Politics & Policy

Sarah Palin Slips into Self-Parody

Sarah Palin speaks at the Iowa Freedom Summit, January 24, 2015. (Scott Olson/Getty)
Her recent performance in Iowa should disqualify her from any role in the GOP going forward.

In Des Moines this past weekend, Sarah Palin gave a speech, and at long last the vultures began to circle. “A tragedy,” declared Joe Scarborough, on Morning Joe; “bizarro,” ajudged the London Times’ Toby Harnden; “an interminable ramble,” said Iowa professor Sam Clovis. These, alas, were among the kinder adjectives.

In the Washington Examiner, Byron York treated those who missed the address to a brutal dissection. First, he recorded, Palin subjected the crowd to an “extended stream-of-consciousness complaint about media coverage of her decision to run in a half-marathon race in Storm Lake, Iowa.” Next, she offered up some self-righteous “grumbling about coverage of a recent photo of her with a supporter” and a litany of “objections about the social media ruckus over a picture of her six-year-old son Trig.” And, finally, she embarked upon a “free-association ramble on Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the energy industry, her daughter Bristol, Margaret Thatcher, middle-class economics . . . women in politics, and much more.” All in all, York proposed, this did her no favors at all. Rather, the “long, rambling, and at times barely coherent speech, left some wondering what role she should play in Republican politics as the 2016 race begins.”

This, I think, is a good question, and one to which I have a modest answer: How about . . . none? Instead, Palin should leave the field to those who are in possession of genuine political aspirations, and she should refrain from treating the Republican party as if it were a little more than a convenient vehicle for her private ambition. In the meantime, conservatives who are finally cottoning on to the ruse should recognize that this Iowa sojourn was not an aberration or a blip, but the foreordained culmination of a slow and unseemly descent into farce that began almost immediately after Barack Obama was elected in 2008. So Sarah Palin has become Amy Winehouse? Of course she has. How else exactly was this going to end?

“It would be hard to say,” York observed drily, “that Palin’s 35-minute talk had a theme.” But, one might ask, “Do they ever?” For a long while now, Palin has not so much contributed arguments and ideas as she has thrown together a one-woman variety show for a band of traveling fans. One part free verse, one part Dada-laden ressentiment, and one part primal scream therapy, Palin’s appearances seem to be designed less to advance the ball for the Right and more to ensure that her name remains in the news, that her business opportunities are not entirely foreclosed, and that her hand remains strong enough to justify her role as kingmaker without portfolio. Ultimately, she isn’t really trying to change politics; she’s trying to be politics — the system and its complexities be damned. Want to find a figure to which Palin can be reasonably compared? It’s not Ronald Reagan. It’s Donald Trump.

Some people contain within them a magical quality that leads their fans toward idol worship, and, for whatever reason, Palin appears to have it in spades. But, as she has discovered for herself of late, this can be a decidedly mixed blessing. On the upside, cults provide their beneficiaries with a ready-made army of apologists and sponsors — people, that is, who have primed themselves to push back hard against the most modest of slights and to exact a price from anyone who exhibits the temerity to criticize their focus. On the downside, cults can serve to inoculate their subjects from legitimate judgment and to ease their descent into inadvertent self-parody. Partly because the media has been reflexively unfair to her, and partly because they feel generally put upon by the culture at large, Palin’s fans have of late provided her mostly with the latter service. Last weekend’s speech was the direct result of that tendency.

Consider, if you will, what happens to a person who suggests that Sarah Palin is anything other than saintly. Right off the bat, they are accused of disliking America or Alaska or conservatives or mothers or the working class — or even women in general — and then they are informed that their “hatred” is showing. Next, their motives are questioned and their supposedly secret “agenda” is exposed for the world to see, for no right-thinking person could dislike Palin on the merits, natch. “I hope you enjoy your elite cocktail parties,” the apologists will say, and then they will huffily tell you that they “hope signaling that you are ‘one of them’ was worth it.” And finally — as is the case when one expresses disapproval of other cult figures, such as President Obama, Ron Paul, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Paul Krugman — it is presumed that all animadversion must be motivated by envy or by snobbery or by secret admiration, and that it can therefore be safely ignored. “What have you done,” they will ask, “that compares to my paragon of virtue?” All told, it’s really quite pathetic.

It is deeply unconservative, too. The Right will likely never agree on how best it should move forward, but we might at least unite against the belief that there exist superheroes who are able to save the country from itself; against the idea that any one person can be the official standard bearer of a whole ideological or demographic group; and against the presumption that conservatism will gain anything much at all from the promotion and advancement of its most erratic champions. Further still, we might refrain from attempting to immunize our friends from the consequences of their actions. Having been mercilessly and unjustly pilloried by the media throughout the 2008 campaign, Sarah Palin had a clear choice in its aftermath: She could sober up and prove the buggers wrong, or she could collapse into ignominious pasquinade. Sadly, she chose the latter. The rest of us should choose to move on.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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