If it feels like Erick Erickson has spent the past decade manically careening between hateful, trollish rhetoric and pious pleas for civility, that’s because he has.
In his lengthy career as a pundit who often appears as a conservative voice across mainstream media, Erickson has emerged as one of the more brutish voices on the right, consistently issuing invectives against every right-wing bogeyman under the sun.
Earlier this month, Erickson called for the U.S. to install across Central America pro-market fascists like notorious Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet—as a way to combat the spate of refugees pouring northward from those nations.
“I’m hoping for some helicopters in this plan,” he later quipped, referring to Pinochet’s infamous aerial death squads that tossed political prisoners to their deaths.
Within 24 hours, and without a glint of self-awareness, Erickson pleaded for civility. “Please take a moment to be kind to others around you in the real world, even if you find it impossible to do so on here,” he tweeted, invoking his religiosity. “For my Christian friends, remember that sharing the gospel can be a smile, a kind word, an extended hand.”
It’s just the latest whiplash-inducing example of Erickson trying to have it both ways when it comes to his public persona. The right-wing pundit, who made his name as the editor-in-chief of the site RedState, has performed this charade for years.
In 2009, he called retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter “a goat fucking child molester.” He eventually admitted that comment was “not my finest hour.” He dubbed Michelle Obama a “Marxist harpy.” He created the “Abortion Barbie” nickname for 2014 Texas Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis. And after the state passed a bill banning abortion after 20 weeks, Erickson gloated by posting—addressed to “liberals”—a link to a store to buy coat hangers. His apology was a snide statement mocking “the kid killers.”
But in a 2016 New Yorker profile, which unveiled a supposedly kinder, gentler Erick Erickson—following his (albeit brief) pivot to avowed anti-Trumpism—the radio host copped to errors in judgment. Of the Michelle Obama remark, he confessed it was a “ridiculous comment” that “I shouldn’t have said.”
It’s unusual, even laudable, for a political firebrand to repent for wrongdoing. In a 2017 interview with The Daily Beast columnist Matt Lewis, Erickson lamented that his critics will never allow him to move on from past misgivings; that they don’t appreciate his constant pursuit of self-betterment, and instead dismiss him for his past mistakes.
Erickson did not respond to a request for comment. (UPDATE: Instead, he wrote a screed about me on his blog—one which boils down to the Trumpian, middle-school taunt of “My critics are haters who are obsessed with me”). But he probably would find repentance easier if he didn’t direct inflammatory mockery and vitriol towards his opponents after each of his many mea culpas.
In 2014, while a paid Fox News contributor, Erickson repeatedly declared that women should be subordinate to men, drawing the ire of several high-profile female Fox colleagues. He dismissed widespread outrage as “feminist and emo lefties” who “have their panties in a wad.”
He later conceded in the New Yorker profile that “I was being dumb. I didn’t fully believe it, and I was trying to highlight a point with absurdity and ended up writing a piece more seriously than I should have.” And yet, months later, he tweeted of the Women’s March protesting Trump’s inauguration: “I feel sorry for all the ham and cheese that won’t get made into sandwiches while all those women are marching.”
Erickson then went on to write that gay men in a bar should expect to be assaulted. “The dude wearing the tutu shoulders some of the responsibility” for that violence, he wrote. “If you don’t like that, don’t go to a bar in Wyoming wearing a tutu.” Erickson has described transgender people as "perverts” who are “mentally ill”—at one point suggesting that societal insistence on calling “him a her” is what leads to mass shootings.
And yet, between each instance of bad-faith trolling, Erickson has continued to offer platitudes about a better discourse, warning against toxic rhetoric in a New York Times op-ed, on his blog, or in interviews painting him as a contemplative conservative.
Profiles have described Erickson as having “transitioned into a more thoughtful style.” In another interview, Erickson claimed seminary courses have taught him “how to always have a voice in the back of my head saying, ‘You probably want to pause before tweeting or writing that.’” And while touting Erickson’s congenial and polite in-person affectation (irrelevant to whether his public persona is toxic), The Atlantic considered whether he has “lost his edge” as he’s “grown more reflective.”
Since all of those glossy profiles, however, Erickson has continued to be the same old Erick Erickson.
Over the past eight months, for example, he has uncritically spread baseless conspiracy theories about his political foes. He shared, and eventually deleted, a tweet suggesting Parkland massacre survivor David Hogg was not actually in school the day of the shooting. He boosted far-right claims that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was actually a Hillary Clinton-connected plant. And, most recently, he suggested the caravan of asylum-seeking migrants was actually an organized Democratic midterm-elections ploy.
Days later, and without a whiff of irony, Erickson appeared on Meet the Press, NBC’s marquee Sunday political talk show, to condemn right-wing conspiratorial rhetoric.
Multiple media watchdogs were quick to note the mind-numbing paradox, but the show’s host, Chuck Todd, only briefly alluded to Erickson’s history, telling him mid-crosstalk: “Sometimes people get mad at you thinking you help traffic these conspiracy theories.”
Todd did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Last month Erickson appeared on Katy Tur’s daytime MSNBC show for a discussion about—of all things—civility. That segment, in typical cable-news fashion, went off the rails.
But because of his position as a conservative firebrand somehow respected by the mainstream press, Erickson still regularly gets invited to appear on a wide spectrum of programming—from Laura Ingraham’s Fox News prime-time show to more surprising fare like CNN’s morning and prime-time shows and MSNBC’s Beltway-centric talk shows.
The inability of these shows to simply quit him says as much about them as it does him.
In 2018, mainstream news outlets are still desperately seeking sensible conservative voices in contrast to the bevy of TV-ready Trump boosters who offer little in the way of thoughtful commentary. That desperation is so profound that they’re willing to ignore the problems that booking some of these guests still present.
Erickson, in short, is a product of a media environment that values conservative anti-Trump commentary over common decency and standards. His own public spat with Trump (in which the president referred to him as a “dog”) plays an overinflated role in boosting his credibility. Bookers, editors, and reporters are willing to overlook his inflammatory behavior because he offers something rare in 2018: the ability to present right-wing views without being obstinately deferential to the president.
Forgiveness is a virtue, to be sure, but cable-news bookers seem to have it in spades given how often they allow Erickson on-air.
In reality, Erickson’s relationship with a forgiving mainstream media resembles an unworkable relationship. How many times can he make odious comments, call for civility, and then make more odious comments before enough is simply enough? How long until media outlets realize Erickson’s lip service to presenting a more thoughtful persona is nothing more than just lip service?
Maybe it’s time to stop taking him seriously if he doesn’t even take himself seriously.