He has been called “the most powerful conservative in America,” and powerful people are often loath to admit mistakes. But in his new book, Before I Wake, Erick Erickson—a fire-breathing right-winger turned staunch conservative critic of Donald Trump—is coming clean about his past rhetorical sins.
“The things I did a decade ago that I’m not proud of—like, for example, my statement about David Souter or about Michelle Obama—they come up from people who don’t like me, and they say, ‘You can’t listen to this guy because he said this about this person.’”
I’ve known Erickson for years. During that time, his life experiences have caused him to mature. If we’re lucky, it happens to all of us. But in a world where the internet is written in ink, it’s hard to transcend our past. For some of us, our most embarrassing moments are just a Google search away, and our political adversaries are sure to bring them up.
Case in point: In the wake of Trump’s comments about then-Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, Erickson disinvited Trump from the 2015 RedState Gathering. Team Trump then issued a statement, informing reporters that this was the same guy “who made the decision about RedState called Supreme Court Justice David Souter a ‘goat [f---ing] child molester’ and First Lady Michelle Obama a ‘Marxist Harpy.’”
“I find there’s a real tendency on social media that everyone has to be defined by the worst thing they’ve done in life,” Erickson told me during a recent podcast discussion. “You’re not allowed to grow up, you’re not allowed to move beyond it, you have to own it, it is you. I hope that I show other people more grace than I am shown for those things. Because we’re going to be in a terrible place if none of us are allowed to move beyond the bad things we’ve done in the past.
“There is definitely something worldly, something devilish, about the idea that because you’ve done something bad you’re not allowed to speak up for good. And we all have to overcome that. We’re all sinners. We all fall short. But that is so that we can say, ‘I’ve done this bad thing, I’ve learned my lesson. You don’t need to repeat it,” he added.
For better or worse, Donald Trump changed conservatives. Some of the people who I thought might stand athwart Trumpism yelling “Stop!” acquiesced. Others, like Erickson, rose to the occasion. It was unpredictable. Erickson became one of the most outspoken and brave “Never Trumpers,” but a few years ago, he seemed like the kind of guy who might reluctantly don a “MAGA” ball cap.
Years before defending Megyn Kelly, Erickson was feuding with her. The fight began when Kelly was outraged over comments he made regarding which gender should be the “breadwinner” in a family. Erickson harbors no bitterness and even jokes about it today. “Megyn Kelly called me on her show and tore me a new one over it,” he told me. “After that conversation, I sent her a picture of me making cinnamon rolls; I said, ‘See, I’m making the bread for the family.’”
Donald Trump is probably the biggest reason conservatives like Erickson have transitioned into a more thoughtful style. But the uproar over his comments about Justice Souter also chastened him, making him realize that his megaphone was large and that Twitter was fraught with danger: “At that moment, in the kitchen with my wife crying, yelling at me, I realized that I actually am someone that people take seriously, and I’ve got a responsibility.”Erickson believes the medium of Twitter incentivizes provocative rhetoric. “It is an addictive feedback loop that I see in myself and in others. You get a lot of retweets, you get a lot of follows, you get a lot of attention. And then when it slows down, [you think] ‘Oh, I need to do something more outlandish to get more attention… and for many people, it becomes a drug.”
Erickson isn’t repenting for all of his youthful indiscretions, however. For example, in 2009, Erickson wrote, “I’ve said [Mitch McConnell] lost his testicles and is now spreading a cancer of capitulation throughout the Senate Republican Conference. We need to send Mitch some balls.” This inspired his grassroots readers at RedState.com (where he was then blogging) to mail toy balls to McConnell’s Louisville office. The good news is that these rubber balls actually went to a local youth program. “I would do it again in a heartbeat,” he said.
Even though he’s not recanting about the balls, it’s hard to imagine Erickson employing such a juvenile gimmick today. He has matured, and not just because he has grown older. Erickson had people show up at his home to threaten to ruin his career for not backing Donald Trump. “We had to have armed guards at the house,” he told me. But while his political world was crumbling, Erickson’s personal life was also taking a hit. “My lungs had filled up with blood clots, my blood-oxygen level was less than 90 percent… I mean, I was literally dying the day they put me in the ICU,” he recalls. “Literally, as I was in the hospital that day, going into the CT scan… doctors called my wife from the Mayo clinic and said they thought she might have a form of cancer.” It turns out she has an incurable form of lung cancer.
“If my listeners tuned out because of my position, it literally would be a death sentence for my wife,” he said, “because I checked and we wouldn’t have been able to afford her medicine each month,” which he said would cost $20,000 a month without his employer-sponsored health insurance.
This existential crisis served as an impetus for Erickson to put down on paper some family history and advice for his kids—an essay that morphed into the new book. During this time, Erickson says, “My faith and politics were colliding. And I had been in a quest… to conform my politics more to my faith, and seeing a lot of my friends trying to conform their faith to their politics… Everyone was worried about my ratings crashing, and the ratings have just continued to go up. It’s now the most listened to show in Atlanta on any radio station.”
Conservatives should read this book, sure, but in this world where we tend to erect walls and read only authors who confirm our worldviews, I think liberals would benefit the most from this short book. Your politics might be diametrically opposed to his, but Erick Erickson is striving to be a better husband, father, believer, and man. In this world, that’s about as good as it gets. You’ve got to respect that.