Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump seems to have patched up his feud with Fox News since Thursday’s contentious debate, but his war against another conservative news leader rages on – and it could be even more dangerous to his campaign.
RedState editor-in-chief and Fox News contributor Erick Erickson, whose site has become a hub for activism on the right, disinvited Trump from his annual RedState Gathering over the weekend over Trump's remark that Fox News’ Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever” when she questioned him about his treatment of women. Since then, Erickson has gone off on Trump in a nonstop string of speeches, blog posts, interviews and tweets. Trump in turn has called Erickson a “loser” and, through a campaign spokesman, a “weak and pathetic leader.”
“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 told the RedState Gathering crowd on Saturday after reading aloud a series of obscenity-filled emails from Trump supporters.
Erickson is best known for using his blogging platform, launched in 2004, to rile up conservatives behind anti-establishment causes. He agitated against President George W. Bush’s Supreme Court pick of Harriet Mariers as too liberal, part of a backlash that prompted Bush to withdraw her nomination. Erickson then pivoted to encourage the nascent tea party movement in President Obama’s first term. He was an early backer of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) over Charlie Crist in Florida’s 2010 GOP primary, introduced many readers to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) during his own 2012 race, and helped champion the 2013 government shutdown. Erickson is currently pushing for another government shutdown to defund Planned Parenthood.
“He helps expose center-right activists to some new leaders they might otherwise not know about, and he provides a platform for those underdogs to make their local campaigns national,” Ellen Carmichael, president of GOP consulting firm The Lafayette Company, told msnbc. “There are a lot of people who are indebted to Erick for this reason, and they include some of the most powerful politicians in the country.”
This kind of activism has given Erickson some standing as an arbiter between the party’s talk radio wing and its political wing in defining the outer bounds of acceptable positions on the right. He hasn’t always succeeded – the party’s way too fractured for any one person to do so – but he has more credibility than most with the hardline conservatives who seem especially drawn to Trump. When Erickson denounced Trump at the RedState Gathering, he was taking a risk in front of a crowd that had plenty of admiration for the real-estate-mogul-turned-Republican-front-runner.
“Most of the so-called conservative leaders are really followers pandering to their audience,” Matt Lewis, a conservative columnist who came up as a blogger alongside Erickson in the mid-2000s, told msnbc. “If Erick wanted to pander to his audience he would have embraced Trump or did what Ted Cruz did, which is say, ‘I might not agree with him all the time, but he’s really tapping into something out there.’ I think he instead stood up and became a leader.”
Lewis likened Erickson’s role in the party to National Review founder William F. Buckley, who famously expelled the radical John Birch Society and Ayn Rand worshippers from his orbit in order to preserve the conservative movement’s brand. In 2010, Erickson announced he was purging RedState of birtherism, the anti-Obama conspiracy theory that coincidentally helped power Trump to the top of GOP presidential primary polls for a brief moment in 2011 before he decided against a run. In 2007, Erickson blocked certain users from posting about Texas Rep. Ron Paul on RedState, arguing they had become a “retarded vulture fringe who just drop by to yell about the Zionist Conspiracy to shut Ron Paul out.”
“I think he's been willing to make enemies out of people who typically read his site if he finds their views to be fundamentally deplorable,” Carmichael said.
Part of Erickson’s overlap in popularity with Trump’s crowd comes from a similar penchant for outrageous rhetoric, however, and a number of critics on the right and left alike have accused him of denouncing Trump for personal reasons rather than principle. Among his greatest hits – labeling Supreme Court Justice David Souter “a goat-f---ing child molester” (he apologized), calling the Democratic Convention “the Vagina Monologues” (also apologized), describing feminists as “too ugly to get a date” (no apology) and calling Texas state senator Wendy Davis “Abortion Barbie” (no apology, either).
“The bigger question is why did the Republican Presidential candidates go to the Red State Conference to begin with?” Republican strategist John Feehery wrote in a blog post on Monday. “Red State is a collection of Twitter trolls who say outrageous things simply to get clicks on their site.”
Then there's the inevitable backlash from Trump fans. Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, who has been generally sympathetic toward Trump's campaign, mocked RedState as "JebState" on Tuesday and accused Erickson of siding with the GOP establishment.
Erickson has argued that, unlike Trump, he’s acknowledged when he’s gone too far. But for Trump, who seems immune to the usual rules of politics, it’s not clear whether the usual rules of “too far” even apply. Erickson will have to muster all his influence if he wants to bring down the current GOP front-runner.