But if National Review’s response to Trump’s ad was tepid and evasive, it was nothing compared with the response of Erick Erickson, another formerly anti-Trump conservative respectable enough to be invited on Meet the Press. “I don’t actually think it is racist,” Erickson tweeted. “I think it is a terrible ad, but calling it racist doesn’t make it so. It’s just a really bad and poorly executed ad. Yes, it plays on fear, but I don’t think it plays to racist sentiments per se.”
Erickson, you’ll notice, makes no argument and cites no evidence. He just says again and again that the ad isn’t racist. The Washington-based former news anchor Derek McGinty then tweeted a question: “Reminds me very much of Willie Horton. Do you think that was racist?” Erickson answered: “No I didn’t, but then I was 12. I think it stoked people’s fears about crime at the time, not so much about Horton’s race.” McGinty probed further: “Would the ad have been as effective if Horton wasn’t a ‘scary Black’ man?” At which point Erickson conceded: “That’s a fair point.” And then claimed that the first person to use Willie Horton was Al Gore.
Let’s summarize the exchange. First, Erickson insists, with no evidence, that the caravan ad isn’t racist. Then he insists, again with no evidence, that the Willie Horton ad isn’t racist either. Then, when gently challenged, he acknowledges that maybe the Horton ad is racist, but still doesn’t acknowledge that the caravan ad is. Why not? Who knows?
Adam Serwer: Just say it’s racist.
What makes all this so depressing is that National Review and Erick Erickson once actually did challenge Trump. In January 2016, with Trump already the GOP presidential front-runner, National Review’s editors called him a “philosophically unmoored political opportunist” with “strong-man overtones” who was “not deserving of conservative support.” In August 2015, Erickson disinvited Trump from a conference he had organized because of Trump’s sexist and insulting comments about Megyn Kelly. It was easier back then; Trump hadn’t yet taken over the Republican Party. But their actions also reflected the fact that Erickson and National Review take conservatism seriously. At times in the past, they’ve tried to remain true to their vision of it, even when doing so put them at odds with the GOP.
In the final days before the midterm, however, they weren’t willing to challenge their readers. They couldn’t clearly admit that Trump was peddling racism because that would have required them to repudiate him. But neither could they muster serious arguments for why the ad wasn’t racist. So they half-heartedly waved the whole thing away.
Which is just what Trump expects. Bullies can sense cowardice. The lesson he’ll take away is that next time he can go even further—secure in the knowledge that respectable conservatives will avert their eyes and go along for the ride.