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.”