The war to be clown-king of the GOP circus: Erick Erickson's spat with Donald Trump exposes the conservative movement

The Limbaugh wannabe's stand for "decency" proves it — the GOP can no longer separate politics from entertainment

By Elias Isquith

Published August 11, 2015 3:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump, Erick Erickson (AP/Reuters/Jim Young/Tony Gutierrez/Photo montage by Salon)
Donald Trump, Erick Erickson (AP/Reuters/Jim Young/Tony Gutierrez/Photo montage by Salon)

A little more than two years ago, after a draconian anti-abortion bill overcame Sen. Wendy Davis's filibuster and cleared the Texas state Senate, the conservative activist-pundit Erick Erickson decided to celebrate by throwing a little salt in the pro-choice side's new wound. So he turned to Twitter, where his output is prolific, and dashed-off a tweet featuring a snarky one-liner and a hyperlink. "Dear Liberals," Erickson wrote, "go bookmark this site now." He then linked to the section of an online store dedicated to coat hangers.

Making light of so-called back-alley abortions, which have resulted in an untold number of needless and gruesome deaths, was probably the most brazenly misogynist thing Erickson had ever said in public. But it was hardly anomalous, and he’s spewed plenty of his mind’s noxious effluvia toward women (or “feminazis,” as he calls some) in the time since. Barely more than a year later, for example, he was insisting that a woman’s relationship with a man was naturally “complementary” — a popular euphemism among far-right Christian evangelicals like Erickson, which they really mean submissive.

I’m not digging up these skeletons because I’m under the impression that Erick Erickson is known for his rapier wit and am trying to set the record straight. Anyone who recognizes his name is likely already aware of his shock jock-approach to public life. I bring it up in the hope of illuminating just how disingenuous and cynical his recent “disinvitation” of Donald Trump from this year’s “RedState Gathering” really is. And I bring it up because I see Erickson’s preening as a shining example of why movement conservatism is more about cultural signifiers than actual politics.

“I have tried to give a great deal of latitude to Donald Trump in his run for the Presidency,” Erickson wrote in a comically imperious attempt to justify rescinding Trump’s invitation. “But there are even lines blunt talkers and unprofessional politicians should not cross,” he added. “Decency is one of those lines,” Erickson wrote. And Trump’s misogynist claim during an interview with CNN — that Kelly gave him tough questions during the first presidential debate because “there was blood coming out of her … wherever” — was, according to Erickson, simply “inappropriate.”

Coming from a man who routinely called a rising Democratic star “Abortion Barbie,” the sentiment was, as Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren (who’s tangled with Erickson before) tweeted, “ironic.” But if understood in the context of his career, Erickson’s white knighting becomes only superficially out of character. In truth, and as a recent profile in the Atlantic attests, Erickson has been trying to rebrand himself for awhile now. Perhaps his mostly unsuccessful stint as a talking head for CNN showed him the financial limitations of being Rush Limbaugh Lite. Or maybe his claim of temperance through Christ isn’t total bullshit.

Whatever the explanation for his turn toward “decency,” his con remains fundamentally unchanged. He’s still playing on deeply reactionary tropes to manipulate his audience. The only appreciable difference is that instead of stoking his audience’s ethno-nationalism and resentment, he’s relying on an especially vulgar kind of patriarchy. “I don’t want my daughter in the room with Donald Trump tonight,” he declared this weekend during the RedState event. “If our standard-bearer has to resort to that,” he continued, “then we need a new standard-bearer.” Political correctness wasn’t the motivation so much as the patriarch’s duty to safeguard his tribe’s women.

Yet even that may be giving Erickson too much credit, because when Erickson was asked to defend himself by Fox News’s Neil Cavuto on Monday, he removed gender from the equation. “If Donald Trump can’t take a question from Megyn Kelly without insult,” Erickson asked, “how’s he gonna take a tough question from Vladimir Putin?” If a relevant commonality exists between Putin and Erickson’s daughter, it is not self-evident. Nevertheless, the gender-specific critique Erickson had made in his initial post announcing Trump’s “disinvitation” — which held that “someone on stage who gets a hostile question from a lady” should not “imply it was hormonal” — was gone.

More than Erickson’s actual message, what’s significant here is his essential fraudulence. If the best version of decency the conservative movement can offer is a professional troll like Erickson, that says something profound about its nature. If a man who got his foot in the door by calling a Supreme Court justice a child molester can present himself as a moral authority within your group, it means your group functions on the level of a message board or Howard Stern’s audience. When the biggest story in your movement is the pitting of a reality TV star against a wannabe Limbaugh, you are not doing politics.

What you’re offering instead is a way for consumers to distract themselves, give in to sentiment, and claim an identity from the market’s limited options. You are not about government; you are entertainment.  And in the end, that is the role played today by the conservative movement.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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