Sarah Palin was like a comet zooming across the American sky: out of Alaska, a blazing vision of the republic’s future. In the thick of this current political era, it is worth re-watching the first national speech that she ever made, flanking John McCain as his Vice Presidential candidate in 2008. The cliche goes that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold, and so it was that the central characters of that electoral drama (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Palin herself) attracted the attention of a global audience that considered this to be their own contest, too. At the time, it seemed obvious to quite a lot of people that Sarah Palin’s opinions on birth control and the origin of the world had a direct link to their futures, wherever, on earth, they actually happened to be. But despite this immediate global response, nobody, not even her direct political opponents or McCain himself, quite understood the importance of her national impact in that election. Once it was over, and Obama triumphed, most observers thought Palin was finished on the national stage, sufficiently humiliated and destined to see out the rest of her Governorship safely back in her office in Anchorage. They were wrong.
That first speech took place on August 29 in Dayton, Ohio. It was the moment McCain revealed the big secret that he had been keeping for less than a week, such was the instinctive and impetuous nature of the decision to pick the “little known” (1) Governor of Alaska to be his running mate. The point of the pick was that Palin was not just any governor: she was chosen by McCain’s key advisers to revitalise a stagnating campaign and to energise unenthusiastic party supporters and activists. That was her function, which was reductive in its objective, as Palin soon realised. In fact, McCain’s team miscalculated, because Palin did not turn out to be the pliant or professional political drone they expected to mould and to exploit. She was both unwilling and unable to meet their expectations or play their game. They found themselves managing a political candidate with an emotional and ideological connection to the activists they wanted to mobilise, but also a stubborn tendency to go rogue. The tie that she had with grassroots Republicans was, it turned out, both deep and dangerous for the GOP establishment, and would eventually ruin them. For the moment, the first and only clue to this future was the undeniable and overwhelming enthusiasm of the crowd for her, which disrupted McCain’s introduction. Watching the video, it is quite hard to read his facial expression when this happens: it may be easy, in retrospect, to notice that he doesn’t look entirely happy, but for anybody who remembers it, and I do, this was a big shot of adrenaline for his team. It just wasn’t, in the end, meant for them.
The key thing that McCain did not grasp about Palin is that she really would come to Washington as an outsider. This wasn’t a pose, or a studied, tactical position: it was the only way she knew how to operate. It would be a central theme for the rest of her career and would eventually be a threat to McCain, who was, despite his brand reputation as a maverick, a consummate Washington insider like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. The nightmare they would all eventually face in the form of Trump had its genesis in the contemporary political character that Palin patented. This first national speech was embryonic in many ways, but also remarkably self-assured, briskly recalling the major accomplishments of her career to date and anticipating some of her future themes. She was confident, almost serene, and at ease with an audience that she instinctively knew was on her side (more than for McCain, which perhaps she realised). She was fearless in identifying, on a national stage, the enemies she had fought in her home state: the special interest lobbies, Big Oil and “the good ol’ boys network” that had included Alaska’s most powerful Republican leaders. Her world view at this point was still parochial, formed by and focused on her family, her town and battles she fought against the local political and business elites. But she was already starting to connect the details of her regional experience to the country at large: Washington D.C. would be her new Juneau. She was mocked, early and then relentlessly, for her ‘folksy’ mannerisms and her parochial worldview, but even in this very first speech she was light years ahead of McCain and the Republican hierarchy as it existed then. She was already tapping into populist rhetoric and, therefore, signalling to a Republican grassroots movement that had been leveraged before but never effectively represented by anybody in the way that Palin would. She was their future.
For Palin, like her heroine Thatcher, the foundation of society was not the state, but the family. So the first thing she did, in the first big national speech of her career, was to introduce every single member of her family to the world. On top of this, there were the larger ‘families’ that she would court. First came those Republican activists, who immediately and instinctively took her as their champion, their Hockey Mom and Mama Grizzly, a role which she relished, to the increasing fury of the McCain campaign staff. Second was the ultimate family: the people, that quasi-mythical mass of ordinary Americans, who were being screwed over and oppressed by the political and business and media elites that she would, increasingly, take aim at, to the fury (again) of the McCain campaign staff. In fact, Palin’s political character made perfect sense for anybody familiar with Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The key themes that Palin hit upon, straight away, without prompting, and relentlessly, were the key themes identified by Tocqueville in 1831 as the foundations of the republic: family, religion, free association, limits on federal government and the sovereignty of the people. This was Palin’s platform and not one part of it was studied, artificial or an affectation. She was a natural politician not because she could make deals in corridors, cultivate networks, or leak to the media, but because she could translate her own values into a political package and communicate it to a core constituency. McCain could never do the last part. No one could do it in the way that Palin would in 2008, and from this moment she became a transformative figure: a national representative without office who unleashed and focused the full power and potential of grassroots Republican activists.
Three central stages marked this journey, which terminated with Trump: the Alaska Governorship, the 2008 presidential election campaign and the emergence of the Tea Party movement. Each stage helps to understand what Palin did and why she did it.
Policy, not politics.
Sarah Palin, Going Rogue (2)
There was a twist in this first speech: a record that Palin refused to obscure. As Governor of Alaska she had been a success, and her success had been based on pragmatism, reform and bipartisan collaboration. She was proud of what she achieved, and how she achieved it: it was, at that point, her whole political story, so she was happy to present it. But, to achieve what she did, she had to take on the Republican establishment of Alaska and the three oil companies that had effectively controlled the Alaskan legislature since 1981: BP, ExxonMobile and ConocoPhillips. She also had to work with her ideological opponents.
To understand what happened here it is useful to go back to her own account of this time, as narrated in her 2010 autobiography Going Rogue. Palin was a child of the Last Frontier, growing up with the mindset of a colonial pioneer: her parents had moved from Idaho in 1964 to build a new life in the northern wilderness, settling in the ‘Gateway to the Klondike’, Skagway. Alaska is a huge territory, covering one fifth of the American landmass, and its social and economic viability rests on vast and only partly tapped energy resources. 1968 was a defining year for the 49th State, but this had nothing to do with student protests or the counterculture: it was the year that oil deposits were discovered at Prudhoe Bay on the Northern Slope. This transformed the economic prospects of Alaska, but also its political reality, which became increasingly dependent on Big Oil. This reached a climax in 1981, when the oil companies mobilised their allies in the Statehouse to revoke the existing Corporate Income Tax. From that point on they successfully lobbied and bribed both Republicans and Democrats to ensure that taxes remained low and regulation remained light. The remote nature of Juneau, which can only be accessed by boat or plane, encouraged corruption by creating a febrile, insular, secretive, sleazy political culture that Palin would later compare to Washington D.C. The symbolic scandal of this era unfolded in 2007, when an FBI sting operation uncovered key Republican legislators accepting bribes from the CEO of VECO Corporation (a major oil field services company) in his own personal suite at the infamous Baranof Hotel. The Corrupt Bastards Club, as these Republicans laughingly called themselves, would be found guilty of conspiracy, extortion, bribery and fraud. Some went to prison, no longer laughing.
This was corruption and conspiracy that went to the very top. In her role as chairman of the Alaska and Gas Conservation Commission between 2003-4, Palin filed an ethics complaint against Randy Reudrich, a fellow commission member and GOP chair for Alaska. Reudrich was closely allied to State Governor Frank Murkowski, who was also closely connected to Big Oil. Murkowski had alienated Alaskans by arranging for his daughter to replace him in the Senate and buying an expensive private jet on state funds which, it turned out, couldn’t even operate properly on Alaskan terrain. (“That darn jet,” Palin fumed in Going Rogue, “After I was elected, I listed the thing on eBay and an agent finally sold it,” 3) But the Governor’s big error proved to be a deal he cut exclusively with the oil companies to build a new gas pipeline, which he announced in October 2005. This was a deal that was negotiated in secret and mired in corruption; it gave almost everything to the oil companies and nothing to Alaskans. The unraveling of this appalling fix was the making of Palin, who annihilated Murkowski in the Republican primary for Governor, running on a platform of ethical reform, fiscal conservatism and resource development. In office, she put the gas-line out for private tender and replaced Murkowski’s oil tax with Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share (ACES), a scheme which reaped rich financial rewards for the state. In 2008, when the Lower 48 ran massive budget deficits and were forced to make huge spending cuts, Alaska recorded a $12 billion surplus as a direct result of Palin’s act. She had directly challenged her own party leaders, which necessitated a temporary alliance with Democrats and Independents, and seemed almost certain to terminate her political ascent within the GOP. In fact, she had created a narrative that would eventually propel her onto the national stage and capture the political imagination of Republican activists across the country. She had proven to be a pragmatic, bipartisan, reforming politician, and this was attractive to McCain and his team. But she had also proven willing, and very able, to take on the political and party establishment, and to do it, crucially, on behalf of the people of Alaska.
In Going Rogue, Palin cites the Tenth Amendment and Thomas Jefferson in defence of her own belief in the primacy of local and state government against federal administration, a principle that would endear her to the emergent Tea Party movement in 2009. All of this fed into the image she began to create of an independent-minded maverick, an outsider opposed to “infernal” political machines and “politics-as-usual” (4). Michael Ledeen was the most perceptive commentator of all when he wrote, “for the first time in memory, we have a major candidate who comes from the frontier […] a world that’s almost totally unknown to the pundits, which is why the commentary has been so unhelpful” (5). The idea — the ideal — of the Last Frontier is the key to Palin’s career. Her political imagination was formed in its small, independent frontier towns and the northern wilderness, far from the reach of national politics, yet also partly owned by and dependent on the federal government (a source of resentment in itself). Some of the best passages in Going Rogue are her descriptions of life in Alaska: the practicalities of living in remote territory; the vivid landscapes of volcanoes, mountain ranges, forests, glaciers and lakes; the short summers and the Northern Lights; the abundance of caribou, moose, beluga and killer whales, bears, ospreys and eagles. Underlying all of this are all the Alaskans, united by the state constitution:
Our state constitution stipulates that the citizens actually own our natural resources. Oil companies would partner with Alaskans to develop our resources, and the corporations would make decisions based on the best interests of their shareholders, and that was fine. But in fulfillment of my oath, I would make decisions based on the best interests of our shareholders, the people of Alaska. (6)
This, alongside her Tocquevillian understanding of American character, explained her success as Governor of Alaska and her subsequent bond with grassroots Republican activists across America. For Palin, it all built from the bottom: individuals, the family, private associations and local government are the practical and moral foundation of the republic. At the top, the Constitution remained the framework and safeguard: in 2020, she still felt able to call herself “a hardcore Constitutional conservative” (7), despite the distractions of Trump. In between, the federal and state governments pose the gravest threat to individual liberty and prosperity: in Going Rogue she called Juneau a “swamp”, and the 2008 election schooled her in the Washington party machines. Her personal political philosophy — a mélange of evangelical Christianity, Jeffersonian republicanism, Jacksonian democracy and free-market Reaganism, all mixed together in Skagway, Wasilla and Anchorage — would later help to define the Tea Party and place her at the vanguard of a grassroots revolution against the party elites.
Opposition makes humanitarians forget the liberal virtues they claim to uphold.
Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites (8)
On August 19, 2020, Palin appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight and was asked by the smirking host to comment on the endorsement of Joe Biden by former McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt. Palin did not hold back. She wasn’t surprised by this development at all, she said: Schmidt was “a piece of work” who, along with Nicole Wallace, the other senior McCain adviser, had “jumped ship early” and sabotaged their own campaign in 2008. They were “wolves in sheeps clothing,” she continued, “and for those of us who are victims of what they are capable of, it’s kind of a vindication. They were not on our side to begin with” (9).
The irony is that Steve Schmidt was instrumental in convincing McCain to pick Palin in the first place. Clearly, he quickly came to regret this decision, which was made without serious vetting and put his professional reputation at risk. But Palin’s accusations have always been specific: both Schmidt and Wallace set up interviews for which she was left deliberately unprepared, in order to undermine her credibility and, ultimately, the chances of the McCain-Palin ticket winning. The Katie Couric interview, in particular, was a searing experience for her, a national humiliation, the stuff of nightmares, that she was led into by Wallace for reasons that appeared to be incidental to the campaign strategy itself. Then, to pile on the pain, Schmidt and Wallace’s version of events, and their opinions of her, were presented as the factual record in John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s anonymously sourced, gossipy bestseller Race of a Lifetime. Palin hated Race of a Lifetime, although she was not the only one: the Clintons, the McCains, Biden and John Edwards also had plenty to complain about. Her portrayal in it was only slightly more nuanced than Tina Fey’s caricture of her as a dumb hick on Saturday Night Live. The language used by Heilemann and Halperin all served to build a picture of a psychologically damaged liability: Palin was “a big-time control freak”, “maniacal”; she “shouted”, “screamed”, “fumed”; her eyes were “glassy and dead”; she seemed to be “suffering from postpartum depression or thwarted maternal need”; she was “mentally unstable” and “irrational”, “a hick on a high wire” (10). This was information being fed by participants and other interested parties, allied to the creative license of professional writers: either way, the character assassination was brutal and bordered on misogyny. The McCain campaign had collapsed for a number of reasons, which included an inability to prepare Palin properly or allow her to play to her strengths, but McCain’s advisers were very quick to frame a narrative in which Palin was assigned all blame for the loss to deflect from their own failures. This narrative was fed directly to media contacts and capped by the portrait in Race of a Lifetime, although even Heilemann and Halperin could not go all the way with it. “The truth was,” they wrote
the McCain people did fail Palin. They had, as promised, made her one of the most famous people in the world overnight. But they allowed her no time to plant her feet to absorb such a seismic shift. They were unprepared when they picked her, which made her look even more unready than she was. They banked on the force of her magnetism to compensate for their disarray. They amassed polling points and dollars off of her fiery charisma, and then left her to burn up in the inferno of public opinion. (11)
From Palin’s perspective, she was the victim of the Washington D.C. elite: the party machines, the political culture of advisers and strategists, linked to their allies in the media. In Going Rogue, Schmidt is accorded some respect as a ruthless political operator, fulfilling his brief the only way he knew how, but it is Wallace whose betrayal is presented as more personal and wounding. Palin, writing in 2009, said she had been set up by Wallace, who was friends with Couric and was doing her a professional favour by landing a scoop. But “the scoop” was to stitch Palin up: in a rolling ambush, the interviews were framed, conducted and (crucially) edited to hurt her and to boost Couric. “The sin of omission,” wrote Palin afterwards, “was glaring” (12). The Couric interviews, in combination with Fey’s SNL caricature, trashed the reputation of a Governor who had left Alaska with the only state surplus in the country during a global economic crash. Heilemann and Halperin wrote, revealingly:
there had never been anything quite like the Fey-Couric double act: two uptown New York ladies working independently but in tandem, one engaged in eviscerating satire, the other in even handed journalism. The composite portrait they drew of Palin was viral and omnipresent. The sparkle of celebrity made it irresistible, and devastating. (13)
Palin’s recollection of this would harden, and by the time she appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight she viewed the actions of Wallace as deliberate sabotage, orchestrated in a professional pact with Couric. The underlying dynamic, however, was implicit, and toxic, as Palin clearly recognised:
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to – or as some have ludicrously suggested, couldn’t – answer her question; it was that her condescension irritated me. It was as though she had suddenly stumbled on a primitive newcomer from an undiscovered tribe. (14)
In a way, from the perspective of Couric, she had. The attitude of the media and political class of Washington D.C. to the Republican activists who Palin represented, and more widely the populations of the South and the Midwest and Alaska, was one of condescension: they did, actually, consider these people to be primitive and tribal. Palin’s supporters inside the GOP could see this very clearly, and very early: already, by the time of the Republican Convention in Minnesota, they were turning their anger on the press boxes precisely because of the way that Palin had been treated by them. This was the divide that would eventually save Palin and fuel the Tea Party and the populist takeover of the GOP.
This wasn’t simply instinctive or nativist, but linked back to the practical political foundations of the republic as well as the original division between the East Coast urban elites and the frontier pioneers of the nineteenth century. For Palin this divide persisted in contemporary form, between “small town America” and Washington D.C. It wasn’t just political: it was philosophical, psychological, even moral. The soul of the country, and its legacy of freedom, could be found in local government and private associations, as Tocqueville had discovered in 1831. “In the township, as well as everywhere else” he wrote, “the people are the source of power; but nowhere do they exercise their power more immediately. In America the people form a master who must be obeyed to the utmost limits of possibility” (15). Tocqueville recognised that the local autonomy of the townships was crucial to upholding the principle of the sovereignty of the people: “without power and independence a town may contain good subjects, but it can have no active citizens” (16). While recognising the necessity of centralised government, Tocqueville saw centralised administration as a danger to the “active citizen” and, therefore, American democracy: “I am of the opinion that a centralized administration is fit only to enervate the nations in which it exists, by incessantly diminishing their local spirit” (17). But this was not simply a dry administrative formula, for if that was all it was it would not survive: “patriotism and religion,” Tocqueville argued, “are the only two motives in the world that can long urge all the people towards the same end” (18). This was Palin’s world, too. She built her political ideal from the bottom up: active citizens, to towns, to cities, to states, to the nation. For Palin, the city politics of Wasilla was a “swamp” (19), but still superior because more local and therefore closer to the people than the corrupt sink of Juneau, itself a colonial replication of Washington D.C. “I believe that national leaders have a responsibility to respect the Tenth Amendment and keep their hands off the states,” Palin wrote in Going Rogue. “It’s that old Jeffersonian view that the affairs of the citizens are best left in their own hands” (20). And, as Tocqueville noted in 1831, and Palin confirmed in 2009, that American instinct, represented in its administrative structures, rests on a foundation of religion and patriotism.
For Schmidt, Wallace, Fey and Couric this was simply a worldview held by provincial subjects who only really existed to be mobilised, patronised, ridiculed or erased. Palin was a resource to be exploited by Schmidt and Wallace for immediate political gain in the 2008 election, a way to rally the support of a large group of people they basically despised. For Fey and Couric, representing their entertainment and media caste, the values that Palin espoused made her the primary target: it was both an easy job and an urgent task to neutralise her political potency by humiliating and trashing her. The problem was, a lot of people noticed that by doing this to Palin, Fey and Couric were, by extension, doing it to them too. It was this feeling, allied to the destruction of local communities and jobs, that would eventually contribute to the election of Trump. It turned out that the most pertinent and perceptive text of the Trump era had been written back in 1995: the analysis contained in Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites had not been modified by the passage of time, but intensified. The new elites that Lasch identified were, by 2016, exerting even greater influence and control than ever before, amplified by the progress of digital technologies and the increasing mobility of work and capital. The cosmopolitan, transnational, secular, liberal value system of this elite had achieved successful saturation across the educational, media, corporate and federal government sectors, their key power centres. In the 2008 election Schmidt, Wallace, Fey and Couric were its representatives and agents. Palin — as the most visible and potent representative of ‘small town America’, of local community, self-reliance, religion, patriotism, and conservative social principles — became the focus and subject of a wider culture war. From out of the wreckage of this conflict, in which the 2008 election can be seen as a battle she lost, Palin emerged at the head of a world-changing counter-revolution: a new revolt against the elites.
The elitists who denounce this movement, they just don’t want to hear the message.
Sarah Palin, ‘Speech to the Tea Party Convention’ (21)
Palin delivered the keynote address to the first Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, on February 26 2010. This was a speech she considered important enough to reprint in full as the afterword to the paperback edition of Going Rogue. Written down as it was delivered the text is disordered, random, rambling. It lacks the structure and precision of the speech she made at the 2008 Republican Convention in Minnesota, a sophisticated combination of partisan attack and statement of principle that thrilled the Republican grassroots. From the perspective of the GOP establishment this remained the high point of her professional political career, but she was probably correct to judge that the Nashville address was more consequential for the conservative movement as a whole. This was the speech that connected her own story to the Tea Party and in making this connection she was summarising the movement’s key themes and defining it on the national stage at an early point of development. Palin described the Tea Party as “a ground-up call to action that is forcing both parties to change the way they’re doing business,” (22) as she had done in Alaska. Her own priorities were all there: the Constitution, the Tenth Amendment, “a pro-market agenda”, “lower taxes, smaller government, transparency, energy independence and strong national security” (23). The heroes were Washington, Lincoln, Reagan (Palin held her own candle for Calvin Coolidge), but the enemies were even more clearly identified: the “politicos”, “Beltway professionals”, the federal government, “big government and big business”, the mainstream media and the “elites”. Palin understood exactly what was happening, and was not afraid to call it: “America is ready for another revolution,” she told the Tea Party, “and you are part of this” (24).
Palin grasped the fact that the Tea Party was a heterogeneous social movement and not an organised political party, and so she had no illusions about personally leading it. Nevertheless, however dispersed and chaotic the movement was, it shared underlying political principles rooted in the founding texts of the republic. For this reason, the best book on the phenomenon was not a social history, but a slim volume of legal theory written by a teacher of constitutional law. The value of Elizabeth Price Foley’s The Tea Party: Three Principles is that it avoided partisan rhetoric and analysed the Tea Party on its own terms. As Foley wrote (in 2012, when it was still in existence), “there’s no Tea party, but there is a Tea Party movement” (25). What made the movement cohere was not a central leader or an organizing committee, but three essential principles: limited government, a defence of U.S. sovereignty, and constitutional originalism. The movement that emerged was not solely aligned to the Republican party at this early stage, although the GOP assiduously courted its votes in order to win back control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections, a decision which fundamentally changed the power dynamic between the party establishment and grassroots activists. What Palin noticed, when she embarked on her Tea Party Express tour in 2009, was an intense focus on the founding texts of the republic:
the thing that gets the most enthusiastic response — the words that get people on their feet and cheering — is when I talk about America’s founding ideas and documents. Just one mention of the Constitution and audiences go wild with appreciation for our Charter of Liberty. (26)
The speech that Palin delivered in Nashville, to a Tea Party audience waving Gadsden flags, was a defining moment for Palin and the movement itself. Like 1765, it was a conservative revolution: in fact, the Tea Partiers considered themselves to be conserving the American revolution. Palin’s love letter to the Tea Party, almost its manifesto and an essential companion piece to Foley’s text, was her second memoir America by Heart. At its core was the Tenth Amendment, that key limitation to federal power: “nothing could be more simple and straightforward,” Palin wrote:
There, in a single sentence, is the entire spirit of the U.S. Constitution: The federal government’s powers are limited to those listed in the Constitution. Everything else belongs to the states and the people. We give you the power; you don’t give us the power. We are sovereign. (27)
The Tea Party, as Foley detailed, considered Obamacare a violation of the Tenth Amendment. For Palin, in Alaska, the encroachment of federal taxes and spending programmes threatened the Tenth Amendment. The Tenth Amendment was the expression and guarantor of her entire political philosophy, uniting Jefferson, Jackson, Tocqueville, Reagan, the small town representatives of America and the Tea Party. “We serve notice,” she declared, “that we will resist Washington, D.C. adopting us” (28). James Madison had anticipated this divide in The Federalist No. 45, written in 1788 and titled ‘The Alleged Danger From the Powers of the Union to the State Governments Considered’:
The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the Federal Government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State Governments are numerous and indefinite… [t]he powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects, which, in the ordinary course of human affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people[.] (29)
Foley summarised the importance of Madison’s text for the modern Tea Party position:
It’s critically important that Americans get this distinction: the federal government doesn’t have the power to do anything it wants to do. It’s a government of limited and enumerated powers only…(30)
This was the key to Palin’s own revolt against those seeking to extend the federal administration, a revolt embodied by the Tea Party with Palin as their most prominent and effective spokeswoman. In fact, this was a revival: the passions that produced the Tea Party had always been part of the conservative coalition, drawn upon and patronised by Republican officials during the patrician Bush and insurgent Gingrich eras, yet also at odds with the party establishment and its neoconservative fellow travelers. It is important to remember that when the Tea Party revolted it revolted against Bush’s 2008 Emergency Economic Stabilization Act as well as Obamacare and the ARRA. The original Tea Party protests convened around these specific acts, with a focus on economic and constitutional questions, and avoided divisive social issues, although these would eventually become more prominent as the movement folded back into the wider Republican right.
The route to power, then, was complex and corrupting. The Tea Party rallies had desperately wanted Palin to run for president in 2012, and it remains historically significant that she chose not to. The actual 2012 electoral ticket was an ambivalent result for the movement: Mitt Romney was the ultimate establishment candidate, and he ran and lost as one; Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, was a Tea Party favorite, but generated none of the electricity that Palin had in the same position. The second Obama win dissipated the collective energy and cohesion of the mocked and sidelined ‘Teabaggers’, and yet their influence on GOP selections continued to grow. Nikki Haley, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina and Michelle Bachmann were all Tea Party candidates and would go on to achieve national prominence (and in Haley’s case, international stature). Establishment Republicans, the RINOs, found themselves beaten by candidates backed by grassroots activists, a groundswell that spread out from the original Tea Party to absorb every conservative movement issue, from gun rights, to same-sex marriage, to immigration, to God. Eventually, somehow, all of this energy and resentment would overwhelm the strict principles that Foley had identified at the origin of the Tea Party, and the movement would find its ultimate avatar in a property tycoon from New York with zero interest in the Charters of Liberty. This choice was not simply extreme, it was illogical in all but one aspect: as a revolt against the elites. Once again, Sarah Palin led the way.
The truth is, the American Dream is dead.
Donald J. Trump (31)
Palin was the first major Republican to publicly endorse Trump, on the eve of the Iowa Caucus, which Trump lost to Ted Cruz. At this point, Trump was thrilled to have Palin on his side, and stood behind her on the stage, grinning and gesticulating while she delivered her endorsement speech. For years, Palin had been swinging Republican primaries with her endorsement, boosting Nikki Haley from last place to victory in South Carolina or sinking GOP chances when she backed Christine O’Donnell in Delaware (a candidate who was forced to open her first TV campaign advert with the declaration: “I am not a witch…”). Even before the arrival of Trump, Tea Party candidates had caused mayhem for the traditional GOP establishment. Trump accelerated and deepened this fratricide: in 2016 Palin dumped former Tea Party darling Paul Ryan in the primary race to endorse Paul Nehlen, an antisemitic, white supremacist no-hoper, simply because Ryan had refused to support Trump. Trump annihilated the establishment candidate, Jeb Bush, while trashing the legacy of the Bush dynasty for good measure: the grassroots loved it, a significant indication of how far they had moved against their own party managers. But it got even worse: when Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both former Tea Party candidates, made final desperate attacks on the new Republican primaries front runner, they were humiliated (as Rick Perry had been earlier). By May both had left the race. Newt Gingrich bowed to the inevitable and, following Palin’s early example, endorsed a Trump candidacy. From this internecine carnage Trump had emerged unscathed, surrounded by casualties from all sections of the GOP, most of whom would, eventually, crawl back to his side. More importantly, the Tea Party had remained loyal to him all along, despite the opposition of most of their old flames (Perry, Santorum, Fiorina, Ryan, Rubio, Cruz).
Palin’s endorsement speech was not notably different in content from her Nashville address: the themes and catchphrases were part of the old repertoire (“If you value your freedom, think on it!”), albeit mixed in with new Trump slogans (“Make America Great Again”). The style however, had declined — or matured, depending on your perspective. She apparently had a script, but it seemed to be only vaguely related to what actually came out of her mouth, as she rode the emotion of the crowd and diverged into random attacks on the reporters present. The speech contained little policy or politics in the traditional sense: it was a pure outburst of emotion and resentment that occasionally turned lyrical in its bitterness and suppressed fury. The similarity in rhetorical style between Palin and Trump was clear, but it was instinctive, not imitative. It stemmed from the need that they both shared for direct contact with their supporters, the only thing that kept them politically alive in a world ruled by their enemies. The endorsement had been fixed by Trump’s political director (a former Palin aide), but the match made sense from an emotional point of view: both felt victimised by the media and political elites and considered themselves outsiders in Washington D.C. The event that seemed to give Trump the grisly determination to get to the presidency at whatever cost, including the incitement of racism and violence, had been his public humiliation by Obama at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. Obama remained his primary fixation until deep into the presidential term. Palin and Trump shared an experience of humiliation at the hands of these people, which fueled their thirst for revenge.
For Palin the actual policies and beliefs that Trump held were not really the point, and this was the same for the Tea Party and other Republicans who lumped all of their special interests under the simple slogans that Trump was peddling: Make America Great Again, America First, Build the Wall, Drain the Swamp. Palin’s political philosophy was fundamentally optimistic: she consistently demonstrated a faith in humanity that was founded on her religion and the American republic as the best guarantor of individual liberty. Trump, on the other, had a cynical view of America and of humanity more generally. “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat,” Trump had said after the premature death of his brother in 1981, adding: “You just can’t let people make a sucker out of you” (32). He had a higher regard for The Art of the Deal than he did for The Holy Bible. His inaugural address, delivered on January 27, 2017, was a masterpiece of dystopian expressionism, in which he depicted a nation scarred by poverty, crime, gangs, drugs, failing schools, corrupt politics, damaged children and “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape” (33). The speech made repeated appeals to ‘the people’ in order align Trump with the legacies of Jefferson and Jackson, and struck an aspirational note that verged on science fiction (“we stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the earth from the miseries of disease…”). But it was the dark, authoritarian tone that truly defined the address: an inchoate combination of protectionism, isolationism and nativism, guided by the brutal will of a new president who did not seem to understand the limitations of his role in the constitutional arrangement of the United States, and didn’t care about it anyway. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he thundered, in the most vivid phrase of the speech. Once he had finished speaking, George W. Bush turned to Hillary Clinton and said, “well, that was some weird shit” (34).
This was quite a long way from America by Heart. You could see aspects of it foreshadowed in the book, but Palin’s patriotic populism seemed very bland and, well, conservative by comparison. In truth, Palin was not a revolutionary: her heroes and her ideas were recognisably part of mainstream American culture and politics. Her disdain for the urban elites and machine politics had antecedents throughout American history, and figured in the rhetoric of Jefferson, Jackson and Reagan. The revolution she headed after 2008 was a revolt against the elites and a revival of democratic populism within the conservative movement. However, emotions overtook ideas. The traditional Republican party was felled by the passions and discontents of its grassroots supporters, who found their true representative in Trump: a wrecking ball to smash the globalised world order. For a number of reasons, politically prosaic as well as instinctive and emotional, Palin joined a cynical and corrupt political platform that promised nothing but power and revenge on the political advisers and media hacks who had tried to destroy her. In the end, it gave her nothing tangible but the satisfaction of watching the establishment reel in anguish and confusion. Despite the speculation, she was offered no major post in the Trump administration. Her marriage collapsed as she pursued her vendetta against the ‘mainstream media’; she described 2019 as being “a lull”, although she remained engaged in her defamation suit against the New York Times. On social media her war against the elites raged on, but she seemed adrift, cut out of the narrative, cut off from her own history: an empty caricature of herself. She had foreseen a political revolution, she had articulated and defined its early stages, and she had played a significant part in promoting its true leader, Donald Trump. But what Trump represented, finally, was an authoritarian personality cult that fundamentally perverted the kind of revolution Palin had once stood for.
- ‘McCain Chooses Palin as Running Mate’, New York Times, August 29, 2008
- Sarah Palin, Going Rogue (Harper, 2010), p.156
- Ibid., p.147
- Ibid., p.3
- Michael Ledeen, ‘The Frontierswoman’, National Review, September 3, 2008
- Going Rogue, p.126
- Palin on Tucker Carlson Tonight, Fox News, August 19, 2020
- Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (Norton, 1995), p.28
- Palin on Tucker Carlson Tonight, Fox News, August 19, 2020
- John Heilemann and Mark Halpernin, Race of a Lifetime (Penguin, 2010), all quotes taken from Chapter 22, ‘Seconds in Command’
- Heilemann and Halpernin, p.415
- Going Rogue, p.272
- Heilemann and Halpernin, p.410
- Going Rogue, p.276
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve (Everyman’s Library, 1994), p.62
- Ibid., p.67
- Ibid., p.87
- Ibid., p.93
- Going Rogue, p.64
- Ibid., p.85
- Ibid., p.425
- Ibid., p.416
- Ibid., p.424
- Ibid., p.414
- Elizabeth Foley, The Tea Party: Three Principles (Cambridge University Press, 2012), p.xiii
- Sarah Palin, America by Heart (HarperCollins, 2010), p.xvii
- Ibid., p.72
- Ibid., p.80
- The Federalist, ed. Terence Ball (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p.227
- Foley, p.38
- Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, Trump Revealed – The Definitive Biography of the 45th President (Simon & Schuster, 2016), p.9
- Kranish and Fisher, p.94
- Donald J. Trump, ‘Inaugural Address’, January 20, 2017: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/the-inaugural-address/
- Hillary Clinton on The Howard Stern Show, December 4, 2019