A few days ago I saw a former employee muse on social media that the only plausible explanation for this election cycle was that I had found a golden lamp and summoned a genie with it. It’s an interesting theory I’m not in a position to comment on. But looking at today’s historic Palin endorsement of Donald Trump, I think, forces us to rethink the last half dozen years and understand Sarah Palin not as a disgraced has-been but as a Republican innovator who arrived before her time.
In 2009 and 2010 Palin was one of the most popular and divisive figures in American politics. By 2011 and 2012 even one-time devoted supporters were abandoning her, a rushed relationship begun in a state of extreme inebriation, difficult in retrospect to understand or accept. There were many painful turning points. But her January 2011 “blood libel” comment was likely the key one. By the late Obama years the Palins were slipping from the political cultural into the popular culture, perhaps best captured by the infamous Palin Clan brawl – a hair-pulling, roundhouse punch, Bristol dragged across the lawn by her feet affair, in which the Palins crashed a birthday party held by an upstanding Anchorage small businessman in a stretch Hummer limo and didn’t leave before police had to be called to sort out the wild outburst of white-on-white folk violence.
Now, though, it all looks quite different. Donald Trump is the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination, a colorful billionaire whose campaign consists of a mix of televised speeches and twitter commentary and whose platform is to make us great and crush our enemies. His only real competitor at this point is Ted Cruz, another Palin acolyte whose own jump into the senate in 2012 received a significant assist from Palin herself.
Let’s put it starkly. Whose Republican party is this? McCain’s? Romney’s? Bush’s? Boehner’s? Ryan’s? There’s little question that the 2016 GOP is the party of Sarah Palin. Donald Trump is simply the successor who is bringing what she started to fruition – the Joshua to her Moses, the Umar to her Muhammad. This is not simply a commentary on the colorful, antic quality of this political cycle. It’s rooted in the same basic themes and beliefs: a mix of grievance and aggression, sharp tongued impatience with cosmopolitan thinking and ‘political correctness’, paeans to the righteous resentment of hard-working white folk, and all packaged in a media savvy gift for gab. It is no accident that the two on stage today are both reality TV stars. Perhaps he has talents to bring things to fruition which she could not. But it’s her brand and her message.
This may all sound like a snark. But that’s only the outer layer at most. Look back over the last eight years with the jostling factions of the GOP, establishment wings, Tea Partiers, post-2012 post-mortemers, House backbenchers, Palin and Joe the Plumber. What has it all arrived at? Whose party does it end up being? For right now, there’s just no debating it: Palin comes out on top. It’s her party.