A “Never Trump” Conservative Adjusts
Last Friday, Erick Erickson published a piece on his Web site, The Resurgent, about President Trump’s surprise press conference, in which the President spent seventy-five minutes excoriating his critics and entertaining his faithful with a fresh batch of dubious claims. Like an increasing number of post-election pieces written by Erickson, it was a sort of Trojan-horse critique of Trump, starting with conservative common ground and closing with deep concern. Prior to Trump’s election, Erickson—called the “most powerful conservative in America” by The Atlantic , in 2015—broke with many of his readers, becoming a discordant voice of anti-Trump dissent. But, as a working conservative commentator, he wants and needs his words to reach readers who believe in the President.
“If I led with criticism,” Erickson told me over coffee, describing the thinking behind the story he’d stayed up past one in the morning to write, “I know Trump supporters wouldn’t read it.” In the piece, he acknowledges the real satisfaction that he and other conservatives have taken in watching the President “go on offense” against the “liberal media.” Then he arrives at his larger point: “Republicans impeached a President of the United States for lying, and yesterday they cheered on a man who repeatedly lied in a press conference before the American public.” He adds, “The truth is that I still worry Donald Trump will do more long-term damage to conservatives and the G.O.P. than anyone expects.”
Erickson and I were speaking in Atlanta, a few hours after the piece was published. He’d driven up to the city from his home, in Macon, for a seminary class that he attends weekly. It was supposed to be time away, however brief, from thinking about Trump. (He has also recently taken up photography.) A month into the Administration, Erickson grades the performance of the President in two ways. “On camera,” he said, “I give him a C-minus, so far. Off camera, I give him a B-minus. The stuff he does behind the scenes, I find more favorable than I ever expected.” Much of this tentative positivity has to do with Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, a pick that, to Erickson, conveys moderation, evenhandedness, and a reliable check on Trump’s own Presidential power. As for Trump’s “theatrics on camera and his Twitter use,” Erickson said, “I wish he’d just let it go.” (There is an irony in this criticism coming from Erickson, considering his own controversial Twitter history. In 2009, to note one instance among many, he tweeted that Supreme Court Justice David Souter was a “goat fucking child molester.”)
Erickson won’t allow his children, who are eight and eleven, to watch the President on television. Of course, that hasn’t stopped them from becoming familiar, in their own ways, with the finer points of Donald Trump. A few weeks ago, Erickson’s son had a conversation with Erickson’s wife, Christy, after overhearing her talk about Megyn Kelly departing Fox News for NBC. “He asked my wife who Kelly was, since he recognized the name,” Erickson said. “And Christy said, ‘Well, she’s the reporter that Donald Trump attacked.’ And he said, ‘You need to be more precise, mom!’ ”
Erickson is friends with Sean Spicer, Trump’s White House press secretary, whom he first came to know six years ago, when Reince Priebus became the chairman of the Republican National Committee and Spicer was tapped as the communications director. He texts him often, he told me. He recently sent a text to Spicer to say that he was praying for him “five days a week,” which Spicer appreciated, Erickson said. (Such is Erickson’s sympathy for Spicer that he hasn’t brought himself to watch the actress Melissa McCarthy’s impression of the press secretary on “Saturday Night Live” yet.)
Erickson described the President’s style as frequently “un-Christian,” but said that he worries about the President’s substance, too: about his Bannon-buoyed nationalism (“I’m a patriot, not a nationalist,” Erickson said); his stance toward allies (“the Australian Prime Minister is one of the most pro-American leaders in the world. To hang up the phone on him is amazing!”); and his recurrent callousness toward undocumented immigrants (“The party of families should not be tearing up families, even if they came here illegally”). “My overarching concern,” Erickson went on, “is that Republicans do things and say, ‘Well, Obama did it.’ And now the stuff that Trump is doing, the next party will say, ‘Well, Trump did it!’ We get to a point where a representative democracy isn’t sustainable. It becomes a free-for-all.”
Erickson is glad, as he recently wrote, that the alt-right idol Milo Yiannopoulos was disinvited from the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference, for his comments seeming to endorse pedophilia. But he is dispirited that it took such abhorrent remarks to move cpac to action. “I think they shouldn’t have invited Milo in the first place,” Erickson told me. “He has said several times that he isn’t a conservative. Being against political correctness does not make someone a conservative. Trying to cash in on someone’s alt-right fame to drive attendance cheapens the conservative movement.”
Still, Erickson finds reasons for optimism. While he’s not a fan of “putting a brain surgeon in charge of hud,” he told me, referring to Ben Carson’s appointment, “some of Trump’s Cabinet picks are legit people, who do bring adults to the table. Mattis, even Rex Tillerson. Tom Price, whether you agree with him politically or not, he’s a steady hand.” Just as important to Erickson has been what he sees as the expanding liberal reassessment of one of his dearest conservative concerns: states’ rights. “One of the good things about Trump is how the people who were opposed to him, in places like California and Washington, are suddenly realizing that states’ rights do matter, as a vehicle to oppose him,” he said.
If the next year resembles the instability of the past month, however, Erickson thinks that Republicans will begin distancing themselves from the President. “Just as you can’t get left-wing activists to protest every day for a year, you’re not going to get Republicans to cheer on chaos for the next year,” he told me. “Emotionally, it’s not sustainable.” He went on, “Republicans and Democrats are creatures of survival. If they see annihilation in the headlights, they’re going to start taking a very firm line. If Republicans get into 2018 and realize that even gerrymandering isn’t going to save them, they’ll suddenly become more vocally anti-Trump than a lot of Democrats. It won’t happen this year, but next year you’ll see it.”
In Erickson’s estimation, Trump may well pull the rip cord first. “At some point,” he said, “Trump will go, ‘I won, F. U., I’m going home.’ But he hasn’t done it yet.” He paused. “I got the election wrong, so I’ll probably be wrong about that, too.”
- Charles Bethea is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to newyorker.com. More