ATLANTA — The conservative RedState Gathering began Thursday night with activists cheering wildly at a debate party as Donald Trump dismissed a question from Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly about misogynist rhetoric as “political correctness.”
Less than 36 hours later, the same audience erupted into applause and a few scattered boos Saturday as host Erick Erickson announced he had banned Trump from the event for suggesting Kelly was menstruating when she asked the question.
“I think he has disqualified himself,” Erickson told reporters, adding that the episode “probably is the beginning of the end” for Trump.
If there’s one thing Trump has proved so far, it’s that nobody can predict what’s going to happen in the polls. But the political winds seemed to have changed here in Atlanta, where Trump wore out his welcome in an extremely short period with the hardline voters who should be his base.
To hear Erickson describe it, the Trump cancellation is the start of a broader exorcism for the conservative movement in which they must confront their snarling demons to find salvation the other side.
“I have emails from people referring to Megyn Kelly as a whore, I have emails from people referring to me as gay, I have emails referring to the president by the n-word and [saying] Donald Trump is standing up to all of us,” he said onstage. “We will not gain the White House if we are not going to be happy warriors.”Language like this prompted whoops of approval Saturday, but it may have fallen flat even a day earlier. In over a dozen interviews before Trump’s feud with Kelly, RedState participants offered strikingly similar assessments of the billionaire populist. Nearly every attendee who talked to msnbc praised Trump for channeling their anger at the status quo, for drawing attention to issues like illegal immigration, and – perhaps most of all – for giving establishment Republicans fits with his outrageous rhetoric.
“We need drastic change,” Jack Staver, 61, told msnbc on Thursday. “He may not be the right guy, but others need to adopt his attitude and stop being politically correct.”
“When he says that without him we wouldn’t be talking about immigration policy, he’s dead on,” political activist Cindy Lamar, 62, said on Friday.
Not one person during this stretch said Trump was their first choice to be the party’s nominee, but they were still plenty happy to watch him prove his doubters wrong.
“I want Trump to remain at the top for as long as he can because he changes the conversation,” Diane Hubbard, 57, who traveled from Indiana, told msnbc on Friday.
As the weekend wore on, however, criticisms started to pop up more and more. Some said his performance raised new concerns for them about his qualifications. Others were upset by his refusal to rule out a third party run if he felt mistreated by GOP leaders.
“I like what he’s contributing to the debate, but I would not vote for him while he’s threatening us,” Martha Moore, 69, said.
Myra Adams of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, told msnbc she was interested in Trump heading into Thursday’s debate, but had soured on him afterward.
“He didn’t show he can be an adult,” she said. “It’s like a kid on a playground who can’t play well with others.”
Then came the Kelly remark, which most of the gathering only learned about the next morning as they arrived for breakfast.
From that moment on, the dam burst entirely as organizers and attendees alike lined up to enthusiastically criticize his latest comments.
Courtney Hall, 22, said she was intrigued by Trump’s business record heading into the debate, but his response to Kelly was “awful, misogynist and petty.”
“I went from ‘possibly considering’ to ‘no way at all,’” Hall said.
“You can’t talk that way about women – period,” RedState director Bryan Pruitt told msnbc.
Daniel McCabe, 65, a lawyer and GOP activist from Connecticut, said he was open-minded about Trump as well after watching him build a real estate empire in New York. Then came Trump’s claim in Iowa that John McCain was “not a war hero,” which rubbed McCabe the wrong way, followed by a never-ending series of feuds between Trump and various critics.
“The GOP has to win in 2016 and at this point, it’s a huge distraction,” he told msnbc.
Trump’s penchant for feuds, which roused attendees when it was aimed at immigrants and the GOP elite, suddenly seemed less charming when turned against two of the right’s favorite media outlets in Fox News and RedState.
“He has an insult generator in his head that shoots automatically at whoever he’s feuding with,” Ken Romero, 26, said. “He was bound to cross the line sooner or later.”
There were at least a handful of Trump defenders left in the crowd. Outside the main ballroom, Michael Pemberton, 66, who wore a handwritten “I AM DONALD TRUMP” sign on his coat with an American flag button, protested to Lynda Peach, 71, that Trump had been misunderstood.
“When I hear blood, the first thing I think of is stigmata, the martyrdom,” he said. “Why did they think of menstruation?”
“If [Trump’s] statement was made in a business context, you’d be brought up on sexual harassment charges and fired,” Peach responded.
Pemberton told msnbc he was supporting Trump because he liked his stance on “political correctness.” Peach said she saw the appeal, but concluded Trump had gone too far off the rails.
“I thought Trump was making waves because he had the guts to say what we were saying,” she said. “I’m less enthusiastic now because statements like that turn off people.”
As the day wore on, the mood in the room continued to sour on Trump. Jeb Bush – who was booed loudly at the debate watch party on Thursday – roused a now-friendly crowd with a denunciation of Trump onstage
“Do we want to insult 53% of all voters?” Bush asked. “What Donald Trump said is wrong.”Erickson went from describing racist and chauvinist emails from Trump supporters in the morning to reading them aloud in the afternoon, then declared: “These are not the people I ever want at a RedState event.”
A day earlier, the standard line at RedState was that Trump was a voice for righteous anti-establishment rage. Now Erickson mocked Trump fans as cranks and bigots.
“I think you need to understand the type of people who have been drawn to Donald Trump like moths to a flame – they will burn all of us if we don’t say its unacceptable,” Erickson said.
That line was too much for the crowd, some of whom jeered loudly while others applauded.
Trump fever may have been receding in Atlanta, but many in the audience were uncomfortable with dismissing his backers with such a broad brush. After all, it’s fired up conservatives like them who have spent six weeks telling pollsters Trump is their favorite pick to lead the party, even as he’s insulted Mexican immigrants, mocked POWs, and questioned President Obama’s citizenship. Trump the candidate may fade, but to purge Trumpism is to disband the party itself.