Going Rogue: an American Life
HarperCollins, 432pp, £18.99
Sarah From Alaska: the Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar
Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe
PublicAffairs, 320pp, £15.99
There are many reasons why America has often proved a crucible for cults of personality: its trust in the gospel of individualism; its worship of personal success; its size, which requires inspirational figures to transcend regional differences; its faith in glamour, self-invention and the Elect. Whatever fraudulences Sarah Palin may encompass, her cult of personality is bona fide: the personification of an entire value system, she is an ideology incarnate, and Going Rogue is her manifesto.
That said, calling Palin's belief system an ideology suggests a coherence it often lacks. This is partly because her political attitudes are largely defined by animus: opposed to most things that governments actually do, she resents half the nation she aspired to lead, and is deeply suspicious of politicians (excepting herself, of course). There is something more than a little anarchic in her gleeful - and truthful - summation of her time as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska: "Basically, we'd gotten government out of the way." This seems a remarkably self-cancelling position for a career politician, until one remembers that, in America today, power derives directly from wealth and celebrity, which may lead to politics - or, in Palin's case, spiral in and out of politics.
Palin's success shows, moreover, that one should never underestimate the power of polarisation. American populist movements have historically united around figures whose magnetic attraction for their supporters was equally repulsive to their opponents, and who have tended to be social conservatives. Far from an anomaly, Palin represents the latest of America's eternal debates over its own principles. Her role in the 2008 election and its aftermath has returned us once again to our oldest arguments about the relationship between individual and government, state and federal rights, church and state, even white and black. This battle has defined American history, and thanks largely to Palin (with the not inconsiderable assistance of Fox News and talk radio), it is being fought yet again: conservative values based on an exceptionalist vision of America as moral exemplum, the city on the hill, with all the religious self-righteousness that such a vision entails, pitched against a post-Enlightenment, Continental, classically liberal notion of America as a rational land that tolerates dissent.
Judging by Going Rogue and Sarah From Alaska, a far more objective (if ultimately sympathetic) account written by Scott Conroy and Shushannah Walshe, embedded reporters in the Palin campaign for CBS and Fox News, whatever else Palin may tolerate, dissent isn't among them. (She even finds time at the end of Going Rogue to accuse Conroy and Walshe themselves of stalking her family; they claim she tried to intimidate them into leaving the state capital, Juneau.) If facts challenge her opinions, she dismisses them. For example, defending her belief in creationism, she declares, "I felt I was on solid factual ground," as she flatly denies the possibility that human beings evolved from single-celled organisms through monkeys. She accepts that we evolved through a "random process" that was "set in motion by God" - just not a random process involving fish or monkeys. If she "feels" she's on solid factual ground, what does it matter whether she actually is?
Palin doubtless also feels that she's on solid factual ground with Going Rogue, but it has been dismissed by senior McCain staffers as "total fiction". Conroy and Walshe provide evidence to refute several of her more self-serving accounts, while fact-checking websites have totted up the book's misrepresentations, omissions and inaccuracies, which are legion. The word "fiction" doesn't quite capture Going Rogue's disturbing mix of fantasy and propaganda, however: it is less a novel than the creation myth of a demagogue.
Ghosted by the Christian journalist Lynn Vincent (whom Palin, in a moment of typical fudging, thanks in her acknowledgments for "her indispensable help in getting the words on paper" - presumably by writing them down for her), Going Rogue depicts Wasilla as a bucolic idyll in which whites and natives live in harmony, happily hunting, fishing and attending church. High-school sweethearts marry, work hard and thrive. They raise their children with traditional values, and when need arises, God provides. Naturally, there are snakes in this garden: petty, mean-spirited, or greedy people, against whom noble Sarah begins her political crusade for truth, justice and the American way, running first for city councillor, and then for mayor. "As a result of our common-sense conservative efforts," she proclaims proudly, "Wasilla became a booming . . . hub for commerce and tourism."
It must have fallen apart when she stopped running it: the city was recently described by one of its current councillors as "a big ugly strip mall from one end to the other". Rather than the small businesses Palin claims to have supported, those strip malls are filled by McDonald's, Taco Bell, Burger King, Wal-Mart and Target. She somehow neglects to mention that Wasilla was known among Alaskan state troopers as the "crystal meth capital of Alaska" (and that in a state with widespread drug use). She informs us that she ran for mayor to fight for smaller government, when in fact she campaigned on social issues that are not under mayoral control, including abortion, gun rights and the role of church in government (not to mention ugly rumours that somehow started claiming her Democratic opponent, John Stein, a lapsed Lutheran, was Jewish and living in sin).
Going Rogue is a catalogue of casuistry and post-hoc rationalisations of self-interest, and is ultimately one of the most profoundly self-regarding books I have ever read. Palin takes credit for anything successful and completely abdicates responsibility or accountability for any failures. The people she fired or pressured into quitting during her years in power all left because they were lazy, or incompetent, or both. Anyone who dislikes her is disgruntled, or jealous, or both. Every blunder during the 2008 election campaign is someone else's fault: her television interviews with Katie Couric were disastrous because Couric sandbagged her - and, she adds for good measure, Couric is un-American anyway. As for Charlie Gibson, he "peered sceptically at me over his bifocals like a high-school principal": who could be lucid under such conditions? She was unable to answer questions, not because she is ignorant, but because the questions were "irritating". She won the debates against Joe Biden hands down, and John McCain's campaign collapsed because of the ineptitude of his "headquarters". She even declares that she was cleared of unethical behaviour in the Troopergate scandal, when she was explicitly found guilty of it.
But Palin has something more powerful than facts on her side: "reality". The thousands of fans who lined up to purchase her book adore her for being "real", reality being measured by its conformity to a "common-sense conservative" belief system.
And because reality often fails so to conform, cognitive dissonance abounds. Palin loves America - but not the 50 per cent of Americans she considers unpatriotic and "unreal". She is all for being accessible to journalists, but reviles the "lamestream media" for being "unbalanced" while thanking in her acknowledgments "Rush" and "Sean", among others, for their "fair and balanced" journalism. (Fox News has returned the favour by inviting her to become a pundit.) She is routinely victimised by sinister assemblages of opponents: not just predictable groups such as "the liberals" and "media types", but also "the Washington insiders", McCain "headquarters" (though never McCain himself), "the Obama-Biden camp", "the obstructionists" and, my favourite, the "hate-America types". Palin is a fan of free speech - unless the speech criticises her. She hates Barack Obama's stimulus package and ignores how it began: as George W Bush's stimulus package. And so it goes.
“I wanted to tell Americans to keep on fighting for what is right - and not to let anyone tell them to sit down and shut up." Unless that someone is Palin, who is constantly telling her critics to sit down and shut up. This apparent contradiction is managed by means of crude syllogism: because Palin loves God and America, and God and America love Palin, anyone who criticises Palin hates America.
According to Walshe and Conroy, Palin admitted during the national campaign, "I just don't want to go back to Alaska." You wouldn't know it from Going Rogue, which presents this state as the alpha and omega, the object of her every move. The infamous Bridge to Nowhere, the unfinished pipeline: all for the good people of Alaska. The same goes for the national election campaign. She even resigned her governorship in 2009 for the good of Alaska - by which point, it seems, Alaska agreed.
And if she can't justify a decision by citing what she did in Alaska, there is always God. Palin is a neo-puritan: theocratic, self-righteous, tribal and profoundly hostile to other perspectives, relying on a mass-market version of Calvinism that views power and material success as evidence of God's favour. Her husband, Todd, was out of work, but eventually his "prayer was answered by an offer for a permanent position with BP".
Palin consistently sees God's hand in her own actions and her ambition becomes an instrument of divine will, her political career an example of Manifest Destiny. Thus, "it didn't come as a huge shock" when McCain called her, less than two years into her first term as the governor of a sparsely populated, electorally negligible state. "It seemed . . . like a natural progression. I'd known it was only a matter of time before others saw Alaska's potential to contribute to America's future."
Her sublime certainty that she numbers among the Elect may have something to do with her outrage whenever her innate righteousness isn't recognised by others, as well as her contemptuous dismissal of anything so picayune as leadership qualifications. It's simply a question of character and virtue; she sees herself as a new model of what used to be called "republican motherhood". She insists that balancing the state's - or the State's - budget is no different from balancing the family chequebook. At one point, she declares that "There's no better training ground for politics than motherhood", or "the basketball court", which taught her "everything I need to know". Any other education is supererogatory.
So, after Steve Schmidt, McCain's chief campaign strategist, asks her during their interview what she knows about the origins of the American presence in Iraq, she recalls dismissively: "I knew the history of the conflict to the extent that most Americans did." Which is to say, not at all - but such American common sense should be good enough for anyone. For what is common sense if not a sense one shares in common?
Ultimately, Palin emerges as driven by something less ideological than it is vainglorious. Cults of personality are catalysed by self-seekers, and her self-aggrandisement is theatrical and performative, thriving on audiences. The excitement she felt at the roaring approval she got during the 2008 campaign is palpable: the book fairly pants with glee in these passages. What Palin and Walshe and Conroy represent as the common touch, a canny ability to connect with audiences, is also a prerequisite of the demagogue. Politics seems more like the means to an end, namely the power and the glory of Sarah Palin - and to an influential role, as candidate or kingmaker, in the future of the United States. To which one can only respond: heaven forbid.
Sarah Churchwell is the author of "The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe" (Granta Books)