Nine years ago this month, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) picked Sarah Palin as his running mate for his presidential campaign. Conservatives immediately fell for the popular Alaska governor, proclaiming her the new star of the right for years to come. Less than a decade later, Palin is a political nonentity. She largely keeps her thoughts to paid speeches, the occasional interview and Facebook, where she shares links to conservative clickbait farms.
And yet Palin remains critical: to a faction of the Republican Party, and to understanding the emergence of Donald Trump and Trumpism — the ideology created by the president’s most ardent supporters, though not necessarily by the president himself. Palin’s popularity with the GOP and the American right as a whole wasn’t based on her speeches or her conservative bona fides, her gubernatorial history or her political beliefs, but on what she could be made to mean.
In his run for president, Trump was much the same. Now even as Trump’s base of support shrinks, those who remain, the truest of true believers, will never renounce him.
And Palin said what the base was thinking. She accused Barack Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” She praised those willing to “screw the political correctness.” She cheered the birther movement promoted by one Donald Trump. As the keynote speaker at the first-ever National Tea Party Convention in February 2010, she taunted Democrats, “How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out?” In turn, she was greeted with a standing ovation and chants of “Run, Sarah, run!”
Trump campaigned on the Palin model. In fact, he improved upon it. His identity was his trademark, rendering the constant shifts in policy goals and promises almost meaningless. His base saw in Trump what they wanted to see. Some saw a fighter who would stand up for them, others saw a vaunted truth-teller, and a few, truth be told, likely saw a potential white-nationalist hero. And he gave it to them: the image, the veneer, the blank slate upon which their deeply held dreams — for themselves as much as their country — could be written. His fans weren’t dissuaded by his past support for Democrats (including his 2016 opponent), or his lies, or his personal liberalism, or his crudeness, or his long history of mistreating small-business owners of the kind he claimed to champion, because his fans weren’t voting for Trump. They were voting for what Trump meant to them personally.
At the 2015 Freedom Summit in Iowa, Palin gave a 35-minute speech described as confusing at best and career-ending at worst by conservative writers and commentators in attendance. The Washington Examiner’s Byron York even wrote that Palin “made a guy like Trump look like a serious presidential candidate.” How appropriate then that the student became the master.