OPINION: Dodging death and Donald Trump has changed Erick Erickson

File photo: Erick Erickson at News 95.5 and AM750 WSB studio. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



File photo: Erick Erickson at News 95.5 and AM750 WSB studio. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

There was a time about a decade ago when Erick Erickson says he was a “rabid conservative activist.” A right-wing blogger and founder of the widely-read RedState website at the time, Erickson delighted in scrapping with liberals on CNN and picking apart Democratic talking points.

By 2016, he was an effective, occasionally offensive WSB radio personality and on his way to the top of the Republican influence machine.

But separate near-death experiences for him and his wife, along with the partial radicalization of the Republican Party under Donald Trump, have combined to put Erickson in a lane by himself — more mature, less rank partisan, and now in a position to put his own imprint on the next generation of American Republican politics, starting with Georgia in 2024.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Erickson’s razor-sharp edges began to soften. A stint on the Macon City Council started it, when he said he saw no partisan position that could guarantee that trash was picked up. Studying theology rounded his thinking even further.

But a single day in 2016 changed his world forever.

“Like every tragic story begins, I joined CrossFit,” he jokes. “I was 40-years-old, dead out of shape, and I can’t breathe.”

Once in the emergency room, doctors told him his lungs had filled with life-threatening blood clots and he and his family should prepare for the worst. A call to his wife let him know he hadn’t yet scratched the surface of what “the worst” could really mean. She told him she had been diagnosed with incurable, Stage 4 genetic lung cancer.

As their family reeled from the news, Erickson was also in a clash with then-GOP candidate Donald Trump, after Erickson said he would not support Trump for president.

People showed up at their house to threaten them. His children were harassed at their Christian school. His daughter was encouraged to commit suicide. “It was really a light bulb moment,” he said.

“People I know were so wrapped up in this idea that the world is going to end if the Democrats get elected,” he said.

Throughout that period, Erickson said he decided he wanted to use his three-hour radio show to focus more on conservative ideas than grievances and to have conversations that included strong opinions, but not rabid rhetoric.

“Being a Christian, I tell people all the time I have strong views on cultural issues, but I think I should live my life so my transgender next-door neighbor wants to leave the key with me when they go on vacation,” he said.

Focusing on facts is a priority, too, although it’s an uphill fight with social-media conspiracies convincing listeners that the truth is a matter of opinion.

“The number one complaint I get from listeners is why are you citing the New York Times or The Washington Post?” he said. “And I mean, I read everything. But at the end of the day, you’ve still got to go with outlets who have reporters.”

Martha Zoller, the conservative host from Gainseville’s WDUN, said the conservative ecosystem has been undergoing a massive transformation since Rush Limbaugh’s death in 2021. That left a hole in national talk radio that plenty of Republicans see Erickson filling.

In March of this year, he took over Limbaugh’s time slot on WSB Radio. A national syndication deal put the show on 30 more stations, filling three prime hours of talk radio with a conservative program that’s not a Trump echo chamber.

“I think conservative radio, like the conservative movement, is finding its voice again,” she said. “Erick is definitely a conservative, but he is a free-thinking conservative. He doesn’t go to the beat of a drum. People really respect him.”

Cody Hall, a top political advisor to Gov. Brian Kemp, said Erickson is hugely influential on the right specifically because he’s not a predicable campaign cheerleader.

“I think he’s a fair arbitrator,” Hall said. “He’s a trusted voice in that he doesn’t blow in the wind. He doesn’t toe the line and that’s not easy.”

Erickson’s national influence will be on display this week when most of the top Republican presidential contenders cometo Atlanta for his invitation-only event, The Gathering, to let them talk about what they’d do as president. The one top candidate who won’t be there, though, is Trump.

He didn’t think the former president would show up anyway. Plus, Erickson says, “At this point, Trump couldn’t come because the DA might arrest him.”

Erickson has his detractors, of course, including those who remember his most outrageous pronouncements over the years, as well as those who say he’s been inconsistent on issues and candidates. Some might call that simply changing his mind, but to that point, Erickson supported Trump for reelection in 2020, even after their falling out in 2016.

And now says he doesn’t know what he or other Republican voters will do in 2024 if Trump gets to a general election.

“The analogy I use is that it almost feels like I’ve got teenagers now,” he said. “You give them practical good advice, and they dig their heels in until the last minute because they know you’re right, but they can’t acknowledge that you’re right.”

He added, “Will they be lemmings or will they stop short of the cliff? I don’t know yet.”

Erickson said he still sees a place in media for a radio show that spotlights the news, focuses on facts, and even broadens the focus beyond just the scorching politics of the moment.

“It really does go back to nearly dying, to having to sit in a hospital room and think, if I died tomorrow, when my kids started looking at my life, what would they think?”

Erickson’s life is in a new place now. His wife’s lung cancer has been managed with medication. His lungs are clear and his kids are at a new school. The 2024 elections will come and go, with a significant amount of his input.

But politics won’t be his whole life and probably won’t be his whole radio show. And that’s the way he wants it.