It’s hard to believe the 2008 campaign was so long ago. But it’s easy to remember the unbridled excitement we all felt when that plane from Anchorage landed that night and an unknown governor from Alaska descended into the chaos of an open presidential campaign. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had been blindsided by a celebrity candidate from Illinois who had charisma and a cult following, and he needed a way to energize the base — a folksy, relatable vice president whose TV-ready family and penchant for colloquialism was just the thing to connect him with “Real America.”
If you could have told me, in 2008, that this is where that road would eventually lead, you’d have had to wipe my chin off the floor. With her endorsement of Donald Trump, Sarah Palin has done a complete 180 from her down-home conservative roots, embracing Trump’s populist, hardly conservative campaign with fervor, proving that she — despite what she’s said over and over for the last decade — is more about defeating an “establishment” boogeyman than she is following through on the limited-government, anti-abortion, free-market world she envisioned in her first speech to a raucous Republican National Convention.
I can’t blame Palin. Since 2008, the political field has changed dramatically. Just after Barack Obama’s election, the Tea Party was born — a movement, ostensibly, designed as a way to combat further government bailouts and curb government spending. In its wake, the Tea Party (which seems to exist only as a loose collaboration between major organizations now) left a conservative grassroots desperate for a conservative leadership that never truly materialized. Some “Tea Party” candidates turned out to be charlatans. Others turned out not to be ready for prime time. And while many Tea Party leaders considered their repeat failures the work of a shadowy Karl Rove-led cabal, it never established itself as a campaign machine. It did, however, demonstrate that there was a serious market for conservative speakers, conservative books, conservative memorabilia and conservative entertainment figures. Swiftly dumped by the Republican Party, Sarah Palin, who had given up her gubernatorial seat in Alaska, had very few options if she wanted to stay in the public eye. So she took the gig.
And now, Republicans are paying the ultimate price for turning their leaders into their entertainers. Because it’s now clear that the latter is far more important than the former.
Sarah Palin took the stage last night in a strange chainmail cardigan, determined, it seemed, to relive the best moments from every speech she gave on the campaign trail in 2008. The result was an amalgamation of “srill, baby, drills!” and vague references to congressional spending as drug use, pulled, seemingly at random, through a magnetic poetry kit or the like, from every great speech Sarah Palin has ever given. In some places, you could have easily replaced what was quickly deemed on social media a “word salad” with a string of emojis, and still have elicited the same general level of specificity and reason. We will be America! We will go to places! We will ensure the conservative opinion journalists of this world constantly regret their internal provision against day drinking!
The result was bizarre. She raged against crony capitalism — alongside a man who earlier in the day had embraced increased ethanol disbursements to the Iowa farmers we already pay not to grow food. She insisted she was “sticking it to the establishment” — alongside a man who has openly embraced the symbiotic relationship between government and big business at every opportunity. Gone was any indication that she had ever supported grassroots principles — you can’t oppose Obamacare in the same room as a man who recently called for a single-payer health-care system, call for lower taxes from a man who has openly committed to raising them, or claim to support the anti-abortion cause next to a man who claims to be pro-choice “in every respect.” It’s hard to push a conservative agenda when the man standing next to you has no agenda but his own.
I fail to see what conservatism gains from putting its future in the hands of two people best known for their short-lived reality television careers. It may, in fact, dismantle what remains of a Republican “establishment,” but it will do so in favor of a chaotic, ratings-driven nightmare, with little ideological mooring and less long-term appeal. And while I can’t say I’m surprised, I can say that I’m disappointed. When Palin first delivered her “hockey mom” speech to a standing ovation in 2008, I was proud that the Republican Party had finally identified someone in its midst who could speak the grassroots language because she understood where the grassroots came from. To see her now play second fiddle to the likes of Donald Trump speaks volumes about how we’ve evolved as a movement, though it says nothing good.