Tami Chappell / Reuters

ATLANTA—Imagine for a moment that you are Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas and proud voice of the Tea Party. You have built your career by stoking the rage of conservatives, much of it against the very Republican Party to which you, and they, belong.

You are standing, now, on a dimly lit stage in Atlanta; you’ve walked out in front of the podium to seem vigorous and connected to the members of the audience, who are arrayed before you, sitting around tables in a vast hotel ballroom. You are trying, as you always do, as you are so good at doing, to give the people what they want.

“For a long time in the conservative movement,” you say, “we’ve been lamenting, how come no one will stand up? How come we elect one leader after another after another, they talk a good game, and then, when it comes to the fight—when the shooting starts—they end up cowering under the desk?”

The crowd is rapt; you hold them in the palm of your hand. You tell them they’ve got to learn to see past the ruses, the lies, of the squishy moderates who strike conservative poses on the campaign trail. “Have you noticed that they run as us?” you say. “They say, if you’re actually us, you’re unelectable. Yet when they’re running, they understand their message doesn’t sell.”

If you are Ted Cruz, you have spent years honing this message, telling  members of the right wing to be suspicious of their elected leaders, to purge and cast out the perfidious incumbents who grease the system and make the deals. You have fed their anger and their fear. You have taken all the right positions. And all you’ve got to show for it, at this early stage of the presidential primary, is seventh place out of the 17 candidates.

What on earth do Republican voters want? The candidates, at this stage, are as clueless as the pundits, and the pundits have no idea. They certainly never foresaw Donald Trump, this election season’s flesh-colored gap in the space-time continuum. Trump has inspired horrified bouts of introspection within the GOP, as shocked party stalwarts try to figure out where the tycoon’s momentum is coming from—and how it can be stopped.

Here at last weekend’s RedState Gathering, an annual convention of the hard-core conservative readers of the influential RedState blog, you would think someone would have the answer. RedState is so influential it invited 11 presidential candidates to speak and only one, Rand Paul, turned it down. This year’s Gathering almost singlehandedly killed the decades-long tradition of the Iowa Straw Poll when the two events were scheduled for the same weekend and the candidates decided they’d rather be at RedState than sweating it out in the cornfield. The straw poll was canceled for lack of interest. RedState’s editor, Erick Erickson, may be the most powerful conservative in America. If there’s anyone who ought to have his finger on the pulse of conservative America, it’s him.

The candidates—Cruz, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker—came to RedState because it promised them a chance to address the grassroots activists who increasingly control the GOP. Trump accepted the invitation, too. RedState has been rather cool to his candidacy for policy reasons—with his embrace of government-run health care and his past praise for Hillary Clinton, Trump is no one’s idea of ideologically pure. But Erickson was sympathetic to Trump’s attacks on political correctness and his hawkishness on illegal immigration. And he didn’t like the way the media seemed to be ganging up on Trump. Anyone the establishment is that determined to stop must have something important to say.

But then, on Friday night, after the first Republican debate, Trump went off on the moderator, Fox News’s Megyn Kelly, saying she had “blood coming out of her wherever.” Erickson decided enough was enough. (He’d done this before, as when he banned commenters from the website who questioned President Obama’s birthplace. A lively segment of the far right thinks Erickson sold out the true right-wing religion long ago.) He revoked Trump’s invitation to speak, announcing the decision in a blog post and explaining it to the ballroom on Saturday morning.

When you’ve built a career on scoffing at the establishment’s notions of the “extreme,” as Erickson and his ilk have, how do you decide that someone else has gone too far? Erickson’s email filled up with taunts. They called him awful names; they called Kelly a dumb slut; they called President Obama the n-word, among many other things. He read some of them from the stage.

I asked Erickson what it said about the Republican Party that Trump was doing so well. Did it prove the party’s base consisted of racists and haters? “The Republican Party created Donald Trump,” Erickson told me, “because they made a lot of promises to their base and never kept them.” Voters are drawn to Trump, he said, because “he’s burning down the Republican Party that never listened to them to begin with.”

This is true enough. But surely some of the blame also lies with figures like Erickson, who encouraged activists to demand ever-more extreme tactics from their leaders and branded anyone who didn’t agree a RINO, or Republican In Name Only. At this year’s Gathering, Erickson pushed the candidates to support shutting down the government if Democrats wouldn’t agree to pull funding from Planned Parenthood in the wake of the gory recent fetal-tissue-harvesting videos. Cruz was one of several who agreed; Huckabee went further by saying he would refuse to raise the debt ceiling, threatening default.

Trump, ironically, actually is a Republican in name only. But he’s also a professional entertainer, and he has proven better than any of the actual candidates at the performative outrageousness that the GOP base has been encouraged to demand. When and if he finally stalls out or quits, the deep Republican divisions that he has successfully exploited will remain, bedeveling whichever candidate ends up with the booby prize of the nomination.

Erickson considers himself a good barometer of the conservative temperament. He told reporters on Saturday that he thought this might be “the beginning of the end” for Trump. So far, that doesn’t seem to be the case: In post-debate polls, Trump is holding steady in first place, and Fox News has bent over backward to make amends.

The Gathering ended with a “tailgate” party at the College Football Hall of Fame. Attendees were ferried across town in overheated school buses. This was where Trump was supposed to deliver his keynote; Megyn Kelly declined the offer to appear in his stead, and attendance was sparse as a result. When Erickson mentioned the fracas from the stage, most of the audience cheered, though one voice cried out, “Fox News is dead to me!”

The attendees mingled, nursing cheap beer and wine, on an artificial-turf faux football field. I spoke to several who supported Erickson’s decision to ban the frontrunner. But not everybody was on board.

Colby Delaney was easy to spot: The 30-year-old IT manager was wearing a white T-shirt with a picture of Trump in the mogul’s characteristic pose of abdicated responsibility, arms outstretched, palms up, with the words “HATERS GONNA HATE.”

“I’m not sure what he said. It’s debatable,” said Delaney, who, like the others, had seen the video played twice that morning as Erickson denounced Trump for insulting women. “But I don’t like how it was handled—the knee-jerk reaction. That’s childish.”

Delaney didn’t seem like a bad person. Neither did Peri Similien, a shiny-pated African American engineer in a suit and wingtips. Similien thought Trump “nailed it on the head” with his complaints about political correctness.

“If a man says something to one woman, is he insulting the entire gender? I think not,” Similien said. “Men, we sometimes say things we shouldn’t—we’re idiots! I support Trump. He loves America, you know?”

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