The uncompromising conservatism of Erick Erickson

Georgia’s most polarizing pundit has turned the state into a battleground for GOP presidential candidates. As one of America’s most influential conservative voices, his rise to national prominence isn’t due simply to his being a basher of all things Democrat, but as an outspoken critic of the Republican Party.

Power Erick EricksonA few minutes before midnight on Friday, August 7, Erick Erickson, having just finished a steak dinner with family and friends at Del Frisco’s Grille in Buckhead, sat down outside the Intercontinental Hotel’s ballroom and pressed send on an email to Donald Trump’s campaign staff. The fiery Republican presidential candidate was slated to deliver the keynote address to hundreds of staunch conservatives at RedState Gathering the next day. However, it was being reported that Trump had made misogynistic remarks on CNN about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly following the first GOP debate, but the candidate wouldn’t admit to Erickson that he made the remarks. So the Macon commentator rescinded an invitation to the business magnate, instead asking Kelly to replace him.

Within hours, Erickson, a WSB radio host and Fox TV contributor, catapulted into national headlines. His inbox flooded with more hate mail than at any point of his career. By Sunday, Erickson’s action had effectively transformed Trump from a presidential candidate considered a political novelty into one that, regardless of his campaign’s myriad absurdities, could no longer be ignored.

Erickson hasn’t thought twice about the Trump decision—in an August 12 post titled, “The One I Got Wrong,” he says he should have invited neurosurgeon-turned-GOP candidate Ben Carson to RedState Gathering. The polemical pundit instead has doubled down on criticizing the billionaire businessman, linking his candidacy to the death of the Republican Party. As the GOP continues to undergo an evolution—or, more appropriately, schism—between far-right conservatives and the middle-of-the-road establishment, Erickson will remain at the center of that conversation.

In a lengthy discussion with Atlanta magazine that took place prior to one of his daily two-hour afternoon radio shows—which, to his surprise, saw a uptick in listeners in the weeks after the Trump incident and now has an audience of nearly 400,000 weekly listeners—Erickson reflected on the now-infamous RedState Gathering. He also spoke about the international origins of his fascination with American politics, his own experience as an elected official, and his long-term aspirations. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The night before Donald Trump’s scheduled speech at RedState Gathering, he told CNN that Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” What happened between that interview and the decision to rescind his offer?
The Trump campaign wouldn’t even acknowledge he had said it. They demanded that I put something in writing. So I put something in writing. Then they called back and said he said [the word] “whatever,” not “wherever.” I played the audio again. They didn’t want to issue a public clarification—only a private clarification to me. I was very clearly getting the runaround by his campaign and I wanted to have him onstage and address it in Q&A. They didn’t want to do any of that.

It wasn’t worth dealing with. In hindsight, obviously, it was the big issue on Saturday, but when I made the call late Friday night, it was 11:50 p.m., right before midnight, the implication of what Trump had said was clear to everyone around me. When his campaign didn’t want to talk, it was pretty clear to me that they knew the implication of what he had said. I just wasn’t going to have him come to the event and overshadow all the other candidates for having accused Megyn Kelly of having her period on CNN.

For you, was it less about the remarks and more about the process in which Trump and his campaign handled it?
It was both. He had meant “period,” by the hemming and hawing of the campaign, first not wanting to admit it, and then saying “whatever.” Then, of course, the next day saying he meant her nose. Had they said something like that, and issued a clarification Friday night, I would’ve invited him. But I wasn’t going to have him there, having accused Megyn Kelly of being both a bimbo and asking a question because she was having her period, and he wasn’t going to clarify it. It was a distraction.

You later wrote about the vitriolic emails you had received in response to your decision. Of all the people you’ve angered in your career as a pundit, where did that rank in comparison?
It is number one. I’ve never encountered anything like this. A lot of the Twitter accounts are brand-new, all focused on Trump, and a number of the emails I got were clearly coming from the same person with multiple accounts, because the IP addresses were all the same. This was just a deluge that I never experienced before. They were coming after the radio station, WSB. They were coming after me, making threats about my family.

Prior to disinviting Trump, what remarks of yours had garnered the most backlash?
Probably calling [former Texas gubernatorial candidate] Wendy Davis “abortion Barbie.”

How do you justify disinviting Trump for making misogynistic remarks after making those of your own against Davis? As others have pointed out, it’s hypocritical.
The Trump campaign sent out a press release with every terrible thing I’ve said. My response was twofold. One, I’ve had to apologize for a lot of those things and, two, Trump not only didn’t want to apologize, he wanted to deny he even said it. I’m not running for president of the United States. If I were, I would expect that all of that stuff would come back to haunt me. I just think that if you’re running for president of the United States, there’s a different standard everyone expects of you than someone who writes on the Internet.

When was the first time in your media career that you realized your writing impacted public discourse or legislative outcomes?
I guess 2004 or 2005. [U.S. Supreme Court Justices] William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor stepped down. I was beating members of the mainstream media with reports of whom the president was choosing, both on John Roberts and particularly on Samuel Alito. It revved up after the Harriet Miers nomination, putting out very quickly that she had given money to Al Gore. The White House had to come out and respond to stuff I was writing about at RedState.

It was very, very surreal. But it still felt very much like inside the club. It was conservatives talking with conservatives. Ironically, I think the biggest moment for me, of all things, was what I put on Twitter about [now retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice] David Souter [Erickson referred to him as a “goat-fucking child molester,” for which he later apologized]. I realized I’m not just some idiot on the computer talking with my friends. People actually pay attention to what I’m saying, and I can’t be that guy.

You occupy a unique niche, as someone who doesn’t just write negatively about the opposing party, but who also calls out—if not more aggressively—members of your own party.
When Republicans write about Democrats—and I do a lot of it—or when Democrats write about Republicans, people don’t treat that as seriously as when we cover our own party. That was, frankly, the genesis of when my buddy Clayton and I started [Georgia political website] Peach Pundit. Republicans should write about Republicans and the Democrats should write about Democrats to cover it as honesty as possible. If both parties are not willing to hold their own side accountable, and they’re just going to be propagandists for a political party without believing in anything, what’s the point? I don’t know what the hell the party stands for anymore.

You’ve made clear distinctions about the difference between being a conservative and being a Republican.
Part of it is that there isn’t a leader on the right. The party out of power always has the disadvantage. The Democrats, liberals, the left, however you want to define it, they do have a central figurehead to rally around in the president. If Republicans get back the White House, the same thing will happen. I think the problem conservatives had is many of the people who are the outside guardians of conservatism became in-house players of the Republican Party. You had a lot of people who had been guardians of the conservative movement, who went along with immigration and expanding government. Regardless of where you stand on the war, the fact of the matter is, Republicans in Congress hid behind the war as a way to jack up domestic spending. Bush left office with $10 trillion in national debt. Most of that actually wasn’t war spending. It was domestic spending.

Most people look at you as a Southerner. But you spent part of your childhood in Dubai. How did that experience, at that point of your life, affect you moving forward?
People are always shocked to hear this—particularly when they see me as some redneck who lives in middle Georgia—but I’ve been to more countries than states. I have been to, gosh, some-30-odd countries, I think. I don’t know if I’ve been to 25 states. It really focused my perspective. First, I grew up in the Middle East in the ’80s, so we’re in the middle of the Iran-Iraq War; we’re in the middle of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan is keeping us safe. My parents were Democrats growing up, but they were conservative, and became Reagan Democrats. We entertained the U.S. military whenever the 5th Fleet came to Dubai. It was the only dry dock in the Persian Gulf. We entertained all the enlisted sailors. It was very pro-military, national-security oriented.

Then I also remember distinctly when we were traveling, my dad being Swedish, that we were occasionally told if anyone asks, we needed to tell people we were Swedish, not American. As a kid, you process these things. At one point, I think it was Hezbollah, planted bombs in our school to blow it up. Nothing happened, but we missed school on more than one occasion from terrorist threats. It was an eye-opening experience.

With those seeds planted at an early age, when you look at the commentator that you are today, what parts of those experiences have stuck with you?
I have a real antipathy towards isolationism and candidates from either party who push isolationism. I’m in favor of a robust, strong military presence—a peace-through-strength viewpoint. There is real evil in the world and evil regimes in the world, including Iran. Too many people, in both parties, don’t take that seriously enough. I don’t think they understand the antipathy in the Middle East and the real hatred for Israel.

In ninth grade, we went to Greece. I’ll never forget being in the Agora in Athens—the market there. Our teacher pointed up and all the world flags were there. He pointed to one that was white; it had a blue star in the middle, and asked us did anyone know what that was. Not a single person in the class had ever seen that flag before. It was the Israeli flag. When we were growing up, anything that mentioned Israel in our textbooks was either redacted or torn out or relabeled Palestine. You couldn’t go to Israel if you lived there. You would be blocked from coming into the country if an Israeli stamp was in your passport. You had to carry your Bible on your person. People here understand it at an academic level, but not an actual having-lived-it level.

Have you been to Israel since then?
No, I’ve always wanted to go. I left Dubai in 1990, and moved to rural Louisiana, which was as far away from the cosmopolitan world that Dubai is now as you can possibly imagine. My wife still jokes that her first visit there was someone down the street who had a cow tied up on a cinder block in the front yard. Coming to Georgia, I transitioned back into someplace that was more cosmopolitan than Jackson, Louisiana.

At what point did American politics become of interest to you?
The Dukakis-Bush race. Our school, being a small school in Dubai, basically restructured the entire calendar for that year for the entire school. We basically did mock debates, followed the news, and had to pick a party. I wound up being the designated Dan Quayle for the mock debate. We had football and soccer and baseball. We had camel racing, if you wanted to go camel racing, but politics became the way we connected to the U.S.

For you, politics was a way in understanding the country that you were not able to live in at that point in time?
Yes, very much so.

As a Macon councilmember, you had a reputation for your bipartisan work, which is, of course, far different than what you’re known for today. How did that experience shape your understanding of politics?
It expanded my cynicism. Until it was consolidated, Macon was the only city in Georgia to have partisan municipal elections. You’d be on a city council of 15 people, the second largest after Atlanta—two Republicans and 13 Democrats. There were certainly philosophical differences, but the issue that got me into office was human trafficking, which was a huge issue at the time in Macon and still is, but thankfully, not as bad. That’s just not a partisan issue.

Where would you draw the line in that sense, as far as political ideology is concerned, with issues like trash collection and human trafficking?
People try to make it so binary, but there is a role for government regulation as a conservative. I’m not a Libertarian. I have made no bones about that. There’s a role for taxation, a role for regulation, and a role for government. There’s a role for a social safety net, but I think it’s been too extended by government. A lot of people in the social safety net don’t necessarily need to be there. There are people who, for reasons of mental or physical defect, can’t earn a living and we, as a society, have an obligation to take care of those people. I think there’s a role in government to ensure a level playing field. Calvin Coolidge is my favorite president—the most minimalist president in American history—and even he said the role of government is to ensure a level playing field. When we’re confronted with an issue of people being kept as slaves in the 21st century in the United States [through sex trafficking], if I have an R next to my name, given it’s the party of Lincoln, I, above all others, probably have an obligation to do something. It’s a moral issue that government has to deal with.

Outside of politics, what part of communicating with people drives you the most? It doesn’t seem just like a job for you—especially on days like the Atlanta snowstorm, where you elected to stay on-air for a marathon shift into the wee hours of the morning.
Honestly, it’s to keep people company. There are a whole lot of people out there who think they’re alone in what they think. We’ve reached, on both sides, a political system where there is capital expended to make people think they’re alone, that their ideas must be crazy because no one shares them. When it comes to conservatives, it’s making sure they know they’re not alone. During the snowstorm, I started at 4 p.m. and ended at 5 a.m. the next morning. I didn’t mind doing that because there were people stuck in their car or couldn’t get out of the office. They just needed a friendly voice.

I may not even know these people, but I’m friends with them. I have spent many an hour reaching out to people who listen to me, and many of them who don’t even agree with me, just going out for beers or calling them because I know they’ve got a marriage falling apart. I’ve built up a relationship with people who listen to the show. It’s not a burden to be on the radio for 13 hours to get people home in the middle of the night. It’s just keeping people company.

Do you see yourself staying in media? You have this position that has gained clout over time. What’s your long-term goal?
I keep telling Fox I want a cooking show. I’m actually serious about that—I love cooking. One of the things I have been trying to focus on talking about is that not everything is political. If you can’t sit at the table with someone whose worldview you absolutely, fundamentally disagree with, and still enjoy a meal with them, you’ve got a problem. I like to talk about cooking on the radio. I’m not a completely political person, and I don’t want my show to be. In the long term, I would certainly love to do more in TV, but I don’t plan on giving up the microphone. I’m very happy with where I am. The ratings are amazing, even after the Donald Trump stuff. I have a sizable audience that some people in radio syndication would love to have, and I’ve got it on a local station in Atlanta.

It’s obviously early, but how do you see the Republican field shaping up, and whom do you think will emerge as the GOP nominee?
I don’t think Trump has the staying power. People forget how August works in American politics. Everyone’s on vacation and the conversation is all focused on one thing. Then you get past August, Congress is back in session, the president’s back from vacation, the big issues happen, and the conversation changes pretty rapidly. The only number of Donald Trump’s polling that continues to grow is the number of people who say they won’t support him for president. That’s pretty telling. My eye is on Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio as the two guys to emerge as the anti-establishment and establishment guys. Right now, given just money and messaging and how he’s played Trump, Cruz probably will do fairly well.

In Georgia, is there anything in the 2016 session that you particularly have your eye on? I presume religious freedom, again. What else?
Religious liberty. I still think craft beer is going to be an issue. I suspect we’re probably going to see more Chamber of Commerce machinations on transportation funding. They weren’t happy with the amount they got. I think the thing I’m most proud of in radio is that every person I’ve supported since I’ve been at WSB has won—other than Karen Handel—in the special elections and the regular elections. So I’m happy to keep pounding away at Republican incumbents and hopefully beating them again in the primaries if they’re just not going to do the right thing.

You mentioned earlier that you’ve apologized in the past. Of all the divisive comments you’ve made in your career so far, which one would you most like to do over?
I don’t know that I would. I guess that’s just a personality trait. I rarely dwell on things I’ve done. I don’t believe I would be the person I am had I had a do-over on certain things. The only thing I might not have done is taken out so many college or law school loans.

Be sure to check out our Power issue for profiles of the 55 men and women who run metro Atlanta, including Erickson and Mayor Kasim Reed, on newsstands September 28 and online in mid-October.