The rumor swirling about Donald Trump’s campaign is that later on Tuesday, he will unveil an endorsement from none other than Sarah Louise Palin, tribune of patriotic small-town Americans and former denizen of the upper reaches of your cable dial. (Sadly, my research indicates that “Amazing America with Sarah Palin” is no longer haunting the Sportsman Channel, more evidence of this country’s cultural decline.)
In and of itself this won’t change the race; Palin’s fans are a hardy but finite bunch. But it is utterly appropriate, since in many ways Trump and Palin are a kind of mirror image of one another, exactly alike in some ways yet opposites in others, a yin and yang of Republican nincompoopery.
When in 2013 Fox News packed up the in-home studio they had built for Palin, I lamented her passing in part by asking liberals, “Can you imagine encountering a politician again whom you will find even half as appalling?” The answer came just a couple of years later, with the emergence of Trump. Their similarities are obvious. They both find the details of policy to be unworthy of their interest. They both crave media attention yet spend inordinate amounts of time insulting the media. The love-hate relationship extends to their sources of vital information; asked what newspapers she read, Palin replied, “All of ’em,” while Trump, when asked whom he turns to for advice on military matters, answered, “Well, I watch the shows.”
They both know when to cut their losses: Trump has availed himself of America’s generous bankruptcy laws on multiple occasions, while Palin resigned her job as Alaska governor two and a half years into her first term. As she said in her resignation speech, staying in the job would have been “a quitter’s way out,” because “it would be apathetic to just hunker down and go with the flow. Nah, only dead fish go with the flow.” That’s another of their similarities — both eschew prepared remarks in favor of extemporaneous, stream-of-consciousness speeches, often with farcical results. The two also share a suspicion about the provenance of Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
And then there’s this: in 1996 the Anchorage Daily News reported on the exciting arrival in Alaska of one Ivana Trump, interviewing a young commercial fisherman who had driven down from Wasilla to see the celebrity wife. “We want to see Ivana,” Sarah Palin told the paper, ”because we are so desperate in Alaska for any semblance of glamour and culture.”
But their differences are profound, too. Trump is from the big city, while Palin extols the virtues of small-town life and small-town folks — indeed, if Ted Cruz’s attack on Trump’s “New York values” had found a cry of “Amen!” from any major Republican, it would have been Palin. Palin’s post-politics career has been about monetizing her patriotism, with books and television shows attesting to how super-awesome our country is (even if Barack Obama is trying to destroy it). Trump, on the other hand, sees America as a corroded husk of a country, full of losers doing nothing but losing unless he can pull us out of our national doldrums. The personal beliefs and preferences Palin brought to politics were undoubtedly heartfelt, while Trump will adopt any totem of grassroots conservatism he happens upon, his insincerity plain for all to see, even if no one seems to mind (The Bible? Sure, great book, dynamite book. Guns? Oh yeah, I’m a big Second Amendment guy).
Most important, Trump is right now experiencing the success Palin never could. We can’t know for sure what would have happened if Palin had tried to run for president in 2012 or 2016, but you’d have a hard time finding anyone who thinks it would have gone well for her.
Yet Palin’s potential re-emergence, if only for a day or two, is also a reminder that for all the majesty of Trump’s persona, in many ways Trumpism far predates Trump himself. The oversimplification of complex issues and the reveling in the scorn of those high-falutin’ establishment know-it-alls would have characterized any Palin run as much as they do Trump’s. Yet while Trump used his renown as a celebrity to create a presidential campaign, Palin tried to use her renown as a politician to create a career as a celebrity (with decidedly less success).
Both are adept at wielding the politics of contempt, finding the places where base Republican voters are angry or resentful and exploiting them. Trump focuses on dangerous foreigners, the Muslims coming to bomb your children or the Mexicans coming to rape your wives and daughters. For Palin, the enemy was always the liberal elite, the ones who look down their noses at reg’lar folk.
By the time you read this, Palin may have endorsed Trump, or his surprise announcement could have turned out to be someone else entirely (and earlier today Trump unveiled another blockbuster endorsement, this one from John Wayne’s daughter). If his mystery endorser were Palin, one would have to respond that of course she’d be backing him. A blowhard celebrity running a bizarre campaign exploiting people’s worst instincts? That’s Sarah Palin’s kind of guy.