Illustration by Lamia Benalycherif for The Washington Post; photos by Melina Mara/The Washington Post (left) and Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Sarah Palin Has Long Been Ridiculed. I Wanted to Tell a Different Story.

A reconsideration of the narrative that surrounds her as she runs for Congress.

Sarah Palin, the most famous Alaskan of all time, irritates the hell out of journalists. Journalists like availability; Palin hides. Journalists like policy nerds; Palin sloganeers. Journalists like reliability; Palin flakes. Reporting on her current run for Congress is a trial in patience and persistence, not least because her rare public appearances are revealed only hours or, at most, a day or two before they occur.

On May 4, I discovered that Palin, 58, would be attending a four-person candidate forum less than 48 hours later in Bethel, a remote town of 6,500 in western Alaska, reachable only by water or air and closed off to regular cellular service. Getting there in time to see her would be expensive and difficult, but I would at least get a glimpse of her in person, maybe even get a chance to ask a few questions. I arrived in Bethel the next evening, made it to my lodgings and tried to get some sleep, despite the sunlight still streaming in through the window at 10 p.m.

This year Alaska rolled out ranked-choice voting, an elaborate system that allows voters to choose more than one candidate and order their preferences, making the state’s congressional election complex enough. Then, in March, the legendary congressman Don Young, a Republican who had held his seat — Alaska’s only one in the House — for nearly 50 years, died. Forty-eight candidates ran to finish Young’s term in a June 11 primary, which would pick four finalists to run in the special election on Aug. 16, when yet another primary will take place to determine candidates for a full term of the congressional seat, whose occupant will be chosen in the Nov. 8 general election. If that’s too confusing, skip it. The point is that Sarah Palin is trying to go to Washington, and, regardless of who wins, it’ll be a wonder if anyone understands how it happened.

Palin’s tendency to shut out reporters spares her any unwitting embrace of a viper, but it also arguably makes coverage of her even less friendly. I dived into her story with an avowedly open mind, hoping to understand who she is today, nearly 14 years after she first became world-famous as the vice-presidential pick of Republican nominee John McCain, and 13 years after she stepped down as a half-term governor. As others had before me, I encountered such a wall of silence, not only from Palin’s campaign but also from most people in her circle, that I started casting wistful looks at people assigned to write about Kim Jong Un. When I sent a FedEx introducing myself to Palin’s campaign manager, Kris Perry, a loyalist going back to Palin’s days before she was governor, I got no answer. When I managed to catch Perry on her home phone, she excused herself and promised to call the following day. My next calls went unanswered. I broke through to her house phone again a few weeks later when I called from an Alaska area code and was told by her husband, Clark Perry, also a longtime Palin friend and supporter, that his wife requested that I call back at around 1. Guess who didn’t pick up at 1.

Others were evasive too. I considered it a happy day when a source turned down an interview, because I appreciated the human contact. Many of those who were willing to talk to me were Palin’s detractors, with dirt to share. And so, like a new prison warden who vows to set a kinder tone only to find himself stabbed in the leg with a shiv made from a paper plate, a journalist can settle into the more obvious path. The main story becomes the muck: The betrayed supporters and ex-friends. The evasive and incoherent policy positions. The appalling statements (“waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists”; “more power to” Trump for “paying for researchers to find out why President Obama would have spent $2 million to not show his birth certificate”; and many others). The low-rent hustles like her political action committee, her failed online news network or her right-wing content farm.

These affronts are certainly a major part of the Sarah Palin story. But are they all of the Sarah Palin story? Might there be compelling reasons why people admire her and she still has old friends? Some of it may have to do with Palin’s manner — which is one of informality, vulnerability and consideration. She is the sporting aunt who, in 2019, went on a goofy cannabis-focused podcast co-hosted by her nephew to be quizzed for an hour about matters such as whether she’d ever tried marijuana. (Yes, she said, and “I’d rather deal with somebody who has a little buzz on than somebody who’s drunk.”) She is the motor-coach owner who, as RV enthusiast Andrew Steele recalled in a video, would chat with him about his detailing business and take selfies with him — lodging in his memory as one of the nicest people he had ever worked for. She’s the community member who, if you ran into her at the grocery store, would ask about people in your family by name, says former high school dance instructor Sharon Peek. “She made you feel good,” Peek says. She’s the mother, speechwriter Matthew Scully told me, who could attend to a whirlwind of children while practicing her speech to the Republican convention, taking time to run up to the teleprompter technician to introduce herself as “Sarah.” At her best, Palin comforts and inspires. She also makes many Americans feel heard.

This is a time when we all hate one another. You hate me, and I probably hate you, whoever you are. We know it isn’t good for us, however. We know that when we meet many of these adversaries in the flesh, they have qualities that don’t fit into easy theories or diagnoses. We might be able to share a meal, or a yard, or even a country. I spent some time digging for the 573rd piece of dirt on Palin, because we all know it’s out there — but my heart wasn’t in it. In reporting terms, there is nothing new and bad left to say about her. Even if it turns out she’s been running, say, a Ponzi scheme involving caribou antlers, it’s all footnotes, something to be added to a long-standing negative narrative half the country will embrace or reject. I instead resolved to fight my own mental shortcuts — such as viewing her moneymaking pursuits as cynical — and come up with the most generous theories of Palin that I could, given the facts on hand. It’s something we ought to be doing more of these days, anyway, if we’re to feel our way back to getting along.

Bethel, Alaska, has one paved road, and its building structures come across as a haphazard collection dropped out of a plane and left to make a go of it wherever they landed. Trees are few and small, because of tundra conditions, and mud plentiful, drying in warmer seasons to a fine dust that settles over everything. Statistics on education, crime and employment are all grim. The beauty of the place is in the Kuskokwim River, which runs through the town, and the language and arts of the Indigenous Yup’ik people. I took it as evidence of Palin’s sincerity about her run for office that she was going to attend an event here, the only non-Alaska Native to do so.

Goods are often double the price of what other Americans would pay in the Lower 48; my room at the Sleepy Salmon — a bed-and-breakfast that looked like a double-wide on stilts, with dozens of beat-up wood pallets in stacks out front — was $190 a night, plus tax, with a shared bathroom. (It was nice inside, though.) Internet service in Bethel is expensive enough that a sign on the refrigerator instructed guests not to use high-bandwidth applications like FaceTime, or face having the service shut off. Transportation was by a shared taxi, which delivered me to the Long House Hotel, where the candidate forum was to be held.

The few customers at the restaurant on the hotel premises all seemed to be involved with Alaska politics. City Council member Perry Barr, a former state trooper and mayor of Bethel from 2019 to 2020, sat in a booth having a burger and fries. Barr told me about the challenges of law enforcement in rural Alaska, his admiration for the Republican Lisa Murkowski, Alaska’s senior U.S. senator, and his skepticism of Palin, whom he called “Tina Fey,” a reference to the actor and writer who famously impersonated Palin on “Saturday Night Live” in 2008. At another table was congressional candidate Emil Notti, the first president of the Alaska Federation of Natives and one of the legends of Alaskan history, who recounted for me his role in lobbying for the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which passed under Richard Nixon in 1971 and transferred about 10 percent of Alaska’s lands to Native corporations. Notti, who is now 89, first ran for Congress in 1973, against Don Young.

But Bethel was fogged in, and flights carrying the candidates from Anchorage were delayed. The forum got pushed to later in the afternoon. Eventually, the event organizer, Ana Hoffman, president of Bethel Native Corp., had an announcement to make to the waiting audience. Not all of the candidates would be coming, she said. Earlier in the day, when it looked as if Alaska Airlines would be unable to send a plane out of Anchorage to Bethel in time for the forum to be held, Hoffman had called off the event. Minutes later, however, Hoffman had learned that the plane was about to depart, and reinstated the debate. In that interval, Palin’s team had canceled their tickets and, they informed Hoffman, found themselves unable to regain seating on the flight.

My efforts to give my story subject the benefit of the doubt were already meeting with a challenge. I recalled what former Palin aide Frank Bailey described in his memoir as a tendency by Palin to look for any excuse to wriggle out of non-preferred commitments. Republican candidate Tara Sweeney, who was taking the same flight, had decided to wait a few minutes to see if the fog would clear and flew in without any trouble.

After the event, Hoffman invited the candidates and some other attendees, including me, to dinner at her home, an elegant new house overlooking the Kuskokwim. Notti found an armchair by the windows while I set myself at an island in the kitchen. Over a bowl of moose chili, I talked to Sweeney, a close associate of Don Young’s who had served as assistant secretary of the interior for Indian affairs in the Trump administration, and Democratic candidate Mary Peltola, a former state representative and Bethel resident. Peltola wore a stylish red overshirt with a hood and generous pockets, a Native garment called a kuspuk, which, she told me, she hopes will become an Alaskan export product, especially for tourists. The vibe was warm and close-knit, a reminder of how big and small Alaska is at the same time: more than four Californias in size, less than one Seattle in population.

I also thought to myself that Palin would probably not have felt comfortable at this gathering. Before 2008, yes; she would have liked it, I suspect. But not today. She seems to have become accustomed to more controlled settings and too anxious about unfriendly media. If she had chosen to exploit a loophole to bail on her commitment, was it not understandable? No one doubted she’d make it through the primary anyway.

Sarah Palin has had a rough decade. In the past few years, she has been in the headlines mainly for her long-running defamation lawsuit against the New York Times, filed over a 2017 editorial tying Palin’s political action committee to a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson that killed six people and wounded 12 others, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat. In February, a Manhattan jury rejected Palin’s claims, but no one, including the Times, disputed that the offending editorial had been unfair.

Before 2011, Palin was riding high. Millions of dollars flowed into SarahPAC, her political action committee established in 2009. Tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands of dollars rolled in for speeches, and she received a reported $1.25 million advance for her first book, 2009’s “Going Rogue,” a bestseller. Her political endorsements helped sweep Republicans like Kentucky’s Rand Paul and South Carolina’s Nikki Haley into office. She starred in a nine-part reality show called “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” produced by TV titan Mark Burnett, giving the world an often-charming view of her family and state.

The Tucson shooting marked a turning point. Journalists and editorial boards stampeded into ascribing the incident to hatred ginned up by the right, and Palin in particular, because of a SarahPAC graphic that had included crosshairs over vulnerable Democratic districts on a U.S. map. When an upset Palin released a statement condemning such accusations as a “blood libel,” a new storm of negative press erupted over her use of a freighted term. The outrage was selective (many other public figures had used the phrase over the years), but it was fateful. Palin’s favorability numbers, already sagging, began to tumble.

Palin stayed busy and released some more books, including “Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas” (2013) and “Sweet Freedom: A Devotional” (2015). She also made more political endorsements that banked a lot of chits. Ted Cruz, who gained momentum in 2012 after securing Palin’s endorsement in a tough primary in Texas, has said he “would not be in the U.S. Senate today if it were not for Governor Sarah Palin.” Even in 2014, six years after her vice-presidential run, Palin could draw a crowd in many states. In Kansas that year, when she spoke at a rally for then-Sen. Pat Roberts, organizers expected a couple hundred people to show up; the number quickly hit 500 and kept growing. Roberts remembers Palin having an electric effect when she spoke. “Lord have mercy, she just blew the house away,” he told me. But her influence overall was declining, and so was revenue to SarahPAC, which shut down at the end of 2016.

The rise of Donald Trump might have heralded a revival of Palin’s fortunes, after she took a risk and endorsed him early during the primaries. But Trump did little to repay the favor, even freezing her out at the Republican convention in 2016, claiming Palin had bowed out because Alaska is “a long ways away.” In the end, Palin was rewarded with a dinner at the White House, bringing, among others, Ted Nugent, Kid Rock, her daughter Willow and her close friends Clark and Kris Perry, the ones who treated my phone calls like door knocks from the Grim Reaper.

There was also trouble on the home front. In the summer of 2019, Todd Palin initiated divorce proceedings. Palin has said that the split felt as if “I got shot.” When Focus on the Family founder James Dobson was trying to get in touch with her to follow up on arrangements for an appearance, she avoided his calls, as she later admitted in an interview with him, for fear of being told not to come after all. Once news of the divorce became public, Twitter and late-night television erupted in jokes. “It just happens,” offered Bill Maher. “They grifted apart.” (Todd Palin did not respond to a request for comment.)

Today, Palin’s campaign filing shows assets of at most $2.4 million and possibly as little as $950,000. She gets about $90,000 in advertising revenue from a right-wing content farm that she has operated with the aid of some conservative media entrepreneurs. Most of her money these days comes from Cameo, a service that allows people to buy a personalized greeting from a celebrity, which earned her about $212,000 last year.

Palin still lives in her longtime home on Lake Lucille in Wasilla, Alaska, splitting custody of her youngest child, Trig, 14, who has Down syndrome and attends public school nearby. Of her adult children, only Track, 33, still lives in the area. Her 31-year-old daughter, Bristol, lives in Texas, as does Willow, 28, while 21-year-old Piper lives in Arizona. In a 2021 episode of a cooking show called “Cooking Crazy Style With Molly B,” Sarah shows the host, Molly Blakeley, how to make a rhubarb pie, and the house — which in “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” was buzzing with family — now echoes like a cavern. Early this year, Palin confirmed she was dating former NHL star Ron Duguay, 65. “Hockey mom and hockey player,” Duguay told me. “We enjoy being around each other.” But Palin lives in Alaska and Duguay in Florida, so the relationship is a long-distance one.

All of this helps explain what was going on when Palin made the decision to sue the New York Times. You could argue that it was just “cynically transactional,” as John F. Harris has suggested in Politico. In this version of the narrative, Palin was looking for a way to get some attention for herself once more, and she picked a target hated by many on the right, creating an opening for opportunists of all sorts, from lawyers to political strategists. But in a more charitable reading of the events, Palin kicked up a fuss because she felt sincere grievance. At a time when she was in a steep career decline and adrift, the Times editorial had reopened a painful wound in an unworthy manner. “I didn’t have any TV contracts, I didn’t have that platform,” she later told a courtroom. “There I was up in Wasilla, Alaska, going up against those who buy ink by the barrel, and I had my No. 2 pencil on my kitchen table.” It might have been a canned line, but it wasn’t a bad one.

If Palin’s bunkering makes it hard for her to attract positive coverage, the problem is compounded by the cheery availability of her opponents. Palin’s most formidable challenger, Nick Begich, a Club for Growth-style conservative businessman endorsed by the Alaska Republican Party, spent an hour with me over coffee in Anchorage going over arcane policy details about resource extraction and the push for broadband. I asked Begich why he had agreed to meet with a reporter for a national publication that is often criticized by many of his fellow conservatives. “The business case for Alaska has to be made to the nation, not just the people we encounter on a regular basis,” Begich said. “If a candidate is unwilling to make that case, they’re not prepared to do the job.”

On the evening of May 25, I attended a candidate forum in Anchorage, for Republicans only, hosted by the Anchorage Republican Women’s Club. The club’s president, the charmingly cantankerous Judy Eledge, griped during her opening remarks that Palin had been noncommittal about attending. Finally, at the last minute, Palin’s campaign declined, saying the candidate was too busy. “She was busy returning from Georgia,” Eledge growled, referring to a trip Palin had taken over the weekend to stump for Georgia gubernatorial candidate David Perdue. To mark Palin’s absence, the organizers put out an empty chair with “Palin” on the back, to which was attached a “Yes”/“No” sign handed out to the candidates for a speed round, the “No” side facing the crowd. When candidate John Coghill got an impish question about what Alaskans “need to know about Sarah Palin,” he held his microphone up to the empty chair, drawing one of the bigger laughs of the evening.

The Anchorage and Bethel forums weren’t the only ones Palin missed. She had also skipped a forum in Juneau, the capital, a week earlier. “You mess with some of these Republican women, and they’ll reach down your throat and yank out your lungs,” Suzanne Downing, publisher of the conservative website Must Read Alaska, told me over dinner in Anchorage. While Begich has been endorsed by many local organizations and luminaries, including (ouch) Todd Palin’s father, Jim Palin, Sarah Palin’s endorsements have mostly been national, with Donald Trump most prominent among them. Her local endorsements tend to come from people who have no obvious connection to politics or government and are described on Palin’s Instagram feed with terms like “Anchorage Businessman” or sometimes nothing at all.

But Palin has more license to follow her own rules. She doesn’t need any introduction, and she doesn’t need the standard party networks. Even when she was in state politics, she could be prickly toward fellow Republicans. She has paid the price for this. When she resigned as chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2004, citing corruption, it was over a Republican misusing his perch, and she gave up a $122,400 salary, a small fortune for the Palin family at the time. Stuff like that burns bridges because loyalty and anti-corruption are not natural bedfellows. But maybe opposition to corruption really is as central to Palin’s values as she claims, regardless of any ethical breaches she has been accused of herself. And perhaps her independent streak explains why she feels at liberty to forgo interactions with a party establishment that has never much cared for her anyway.

John McCain did something terrible to Palin when he offered her the spot as his running mate. At the time, she was a governor with high approval ratings in her home state, north of 80 percent in some polls. She was a staunch conservative but not a firebrand, and she didn’t mind working with the opposition party. As Joshua Green laid out in a 2011 article in the Atlantic, Palin worked with Democrats to come up with a deal that raised taxes on oil producers and yielded enormous revenue for the state. Many Republicans still resent her for it. You could say that Palin seemed to point the way to a different sort of GOP, one that stood for social conservatism but also for Alaska-style libertarianism and working-class-friendly economics. Had she completed her term, or two of them, and stayed popular, she would have been a serious contender in national politics.

But Palin had a blind spot when it came to career timing. Her focus was on opportunity, not, it seems, on her own preparedness. “Okay, God, if there is an open door for me somewhere — this is what I always pray — I’m like, don’t let me miss the open door,” Palin told Fox News in 2008. If that is your prayer to God, you will not say no to the offer of a lifetime.

All vice-presidential candidates are expected to launch attacks, playing bad cop to the presidential good cop, and Palin does not seem to have thought twice about taking shots at Barack Obama in her GOP convention speech, delivered on Night 3 of the Republican National Convention. “My fellow citizens, the American presidency is not supposed to be a journey of personal discovery,” she said, in one blood-drawing line. “This world of threats and dangers, it’s not just a community and it doesn’t just need an organizer.” It was a speech that changed everything: One side now wanted to coronate her and the other wanted to destroy her. When an ebullient Chuck Heath, Palin’s big brother, ran into Joe McCain, John’s little brother, in a hallway after the speech, Joe cautioned, “You have no idea what they’re about to do to your sister.”

The onslaught was brutal. The news media cannot be blamed for having probed Palin’s understanding of national and international affairs and revealing it to be dangerously inadequate, or be faulted for reports on Palin’s ethics controversies and other baggage back in Alaska — this, after all, is the job of journalists. Nor can it be denied that Palin sometimes used the media to her advantage and played up a sense of injury whenever it seemed to work in her favor. What’s not clear, however, is why, if the truth was so damning, reporters needed to write so many falsehoods. As the conservative writer Matthew Continetti chronicled in his book “The Persecution of Sarah Palin,” she was described in mainstream outlets as someone who opposed contraception, joined the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party, pushed for bans of library books and didn’t know that Africa was a continent. All those claims were either false or wildly distorted. And Palin never said she could “see Russia from my house”: That was a Tina Fey line. “Palin revealed something about elites,” says Continetti, “especially elites in the media, who were extremely quick to judge her character negatively, often rushed stories into print that turned out to be wrong, and revealed contempt not just for her, but for people like her.”

If journalists of late have been revisiting past episodes of sexist treatment of women in public life, from Hillary Clinton to Britney Spears, mainstream reassessments of the treatment of Sarah Palin have been slower to arrive.

The personal attacks also went way further than normal, even in the rough-and-tumble realm of opinion journalism. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen suggested McCain’s pick of Palin was like Emperor Caligula appointing his horse consul. A Salon columnist called her a “power-mad, backwater beauty-pageant casualty” who made the writer feel “as horrified as a ghetto Jew watching the rise of National Socialism.” Then there were the crackpot claims that Palin was not the real mother of Trig. As I began this article, I checked old stories of mine to see if I’d ever written anything nasty about Palin. Yes, it turns out, I had: a cringe-inducing parody in 2009 for the Guardian of “Going Rogue” that epitomized everything people hate about journalists. It mocked her manner of speaking, suggested she was a fabulist, made fun of her education and in general hit on every cliched target in the snottiest way possible. Welp.

If journalists of late have been revisiting past episodes of sexist treatment of women in public life, from Hillary Clinton to Britney Spears, mainstream reassessments of the treatment of Sarah Palin have been slower to arrive. Yet it’s hard, looking back at 2008 and 2009, not to ask if Palin’s gender allowed people to feel freer not just to hate but also to condescend. Perhaps McCain’s campaign — which she has described as treating her in a highhanded manner — would have behaved the same toward a male sitting governor. But it’s fair to wonder.

When Palin returned to Alaska, she assumed, as she put it in “Going Rogue,” that “everything would go back to the way it was before.” She couldn’t have been more wrong. Democrats and Republicans in Juneau both held grudges against her now. She faced lots of legal bills, and her opponents filed a barrage of ethics complaints. Reporters and opposition researchers descended upon the state, digging into her past and looking for a knockout blow. Bitter McCain campaign insiders also dished on her in the national press. Cynics have said Palin chose to resign as governor in the summer of 2009 because she wanted to grab a book deal and run. But the book deal was already signed. Maybe Palin believed, as she implied in a meandering statement, that she was no longer good for Alaska.

The 10 weeks that Palin spent as a vice-presidential candidate left her in a trap. She was loved as never before but also hated as never before. There was no obvious way out of this conflict: Sustaining the love of her supporters, which she appeared to crave, also meant stoking the hatred of her opponents, which she seemed to fear. In the end, she worked to please the only team she had by surfing the waters of partisan outrage and mastering social media in all its varieties. Twenty-five years ago, Sarah Palin was a cheerful small-town mayor carting her kids with her to yoga class. Today, she seems to be someone who spends a lot of time online while worrying that half of Americans want to destroy the country. But strangely enough, many of us, right and left, have walked a similar path.

People often say that Sarah Palin anticipated the rise of Donald Trump, but you could say the same of Pat Buchanan or Ross Perot or Herman Cain, depending on your focus. Trumpism is perhaps best understood as two things: populist-right mood and populist-right policy. The mood is one of resentment toward predatory or incompetent elites, and the policy (in theory, at least) is one of strength through self-containment — whether regarding immigration or commerce or military deployment. J.D. Vance, running for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, represents Trumpism mainly as policy, while Palin represents it mainly as mood.

This can make Palin maddeningly hazy on issues that many conservatives and liberals alike care about most. On foreign policy, she has veered from McCain-style hawkishness to seeming anti-interventionism and back. The same goes for something like the bailouts of Wall Street in 2008. All of this makes her look unserious in comparison to Trump, who, for all his antics, offered a worldview that challenged settled notions of left and right.

Perhaps, however, Palin chooses to be vague because she has different priorities. Like most politicians, she fights for a few core convictions and leaves the rest up for grabs. Rather than war or trade, she has shown herself to be most passionate about ending abortion, cleaning up government and promoting Alaskan resource development. Palin also had a coalition to maintain; confining herself to easy targets allowed her to retain the fandom of very different sorts of conservatives. Anyone who could be the darling of both Bill Kristol and Steve Bannon, as Palin was just over a decade ago, was going to disappoint one of them eventually. Certainly, Palin’s equivocation on big issues can still be brazen. She has condemned the “idiots who did storm the Capitol” on Jan. 6, 2021, yet at the same time claimed Trump wasn’t to blame for the unrest. But she also must know that she’ll have no chance to advance her central causes if she loses support by taking a clear stand on what she sees as peripheral matters.

People often point to personality traits shared by Palin and Trump, such as thin skin and self-absorption. But the resemblance is superficial. Both have thin skins, but Trump’s covers a hearty and insensate core; Palin described being excluded from McCain’s funeral as a “gut punch” and told Fox host Sean Hannity that she could watch Tina Fey’s impression of her only with “the volume all the way down.” Trump enjoys riling the other side, while Palin, despite her flame throwing, seems most eager to please her own side. Trump clashed with journalists but clearly enjoyed the fight. Palin, although she got along well with reporters before 2008, now keeps journalists at a distance. Trump insists on being called “Mr. Trump” and likes the trappings of royalty, while Palin goes by her first name and keeps things simpler. In conversations, Trump talks about himself. Palin asks people about their families.

Because Palin has always spoken in buzz phrases and generalities with what often looks like minimal regard for accuracy, detractors have said she anticipated Trump’s disregard for facts. Most of Palin’s howlers, though, fit within current parameters of political exaggeration and obfuscation. What makes these comments especially noticeable to journalists, I would argue, is that she is on the right, and most journalists are not. Untruths in service of a listener’s preferred narrative are never as jarring as untruths in service of an unwelcome narrative. You’ll draw far fewer brickbats for calling Florida legislation the “don’t say gay” bill than you will for suggesting that Obamacare would lead to “death panels,” as Palin infamously did in 2009, even though both are forms of agitprop. This isn’t to excuse agitprop, especially at a time when we’re drowning in it, but Palin isn’t unusual for producing it.

Palin’s religious faith alarms many of her critics in a way that Trump’s religious faith, if that’s what you can call it, never did. For two decades, until 2002, Palin attended a Pentecostal church where, as the Wall Street Journal reported in 2008, “congregants speak in tongues and are part of a faith that believes humanity is in its ‘end times.’ ” Of course, her views on an issue like abortion are partly grounded in her religion, which makes those convictions look firmer than Trump’s and therefore scarier to her opponents, but when it comes to self-aggrandizement, her faith also appears to discourage her from Trumpian excesses. Pentecostalism, says R.R. Reno, editor of the conservative religious journal First Things, is the “most American form of Christianity,” one that’s intensely egalitarian. Palin has written that her faith allows for “comfort in admitting shortcomings” and has stressed the virtue of staying “grounded” by doing something like changing a diaper before a big speech. Strong libertarian themes also run through her work, and the word “freedom” appears 134 times in her 2010 book “America by Heart.”

Like Trump, Palin appears to hold grudges, but she also acts as if she grasps the importance of avoiding pettiness when the nation is watching. Months after the 2008 election, she kicked off her 2009 state of the state address by congratulating Obama on his inauguration, saying that “if President Obama governs with the skill, grace and greatness of which he is capable, Alaska’s going to be just fine.” She got some rough treatment from McCain, who revealed in 2018 that he regretted not choosing Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate, but she continued to speak admiringly of her one-time political partner. (Trump, by contrast, continued to bash McCain even after his death.) In 2018, when a young man who had gone to jail for hacking Palin’s email in 2008 died of complications related to progressive multiple sclerosis, Palin posted a message to Facebook sending “heartfelt condolences” to the family, saying “the 2008 incident does not define David” and asking “to let David’s good memory supersede anything else.” Trump rarely manages to rise above grievances. Palin, at least sometimes, does.

On June 11, Alaska tallied up the results of its special election primary, and Palin finished in first place, with 27 percent, followed by Republican Nick Begich at 19 percent, independent Al Gross at 13 percent and Democrat Mary Peltola at 10 percent. Gross dropped out, so Palin now faces Peltola and Begich in the special election.

The pre-2008 Palin, who was less predictable, might have been a stronger candidate. Because Alaska has only one vote in the U.S. House, there’s a tactical advantage to being a little bit capricious. If your vote is up for grabs, people will offer you concessions, perhaps on matters like infrastructure or access to natural resources, and Alaskan legislators in D.C. have used that to the state’s advantage. Whether Palin will have such flexibility in her current incarnation is questionable. She has pledged to join the Freedom Caucus, a group known for rebelling against Republican leadership and pushing for more hard-line policy. That might give her credibility, but it may also mark her as too much of a dissident to cut useful deals for her state.

On July 9, Donald Trump made it to Anchorage to hold a rally — at which he spoke mostly of Donald Trump, but still managed to include a politically valuable endorsement of Palin. It was a reminder that, in contemporary politics, to be for or against Trump defines almost everything. And so, if elected, Palin will once again be hated, a potential trophy for hunters. Because her life is messy — very messy — they may yet get her. In a war, you want to take out the other side’s icons, and she’s an important one. The question is whether everything needs to be on a war footing in the first place.

Two years ago, I was researching the question of how to get Americans to unite on something as modest as a set of shared facts. During my reporting, it became clear that the problem was one of feelings more than metaphysics. As the philosopher Linda Zagzebski, author of the 2012 book “Epistemic Authority,” explained to me, “Emotional goodwill precedes the sharing of facts.” To put it another way, we don’t hate one another because we have a different sense of facts. We have a different sense of facts because we hate one another. Chip away at the distrust and animosity, and facts can be pooled once more. If we can tell a human story of Sarah Palin, maybe people can wish her victory or defeat instead of vengeful triumph or destruction. Maybe we can do that for all sorts of people, even when our gut hates the idea.

On March 11, 2020, the reality show “The Masked Singer” featured a performer in a fuzzy pink-and-blue ensemble of dress, boots and giant bear head who rapped Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” famous for its opening line, “I like big butts.” The judges, whose job it was to attempt to guess the star’s identity, were stumped, although one suggested Tina Fey. When the singer took off the bear head and revealed herself to be Palin, jaws dropped. “It’s unity,” Palin said. “It’s something our country needs right now, too.” Was she wrong?

T.A. Frank is a writer at large for Vanity Fair.

Loading...
Loading...