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15 October 2021

Sarah Palin lost, but then she won

She didn’t become vice-president, and she’s largely out of politics. So why do I see Palin’s image mirrored everywhere?

By Emily Tamkin

Lately, I find myself thinking of Sarah Palin.

In the fall of 2008, I sat in my college dormitory and watched Palin, then the governor of Alaska, address the Republican National Convention. The speech didn’t say much. She bashed experts in Washington and pundits and politicians and reporters. She talked about being a mother. She made a famous joke about the difference between a pit bull and a “hockey mom” being lipstick. She threatened what would happen to the US if the Republicans’ opponent, Barack Obama, won the election that year.

I hated that speech. People ate it up, though, including the pundits she bashed. She went on Saturday Night Live. She still wasn’t saying much of anything, save that there was a real America full of patriots and then another America, but that didn’t seem to matter. She sent analysts into a frenzy by winking during the vice-presidential debate (her opponent was now-president Joe Biden). She was a celebrity as much as she was a politician.

She and her running mate John McCain lost, and Palin slowly receded from view. She had a TV show that went off air a decade ago. She endorsed Donald Trump in 2016 (“which could bolster him”, the New York Times offered at the time). She’s still around, going on Fox News from time to time. But mostly she is out of sight.

But I have been thinking of her, because, though she herself is less visible, Palin’s image is everywhere.

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I thought of her as I was watching the Ohio Senate race. One candidate for the Republican nomination, Josh Mandel, has, in the past week, suggested that George Soros was responsible for the coronavirus and that Christopher Columbus was an American hero – as the US argued whether or not it was right to continue observing a day named for a man who inflicted immense cruelty on the population he “discovered”. Another Republican hopeful, JD Vance, called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to resign after news came out that the FBI was looking into threats against school staff; Vance said this was the weaponisation of politics against parents.

Does any of this help people? It does not. It’s pure performance. It’s the theatre of the culture wars.

I think of Palin as I read of this politician and that one refusing to tell people to get vaccinated and abide by mask mandates. In 2009, she coined the term “death panels” to scare people about the consequences of the Affordable Care Act. “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down’s Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgement of their ‘level of productivity in society’, whether they are worthy of healthcare,” she wrote on Facebook. Right-wing media picked it up, the Tea Party network of Obama-era fiscal conservatives ran on it, and the phrase stuck.

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I think of how hard it has been for people to get clear, simple, straightforward information during this pandemic – in part because of bureaucratic missteps, but also because of political polarisation and misinformation – and I think of Sarah Palin. “These are the real death panels,” some say, pointing to our overburdened hospitals, which only reveals her lingering power. We’re still, all these years later, using the terms she set for the debate.

And when newly elected members of Congress seem more interested in Twitter and their social media profile than legislating, I think of Trump, of course, but I also think of Palin. She was so good, for a time, at capturing our imaginations and attention with provocative soundbites.

Some will say that these politicians are trying to be Trump, not Palin. And they are. But though Trump was purely himself, he was also occupying a niche that Palin created. It didn’t matter if she didn’t actually know much about energy policy, because what mattered was that people were chanting “drill, baby, drill” at her rallies. As PBS put it last year, she ushered in a kind of post-truth, show-over-substance era of American politics. And we couldn’t look away.

Some will suggest that Palin did not invent any of this. And it’s true. The US has a long history of politicians who have successfully campaigned on the idea that a true America is under attack and needs to be defended.

I do think, though, that she may have perfected it. She was on Fox News again on 12 October, claiming that the border wall was common sense. And as she winked at the camera, I found myself almost feeling bad for her. It must be quite a thing to be so good at marketing superficiality and division that everyone else steals your shtick, leaving you just one of many selling what once made you stand out.

[See also: Is Al Gore really a hero of the climate movement?]

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