After the appearance of Sarah Palin’s ghost-written Going Rogue in November 2009, the former Alaska governor saw her celebrity soar. Her book sold over 600,000 copies within 36 hours of the time it went on sale. And even that paradigmatic liberal Oprah Winfrey worked hard to have Sarah on her TV programs. FOX News went agog over her 320-page work, and for about a week, her face was more visible on FOX than that of any of the channel’s other favorites.
The only influential people on the establishment right who expressed reservations about her, up until her recent overexposure on TV, were David Frum and Charles Krauthammer. But within the neoconservative camp, other opinions also surfaced. Bill Kristol and his fortnightly Weekly Standard have been high on Sarah, a fact that may be attributed to her Christian Zionism and her outspoken defense of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. And Krauthammer has moderated his critical attitude by observing on FOX that Sarah “will be a significant force in Republican politics, even if she never becomes president.”
Sarah’s prominence on the American right might seem to some to be disproportionate to what she has shown in terms of verbal facility or knowledge about current events. It is hard to consider her a serious presidential candidate as soon as one thinks about how often she put her foot in her mouth—after McCain (or his campaign manager or Bill Kristol or whoever) plucked her out of icy Alaskan obscurity in order to supply a sinking presidential candidate with an unlikely running mate. Her embarrassing performance during an interview with Katie Couric, when she displayed a woeful ignorance of foreign affairs, was not a leftist ambush but a shocking revelation.
Whether it was tactically useful to have her in that interview or exposed to other similar contretemps is a secondary question. What this exposure revealed was what the McCain campaign tried to hide, namely, how little Sarah knew outside the nitty-gritty of Alaska political life. The lady also had a way of punctuating her vaguely stated points with such folksy phrases as “youbetcha,” a practice that became even more painful for some of us to listen to, considering that what she said was mostly an exercise in self-validation or a string of GOP campaign clichés.
Despite the obvious but enigmatic hatred that she generates on the American left and her recent oration at the Tea Party convention in Nashville, Sarah is certainly not a hard right-winger. She approves of anti-discrimination laws and other directives that are intended to “help women,” and she attributes her success as a high school basketball star to anti-discrimination measures imposed at both the state and federal levels. In her words, “I’ll tell you, I’m a product of Title IX in our schools, where equal education and equal opportunities in sports really helped propel me into, I guess, into the position that I’m in today.’’
She was also indignant over Senator Harry Reid’s remarks about President Obama’s appeal as a nice black person. Or so she said on January 11, when she appeared alongside a slobbering Bill O’Reilly as Fox’s latest “contributor.” Sara seems to have been shocked that Reid would have noticed the president’s nonwhite pigmentation, in discussing his electoral strengths, in what was a private conversation that the Senate Majority Leader was having with a friend. At the very least, Sarah insisted, Reid should have been removed from his post due to his racial bigotry.
Sarah has never rushed to the front as a critic of immigration, although since the appearance of her book, she has noticed that “illegals” are crossing the American border. But as Peter Brimelow has observed at VDARE, it is hard to figure out the reason for her mild opposition to what she had previously largely ignored. Sarah tells us that illegal entrance into the US is a “problem” because it places unnecessary burdens on governors in border-states who are wrestling with a flood of illegals. But most of these governors, according to Brimelow, have done pitifully little to deal with this flood. Some have turned a blind eye, lest they lose their Hispanic voting base.
To whatever extent Sarah has spoken out on foreign affairs, she seems to have taken her opinions from the previous administration. As a spokesperson for a “conservative” foreign policy, she has never moved beyond neoconservative tags. She peppers her statements on international relations with lots of references to “human rights.” In someone’s alternative universe, this idealistic rhetoric encapsulates a conservative foreign policy.
As a self-declared Christian, Sarah does oppose abortion, and even gave birth to a child whom she knew had Downs Syndrome. And she poses for pictures with a rifle and backs the National Rifle Association. Moreover, the sight of this earthy mother of four, holding a hunting rifle while dressed in outdoor attire, sends tremors of excitement through her middle-aged male devotees. Less clear, however, is that her package of stands amounts to anything more than a kind of center-right Republicanism overlaid with neoconservative sentence fragments.
Despite counterarguments to the view of her as a serious right-winger, Sarah has generated a crazed following on the right. It seems to be composed largely of middle-aged and older American conservatives who adore Sarah for two reasons. One, she strikes her admirers as one helluva gal, a woman who presents herself in a manner that her male votaries associate with the Eternal Feminine, that is female folksiness. A calendar with Sarah in hunting gear sold enormously well after last year’s election, and from all accounts, the calendar’s primary buyers were older Republican men, who flipped over their preferred poster girl.
Two, and even more importantly, Sarah taps a populist vein, which is peculiarly American. Unlike its European bourgeois counterpart, typified by a movement such as the Lega Nord, American populism equates corniness with anti-elitism. Sarah’s speaking habits and even her lack of readiness to deal with complicated policy questions may well endear her to her followers. Such traits indicate her homey upbringing.
Further, her education at a community college and at the University of Idaho renders her even more attractive to those who are already inclined to like her: her lack of impressive educational credentials betokens the lack of the snobbery that is identified with the bearers of Princeton or Harvard degrees. A New York Post commentary by Michael Goodwin contrasts Obama’s “Ivy League eloquence” to the true conservative openness of Sarah Palin. Obama’s careful diction “now seems tired next to her [Sarah’s] wrong-side-of-the track passion.” Obama’s rhetorical style shows that he “has aligned himself with the left wing of his party instead of the ordinary people who identify with Sarah.”
If the American Left stresses victimhood, managerial control, and Political Correctness, then the American populist Right exalts PLAINNESS. In a campaign speech I heard the then Republican governor of Wisconsin Lee Dreyfuss give in Madison in 1980, the speaker electrified the crowd by proclaiming: “We’re all descended from the scum and refuse of the Old World.” As Dreyfuss finished this sentence, the ecstatic lady sitting next to me cried out: “That was really rightwing!” That, by the way, was the last time I attended a Republican rally, as a party member or even as an outsider.
In the last century the American Right was not consistently egalitarian. Among its luminaries were such anti-egalitarians as H.L. Mencken, Albert Nock, the young W.F. Buckley, and the Russell Kirk who authored The Conservative Mind. And if there were vulgar and not particularly cerebral politicians whom rightists once defended, they argued that these public figures represented solid principles and so we could excuse their bad manners, plebeian ways, and/or verbal awkwardness. Rarely on the right during the postwar years were cultural mediocrity and educational limits considered positive qualities in someone we hoped to see lead our movement and country. No one celebrated Joe McCarthy as a hard, profane drinker who wore baggy clothes. Some conservatives considered themselves to be McCarthyites despite the social failings of the man whom they, rightly or wrongly, believed was saving us from Communist agents. In Sarah’s case, the opposite may be true. It is not her substance or articulation of principles but her lack of sophistication that appeals to the current American Right.
This Right went ballistic when Obama followed court etiquette and bowed before the Japanese imperial couple. An outcry was heard over the “undemocratic” manner in which the American president approached Japanese royalty. The rightwing columnist Michelle Malkin produced two syndicated columns excoriating Obama for his “spinelessness” at the Japanese court. Neoconservative criticism by contrast was more restrained. It stressed the contrast between the overly informal behavior toward the British queen shown by Barack and Michelle Obama and the president’s obeisance to the Japanese Emperor and Empress. Obama had supposedly slighted our “special relation” with the British, the nation that had previewed our now perfected form of democracy.
But however programmed and predictable was this response, the outcry against any concession to monarchy seemed even more ludicrous. It reflected the plebeian sentiment of those who despise gourmet food, fine art, and polished syntax and who, not least of all, slobber over Sarah Palin.
In this celebrity, they have found exactly what they value, and until her recent dip in popularity on the right, she could seem to do no wrong. When Sarah’s teenage daughter got pregnant by some jock, who has since deserted his wife by shotgun marriage and his baby daughter, Sarah’s fans applauded her loyalty to her troubled daughter. Supposedly it was impertinent and even leftist to ask how her daughter got into this mess in the first place. Where were her parents when she became involved with someone who sounded like a thug, and whom Sarah later injudiciously had dragged to the GOP convention to sit with her family? Although one might think that such tastelessness would have disturbed Sarah’s fans, it had exactly the opposite effect. Her popularity among the faithful took off again. (She was showered with similar but by then diminishing indulgence when she later unexpectedly resigned her post as Alaska governor.)
After all, we are told, ordinary people have to face daily problems, and what are Sarah and her weirdly named children but the quintessence of the Ordinary, raised to a Platonic Ideal? The Palins are the human equivalent of McDonalds, Burger King, and Kmart, all business establishments that Sarah’s followers are likely to frequent as self-identifying acts.
After the Second World War, the authoritarian conservative jurist Carl Schmitt advised his acquaintance Francisco Franco to restore a Spanish monarchy, even if he had to take the crown for himself. According to Schmitt, Latin peoples could only accord legitimacy to a government that came wrapped with the pomp of monarchical institutions. Whether this observation was true, it is indeed the case that the American Right celebrates Sarah Palin for instantiating their political and social ideals. For the current American populist Right, it is not royal blood but ordinariness and strings of garbled phrases that confer legitimacy on those they would like to see rule.