcomed me into his home and showed me around his city. A chubby, neatly dressed man of medium height, he has spiky strawberry-blond hair, narrow eyes, and a grin that scrunches up his broad face. He was an easy conversationalist, jovial and unguarded, with an eagerness to put others at ease that helped explain why so many people spend hours in their cars listening to him. Above all, he was polite.
Which was interesting, because Erickson is famous for saying things that are not polite. There was the time, in 2009, when he called retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter a “goat fucking child molester.” During the Occupy protests, he said his heart was gladdened by “watching a hippie protester get Tased.” He nicknamed Wendy Davis, the Texas state senator, “Abortion Barbie.” And in a blog post considering whether President Obama was “shagging hookers,” he called Michelle Obama a “marxist harpy” who “would go Lorena Bobbit [sic] on him should he even think about it.” (The press, Erickson wrote, wouldn’t care: Obama “could be a serial killing transvestite and the media would turn a blind eye.”)
His attacks sting most when aimed, as they often are, at fellow Republicans he sees as too ready to compromise. In 2009, for example, he claimed that then–Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had “lost his testicles” and called on his readers to send the senator “balls.” Erickson later reported that more than 100 toy balls had been sent to the senator’s office using the Amazon link he’d provided.
“Nationally, people think of me as a Tea Party person, and I am,” Erickson told me. “But in Georgia, the Tea Party can’t stand me.” The local movement, he explained, is dominated by libertarian followers of former Congressman Ron Paul, and Erickson has opposed many of its chosen candidates. Erickson’s conservatism is of a more traditional bent, deeply informed by his evangelical faith. He believes Republicans must not yield in pursuit of small government, strong national defense, and the primacy of the traditional family.
Erickson sounded almost gleeful as he told me about the Tea Party hating him. He seems to delight in confounding expectations, and in almost every way, he refuses to be pigeonholed: he is a southerner who defines himself by his small-town sensibility, but he spent most of his childhood in Dubai. He speaks for the conservative grass roots, but he pals around with cable-news regulars and Beltway elites. He’s a strict no-compromises ideologue, but during his one foray into elected office, he was a model of bipartisan cooperation.
Erickson dismisses criticism of his vulgar taunts as pearl-clutching by politically correct prigs with no sense of humor. (Offensive as some of his comments may be, he makes them in a tone of mockery, not spit-flying rage.) But he also has grown more reflective in the past year, at times even calling out his own readers and listeners for their excesses. In August, he wrote, “I increasingly find conflict between my faith and some conservative discourse.” He cited the right-wing furor over undocumented minors, Ebola, and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Shortly after I visited him in Georgia, he announced that he had been accepted to the Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, to pursue—part-time, between radio broadcasts—a master’s degree in biblical studies.
He told me about a man who had come up to him to rant about immigrants ruining schools and neighborhoods. “I’m like, ‘Why are you so angry?’ ” He thinks conservatives suffer from a persecution complex. “I hear it in radio. I see it in comments at RedState and in e-mail and on Twitter. When you as a conservative go out there and pound your fist on the table and say, ‘They’re coming to get me,’ who wants to say, ‘Yeah, I’m coming to your side’? I mean, be happy!”
Don’t you get angry?, I asked. Well, sure, he said: at Republicans, for not keeping their promises; at the president, for not doing his job; at the political system. But he explained that he was pointing to something more pervasive. “What I mean is that conservatives are in a constant state of hair-on-fire, yelling anger,” he said—a toxic mind-set that prevents them from seeing straight. “That anger has spread outside the normal bounds of political issues into everything” from the food they eat to the movies they watch.
This didn’t sound anything like the Erick Erickson people think of as Limbaugh Lite, and some have begun to wonder whether he has changed. Could he be mellowing as he nears middle age? Perhaps success—going from a little-known, unpaid blogger to a major power broker on the right—has taken some of the fire out of his belly. Maybe he’s even ready, as Republicans assume control of the Senate, to adopt a more conciliatory approach.
Don’t let his smile fool you.
RedState’s mission statement, posted on the site, explicitly one-ups the famous motto of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review.“RedState does not stand athwart history yelling stop,” it says. “We yell ‘ready,’ ‘aim,’ and ‘fire,’ too.”
RedState draws about a quarter of a million unique visitors a month, according to comScore—a fraction of the audience of conservative sites like Newsmax and The Daily Caller. Erickson himself is not nearly as visible a pundit as, say, Ann Coulter or Karl Rove. But he may be more influential: His pronouncements can decide whether a policy lives or dies. His anointment can lift a candidate out of obscurity. Members of Congress have him on speed dial.
Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, told me he consults Erickson regularly, and the conservative faction of the House GOP looks to RedState for guidance. “A lot of times those articles actually steer the direction of members of Congress as we’re making decisions in Washington, D.C.,” Jim Bridenstine, a first-term congressman from Oklahoma, told me, citing gun background checks and immigration reform as two recent areas where many Republicans were leaning toward compromise until RedState urged them to resist.
Erickson’s influence stems from the fact that he’s not just a pundit—he’s an activist who gets involved in contentious primary battles, bestowing endorsements that draw attention and cash to little-known candidates. In 2009, he came out for Marco Rubio in Florida’s Senate race when the former state legislator was polling nearly 50 points behind and the whole GOP apparatus was backing Charlie Crist, the former governor who has since switched parties. More endorsements for Rubio followed, including from the deep-pocketed Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth, and Crist dropped out of the primary to run as an independent. Rubio ended up winning the general election by 19 points.
Other conservative challengers who benefited from Erickson’s endorsements in the 2010 cycle include Mike Lee, who took down Bob Bennett, a three-term Republican senator from Utah, and Rand Paul, who ran in the Kentucky Senate primary against Mitch McConnell’s preferred candidate, Trey Grayson.
A South Carolina state lawmaker named Nikki Haley was considered a long shot for the 2010 gubernatorial nomination when she caught Erickson’s fancy with her conservative zeal. For 10 days straight, RedState featured her on its front page, urging readers to donate. Haley gained momentum, and a late endorsement from Sarah Palin helped catapult her to the top of the field. “RedState was there in the very beginning,” Haley, who considers Erickson a “dear friend,” told me. “I was ‘Nikki who?’ ” Haley was just reelected to a second term as South Carolina’s governor, and has been on the longer lists of potential 2016 vice-presidential nominees.
Ted Cruz came from 3 percent in the polls and a three-to-one cash disadvantage to win his 2012 Senate primary in Texas, thanks in part to Erickson’s boosting. Cruz has attended every one of RedState’s annual “Gatherings” since they began in 2009. Cruz and Erickson have become friends, and Erickson has said Cruz is as great as “all the Beatles in one person” and called him “the leader of the conservative movement.” (Cruz returns the favor. “RedState gives people a voice,” he told me.)
As Erickson sees it, the conservative movement and the Republican Party are two different things, and the former is more important. For 50 years, the conservative movement has alternately abetted and tormented the Republican Party. It has provided an intellectual framework and activist passion to the GOP, but—from the John Birch Society of the 1960s to the Tea Party of today—it has trained its fire just as often within the party as without, fueling primary battles and a spirit of with-us-or-against-us absolutism. Sometimes it has even won, as with the nomination of Barry Goldwater, which did not go so well, and that of Ronald Reagan (although some conservatives began complaining about Reagan almost immediately after he was elected). Party mandarins have long regarded those on the far right as useful idiots who helped win elections but could not be allowed near the levers of power.
In the Goldwater era, the conservatives communicated through newsletters and direct mail. With the Internet, they gained a megaphone and a better way to talk to one another. RedState was founded just before the 2004 Republican convention, by four young conservatives who saw a need for an analogue on the right to the left-wing blogs, like Daily Kos, that were upending the Democratic Party. “There were a lot of good writers with a lot to say on the right, but the left had a dominant hold on the format,” recalls Ben Domenech, one of RedState’s co‑founders, who is now the publisher of an online magazine called The Federalist. Like Daily Kos, RedState was a site where anyone could author a post.
Almost immediately, Erickson became one of RedState’s stars. Blogging for free while he practiced law in Macon, he began drawing more traffic and responses than the site’s founders. He had a conversational style and a penchant for provocation. Most of all, Domenech says, he wrote what a lot of people were thinking but didn’t see reflected in normal political discourse. “Erickson is your conservative father-in-law at the Thanksgiving table,” Domenech told me.
An early success came in October 2005, after George W. Bush nominated his own lawyer, White House Counsel Harriet Miers, to succeed Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court. Bush had enjoyed reliable support from right-wing media outlets like Fox News and National Review. After his reelection, less than a year earlier, he had announced, “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” There was little reason to believe the nomination would run into serious trouble.
But trouble came fast. Erickson was among Miers’s earliest and loudest critics. From his point of view, conservatives had worked hard for Bush’s reelection—he himself had been a volunteer lawyer for the campaign—and in return they expected Bush to nominate a conservative heavyweight like the recently appointed John Roberts. Miers, Erickson believed, was both ideologically suspect and lacking in credentials. “This is a profoundly disappointing nomination, a missed opportunity, and an abdication of responsibility to make sound, well qualified nominations,” RedState proclaimed on October 3, the day the nomination was announced.
Erickson dug up dirt on Miers—such as the fact that she had donated to Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign—that helped persuade better-known conservatives, like Limbaugh and Coulter, to come out against the nomination too. The backlash “baffled” members of the Bush administration, Matt Latimer, a former Bush speechwriter, recalled recently. “They just didn’t understand how you could have a principled objection to something the administration wanted to do and still be a conservative,” he told me. “Their definition of conservative was whatever they said it was.” Erickson spoke for a GOP base that was tired of being told to fall in line. By getting Republicans elected, grass-roots conservatives, too, felt they’d amassed political capital, but Washington didn’t seem inclined to let them cash it in.
Eventually, even establishment voices on the right, such as David Brooks and writers for National Review, came to oppose Miers. Bush withdrew his nomination on October 27. It was the beginning of a split that would come to define Bush’s second term and dominate the Republican Party into the Obama era: the revolt of the conservative grass roots against the party establishment.
Erickson was born near Jackson, Louisiana, but when he was 5 his family moved to Dubai, where Conoco sent his father, a production foreman, to work on oil platforms in the Persian Gulf. The family didn’t move back to the United States until Erickson was 15. His father worked offshore for seven days at a time, returning for seven days before leaving again. “It would be the second or third day before he got out of bed,” Erickson recalled. Perhaps in reaction to his own father’s absence, Erickson is an involved dad to his two children. His wife, Christy, stopped working a few years ago due to fragile health (she has respiratory problems and a genetic disorder that causes blood clots), and she was resting most of the day I visited. Erickson and I spent the afternoon entertaining Gunnar and picking up Evelyn, who is 9, from school.
Growing up abroad, Erickson developed a more worldly perspective than many give him credit for. “It is super easy for people to caricature him as some knuckle-dragging southern God-squad know-nothing,” a Republican consultant who has worked with Erickson told me. “But this guy ain’t that at all.” To satisfy visa requirements, the family traveled every six months to Europe or Asia. His parents weren’t particularly political, but they were conservative as a matter of course. At one point in his early childhood, a shipping crate full of books got delayed, and for bedtime stories he had nothing but National Review and Southern Living for six months.
“I grew up walking through a high gate into my school, with a guard who would make me remove my sandwich from my lunch bag to inspect it for explosives,” Erickson told me. Terrorist threats were a repeat occurrence; an explosion once shook the ground. “We could see the smoke on the horizon because the Iranians were blowing up oil platforms near where my dad worked.” (This was during the Iran-Iraq War.) As the Ericksons saw it, the American military—and President Reagan—were the only things standing between them and chaos.
Spending so much of his childhood overseas also made him an outsider to American racial dynamics, Erickson says. He claims that, unlike Americans who grew up here, he lacks an intuitive understanding of racial politics. It’s a slightly absurd claim, reminiscent of the parodic color-blindness of Stephen Colbert (“I don’t see race!”), but, unlike some others in talk radio—Limbaugh, for instance—Erickson does not pepper his show with racial provocations. As we drove to get Evelyn from her private Christian day school, where acres of neatly trimmed sports fields gleamed in the sunshine, he told me, with a sad shake of his head, that he believed only time, not government intervention, could heal America’s racial wounds.
When Erickson returned to Louisiana for high school, he was, he says, a “nerd,” unathletic and obsessed with politics. After graduating, he moved to Macon to attend Mercer University and stayed there for law school, figuring he would wind up in D.C. working on Capitol Hill. Instead he got a job with a firm in Macon and married Christy, who made it clear she had no desire to live in the big city—meaning Atlanta.
While practicing law, Erickson developed a sideline as a campaign manager and consultant in local elections. When RedState came along in the summer of 2004, Erickson said, “I was a bored lawyer doing politics in Macon, Georgia, so I e‑mailed them.” The mainstream media couldn’t get enough of the new “political blog” craze, and there was a dearth of conservative voices. Just a few months later, MSNBC flew Erickson to Secaucus, New Jersey, to be the token conservative blogger contributing to its election coverage.
By the time of the Miers nomination, Erickson knew there were people in the White House reading RedState—some of them were sources who fed him intel on Miers. But the blog was not widely known; many publications still put blogger in quotation marks or spelled out blog as web log. I wondered how he got the nerve to make thunderous, this-shall-not-stand pronouncements from his obscure perch. What made him feel he had the standing to tell the president what to do?
To Erickson, the question didn’t make sense. “I was just a guy in Georgia writing what I thought,” he said. “If they didn’t like my opinion, they didn’t have to take it. But I was writing for people at RedState, not the White House.” From his readers’ reactions and the growth of the site, he knew a lot of people out there shared his views.
In his gray Chevy Tahoe, Erickson gave me a tour of his neighborhood, a tony community of custom homes just this side of McMansions. Macon is dense with churches, and we drove past one whose marquee referred to the week’s primaries: vote for those who will seek wisdom from god.
“This is all new in the last five or six years,” Erickson told me. He moved here from closer to downtown a few years ago, and says he misses the character of the city. But a formerly friendly neighbor had turned hostile after Keith Olbermann declared Erickson “the worst person in the world.” The neighbor, Erickson said, would glare at him from behind his lawn mower, shouting, “How many people did you and Dick Cheney kill today?”
“Generally, the right gets mad at me more than the left,” Erickson told me. “But the worst stuff, the angry-death-threat-level stuff, that tends to come from the left.” The hate mail was relatively mild until Erickson became a CNN contributor in 2010. “That’s when I first got someone saying they were going to tie me up, cut off my eyelids, and rape and murder my wife.” In 2012, a SWAT team was called to Erickson’s house by a harasser claiming it was the site of a violent crime, a dangerous practice known as “swatting.”
Though the Sarah Palin–Ted Cruz wing of the GOP loves him, Erickson has few fans in the Republican establishment. One Washington-based operative, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid provoking Erickson, described him as a “true believer” and a bully who had become “drunk with power.” This operative and other Republicans believe Erickson’s hectoring has helped lead the party into self-destructive crusades.
“He’s part of a very small cabal of people who guided the shutdown,” another D.C. consultant told me. In September 2013, Erickson directed readers to call their senators and urge them to “stand with Cruz” in the push to defund the Affordable Care Act. When the government shutdown followed, in early October, Erickson cheered it, insisting that Republicans were winning and urging the party’s lawmakers to hold their ground.
Erickson especially enjoys needling Mitch McConnell, whom he regards as spineless and ineffective, “a cancer on the Senate Republican caucus,” “emblematic of all that is wrong with Washington, D.C.,” and “a complete and miserable … er … mitch-erable failure.” McConnell loyalists regard Erickson as a major obstacle. “He and others have turned compromise into a dirty word,” Billy Piper, a lobbyist who served as McConnell’s chief of staff until 2011, told me. “He has worked to foster an environment that demonizes that effort in such a way that some members operate on the basis of fear.”
Erickson is unmoved by such criticism. “These guys who think I am a bully are used to a certain Beltway etiquette and hate to be held accountable,” he told me. Nor does he apologize for his opposition to compromise, citing the maxim—attributed, apocryphally, to the former Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen—that there are two parties in Washington, the stupid party and the evil party, who occasionally get together and do something both stupid and evil, and this is called bipartisanship.
But Erickson’s experience in local politics tells a different story. In 2007, Erickson ran for a seat on the Macon city council. Through his consulting work on local races, he was simultaneously helping other members of the council—several of them Democrats—get elected. In part because he was so well connected, Erickson ran unopposed.
Also running that year was Larry Schlesinger, a Democrat and rabbi who was seeking an at-large council seat. Schlesinger had seen Erickson speak at a local Rotary Club meeting; he sought Erickson’s advice when he decided to enter the race, and continued to consult him after getting elected. “I basically didn’t do anything without speaking to Erick first,” Schlesinger told me.
Macon, a former railroad hub, has a population of about 200,000, roughly split between an economically depressed, largely African American inner city and predominantly white suburbs and exurbs. By the time Erickson took his seat, the city council had long been riven by racial, partisan, and personality conflicts. “It was perceived as a circus,” Schlesinger said.
Erickson’s main project on the council was cleaning up the Asian massage parlors that operated as fronts for prostitution and human trafficking in Macon’s downtown. Police raids didn’t work: the women working in the parlors either didn’t speak English or were afraid to talk to the cops. Erickson sought new regulations to drive out the illegitimate massage businesses without burdening the legal ones by, for example, requiring them to keep a log of visitors.
Some of the massage parlors had African American landlords, and Erickson was accused of trying to hurt black business owners. He enlisted an ally to reach out to black churches, asking them to help fight sin in their communities. After three years, his regulatory scheme passed, and for the most part, it has been a success.
Schlesinger described Erickson as a constructive force in city hall, someone who would say what was on everyone’s minds and call out the professional politicians on their posturing. Although Erickson was one of just two Republicans, he wasn’t perpetually at odds with his fellow members. The council passed budgets without tax increases, privatized the operation of the local airport and train station, started a campaign to tear down abandoned properties, and devoted new funding to after-school programs. Erickson’s biggest failure, as he saw it, was not convincing his fellow members to sell off the city-owned golf course. For the most part, he said, “it was an interesting exercise in coalition building.”
The irony is not lost on Erickson: “Yeah, I know, the free-market Republican who ran for office and started passing regulations to put all these businesses out of business,” he told me, chuckling. But he believes more government functions should be performed by local bodies rather than by an overreaching federal bureaucracy, and he does not consider local government an inherently partisan endeavor. (“There’s not a partisan position on trash collection,” he said.)
When I pressed him on whether his zeal for regulation while on the city council was at odds with his less-government philosophy, he said he believed human trafficking was a problem that government should have a role in solving. “I’m not a libertarian,” he said. Even small-government absolutists, after all, can agree that sexual slavery ought to be prevented.
A little before 5 o’clock, Erickson strapped in for the evening’s radio show, putting on headphones and pulling his chair up to the microphone. He broadcasts from a home studio decorated with paintings by Steve Penley, a Georgia-based artist beloved by conservatives for his impressionist-style renderings of patriotic subjects. Erickson has one of Lincoln and one of the American flag. RedState T‑shirts spilled out of a box on the floor; a bookshelf held volumes by Haley and Coulter.
He works without a script, riffing for short bursts and pausing for traffic and weather reports—he does some of the latter himself. He tries to create a feeling of companionship. “This is the advice Rush gave me when I was first thinking about doing radio,” Erickson told me: “Your job is to entertain people and be their friend in their car.”
During the January 2014 snowstorm that paralyzed Atlanta, trapping commuters in their cars overnight, Erickson stayed on from 4 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., minus a two-hour break when he contributed to Fox News’s online State of the Union coverage. “At 2:30 in the morning, I sent my call screener home. I said, ‘Just fill up the board with calls, and I’ll take as many as I can. I’ll just keep talking until I can’t talk anymore.’ ”
Hearing a cue in his headphones, Erickson swiveled away from me to face his giant iMac, whose screen was crowded with Doppler weather projections and chats with his producers in Atlanta. He started his radio career while still on the city council, filling in at the local AM station, WMAC, and for his friend Herman Cain on WSB. He also became a CNN contributor. The media obligations began to compete with city hall for his time, and The Telegraph, Macon’s newspaper, noted that he had missed nearly half of 2010’s council meetings. In January 2011, Cain prepared to leave WSB to explore a presidential run, and Erickson was offered his spot, contingent on quitting the city council. He took the job.
When CNN first announced him as a contributor, in March 2010, liberals were not thrilled. The progressive Web site AlterNet dubbed Erickson “the new CNN go-to bigot, misogynist and homophobe” and speculated that the network “needed an angry old white guy to fill out their lineup” after the departures of Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs. TheBoston Globe ran an editorial criticizing the introduction of “one more screamer on cable.” In early April, when Erickson was just a few weeks into his new gig, then–White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about Erickson’s statement that he planned to pull out his wife’s shotgun if a census worker came to their house. “It should concern CNN,” Gibbs said. (Erickson made the comment on talk radio, not CNN.)
Paul Begala, the Bill Clinton strategist turned Democratic analyst, first encountered Erickson early in 2010, when they were on CNN together and Erickson disparaged the memory of the recently deceased Senator Edward Kennedy, saying Democrats wouldn’t have lost his Senate seat if Kennedy had resigned when he learned he had brain cancer instead of trying to be a “martyr.”
“I got very, very upset,” Begala recalled recently. “I lit into him.” Begala told the CNN brass he would no longer appear on the air with Erickson. But in the run-up to the 2012 primaries, the men got to know each other while riding around Iowa on the CNN campaign bus, and they became friends. “I realized we needed his perspective,” Begala told me. He came to respect Erickson as a man with the courage of his convictions—unlike Rush Limbaugh, whom he regards as poisonous—and someone who could channel the views of conservative America. And, Begala added, “I love that he serves bourbon at his Bible study.”
Erickson left CNN for Fox News in 2013. He regretted how often CNN had to defend its decision to put him on the air. “I liked to think of myself as job security for the public relations department,” he wrote at RedState the day of his departure. “About the only thing the far right and far left could agree on was that I did not belong at CNN.”
But Erickson also wrote that he had forged unlikely friendships at CNN, with liberal commentators like Begala, James Carville, and Donna Brazile. “I’ve learned that some of the people I grew up thinking were in the enemy’s camp, so to speak, are spectacular people who share many of the same interests and opinions I do,” he wrote. “Because of CNN I’m not just better at my job, but I’m a better person.”
Reflections like these have prompted some to ask whether Erickson has gone soft. The day before my visit to Macon, Mitch McConnell had defeated his conservative primary challenger in Kentucky, Matt Bevin, whom Erickson had supported, and Erickson had announced that he’d sent McConnell a check. Erickson’s inbox filled up with e‑mails calling him a traitor. But Erickson—perhaps stung by the criticism from establishment Republicans that he’s interested only in hurting the party—wanted to demonstrate solidarity against the Democrats. He also wanted to point out a double standard: moderate Republicans expect conservatives to rally behind them come November, but, he believes, when conservatives win primaries, the establishment abandons them.
Still, it was a surprising move considering his longtime antagonism toward McConnell, I noted. With a laugh, Erickson agreed. He explained that he supports conservatives—period. In the primary, the conservative choice had been Bevin, but in the general election (in which McConnell eventually defeated his Democratic opponent and became the Senate majority leader) it was McConnell. It was a logical but uncharacteristic gesture that naturally made one wonder whether he was becoming more pragmatic in other ways, too.
Erickson’s authority has always come from his status as an outsider to the Washington political class. But these days, he has better access to certain politicians than the K Street lobbyists do, and allies like Cruz often seem to wield more power than the GOP’s nominal leaders. Erickson began charging for speaking gigs through an agency this year. He has been known to ride the Acela. Isn’t he turning into one of them?, I asked.
He worries about this—he claims he has turned down “bigger platforms and better jobs” in New York and Washington because he wants to keep his family and his sensibility grounded in Georgia. He has also told the radio station that when Gunnar starts Little League next year, he will need a new time slot.
He knows he has a tendency to get worked up and take things too far. He regrets calling Souter a child molester—he apologized for the comment back in 2009 and still considers it his biggest mistake. “At times, I need to do better,” he told me. But he is of two minds about this, because he also refuses to kowtow to the perpetual-outrage machine of modern politics, and he suspects that many of his critics only pretend to be offended in order to discredit him. “I could say the sky is blue and someone somewhere would get mad,” he said.
He also told me he has matured under the public eye. “If you read my more recent stuff, as opposed to my older stuff, I’ve grown up,” he said. During the Ferguson protests in August, he wrote a sensitive and outraged blog post titled “Must We Have a Dead White Kid?” decrying police-state tactics. “Given what happened in Ferguson, the community had every right to be angry,” he wrote. “Just because Michael Brown may not look like you should not immediately serve as an excuse to ignore the issues involved.” Many RedState commenters objected, insisting that Brown was a lawbreaker who got what he deserved.
“A lot of conservatives are now where liberals were after 2004—hysterically angry about things they have no business being angry about,” Erickson told me. “I think if you believe in a heaven, a hell, a savior who died and rose again, and a last day on which you’ll win because he wins, you probably should spend a lot less time getting worked up over the temporary politics of the here and now.”
I asked him about his increased focus on religion. What was he searching for? Erickson said he felt “called” to learn more about the faith that forms the backbone of his world view. “Some of my most-read posts involve faith,” he said. “At some point, I just accepted that I have a ministry, even if I never get in a pulpit.”
He says that, and then he goes right on throwing stones. In September, while substituting for Limbaugh, Erickson opined on the radio that minimum-wage workers didn’t warrant sympathy, because they were mostly either high-schoolers or people who deserved to be where they were. “If you’re a 30-something-year-old person and you’re making minimum wage, you’ve probably failed at life,” he said. The week before that comment, Erickson had begun his seminary courses.
In November, when Republicans won the midterm elections in a landslide, Erickson was jubilant. He stayed up all night talking on the radio (5 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.), appearing on Fox (on and off from 4:30 a.m. to 7 a.m.), sending celebratory tweets (“Remember Republicans, tears are just water so no calories. Feast on the tears of Democrats tonight with no guilt”), and dealing with RedState glitches—an influx of traffic kept crashing the site.
But despite this display of GOP fellow feeling, Erickson remained suspicious of the party leaders. The next morning, having yet to sleep, he convened a conference call with more than 1,000 RedState diehards.
“The Republican establishment made it very clear that they hate conservatives this year,” he proclaimed. “I am willing to declare a truce with the Republican establishment so that we can sit back and have a glass of bourbon together and watch the Democrats tear each other apart.” But, he said, he was not going to “stand idly by” and watch the party roll over on social issues and the fight for smaller government.
Many observers have chalked up Republicans’ success in the midterms to their having kept the Tea Party in check. The establishment spent tens of millions beating back intraparty challenges, and not a single incumbent GOP senator lost a primary, for the first time since 2008. In his RedState posts, Erickson has argued against the idea that the Tea Party is on the ropes: “I do not expect to have to win every one of the races, but then the brilliance of this effort is that the establishment must win them all and we don’t have to.” Just as terrorists don’t have to blow up every bus to have the intended effect (my metaphor, not Erickson’s), conservatives don’t need to overthrow every incumbent in order to move the GOP’s agenda to the right.
Erickson worries that in 2016, party elites will again try to anoint a Romneyesque milquetoast whose lack of ideological fervor kills the base’s enthusiasm. “I never cease to be amazed at the stupidity of the people running the party,” he told me. But he said he could see himself supporting any of the potential contenders—even Jeb Bush or Chris Christie, whom most conservatives view with skepticism. Many of the possible nominees, he noted, got elected to their current positions with RedState’s help: Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul. “I don’t have a favorite. I like them all, for various reasons,” he said. “Wow. That’s the first time I’ve ever been able to say that.” I asked him whether it spoke to the success of his movement that there was no one in the field he would consider unacceptable—provided, of course, that Romney does not run again. “I kind of think it does,” he said.
When I caught up with Erickson two days after the midterms, he was about to depart with Evelyn for a father-daughter trip to New York City. He was scheduled to appear on Fox’s Outnumbered—the network’s answer to The View, on which a panel of female pundits spar with a rotating male foil. Evelyn, who has an interest in theater and music, was excited to tour Fox’s makeup and wardrobe facilities, and to check out a fabric store that had been recommended by one of Erickson’s friends: Jane Hamsher, the blogger behind the archliberal Firedoglake. “Not a lot of people know that we’re friends,” Erickson said of Hamsher. “Often we hate the same people.” Erickson was wary of the conciliatory posturing of McConnell’s new Republican majority. McConnell and John Boehner, the speaker of the House, were talking about taking a bold stand against gridlock by passing things like corporate-tax reform and free-trade agreements. Erickson scoffed at those as priorities of Wall Street and the donor class, not the conservative voters who’d just given Republicans a mandate—as he saw it, a mandate not to usher in a new bipartisan era but to “resist the president.”
Erickson agreed with many of his conservative colleagues that finding creative ways to undermine the Affordable Care Act should be a top priority for the new Congress. Above all, he thought Republicans ought to undertake investigations—of the IRS, of Benghazi, of the “Fast and Furious” firearms scandal. His message to conservative activists, he said, was “be vigilant”—keep an eye on your newly elected Republican representatives; don’t let them sell you out.
Given his prosecutorial zeal, I asked Erickson whether he, like a lot of other conservatives, believed that Republicans should try to impeach Obama. “Oh, God, no,” he said. “Good lord, it would be insane to do that—to foist Joe Biden on the public.” His reasons were practical, political, and substantive: Obama was legitimately elected, he’d committed no provable crime, and the potential backlash—particularly among black voters—would be ruinous for Republicans. “It’s a rabbit hole,” he said, adding happily: “I get a lot of people angry at me when I say that.”
Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.