In that moment, and in the minutes that followed, the virus infecting our politics ― a decades-long drift into entertainment and triviality — collided in real time with the actual virus that’s now paralyzing our communities. The question is whether both might soon burn themselves out.
Palin, it turned out, was a minor figure in our politics; she came within shouting distance of the second-most powerful office in the land, then pivoted immediately to more lucrative forms of celebrity, such as writing tired right-wing screeds and dancing in bear suits. But she symbolized something much more profound in the American culture.
Even the way that John McCain handed Palin the second spot on the Republican ticket in 2008 — the least patriotic thing he ever did — spoke to the incursion of unscripted entertainment into our politics. She was marginally qualified and virtually unknown, but like any good contestant, she was charismatic and game for anything, as long as someone was watching.
McCain needed a culture warrior to fire up the base? Then that’s what she’d be. Never mind that Palin had acted the part of a good-government reformer during her brief career in Alaska. Politics was a series of performances, a succession of roles meant to showcase her range.
You can draw a direct line (and I have) from the onset of celebrity-based politics in the late 1980s; to the rise of entertainer-governors such as Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger a decade or more later; to the Palin phenomenon in 2008; and finally, to the takeover of the Republican Party by a reality TV character named Donald Trump.
Trump inherited the set that Palin built. Like her, he tailored his act for the crowd, playing to the basest emotions of a furious electorate, dismissing facts as the fetish of the elite, peddling mockery and meanness in the place of any real ideology.
No riff was too outrageous, so long as it got a reaction. Trump wanted the office, I guess, but not nearly as much as he wanted the stage.
So it was terrifically fitting, on Wednesday night, when Palin yielded to Trump, who then stumbled his way through a version of the same speech he has given on basically every important occasion of his presidency, going back to the inauguration that he described as if it were the largest political rally in human history.
Others are trying to destroy us. Close the borders. And so on.
Except something strange was happening in the Oval Office during Trump’s rare prime-time address. Denied his live minions or foils, unable to ad lib and provoke, Trump the performer unraveled. The speech was semi-coherent and full of errors. The speaker was tortured and small. Exactly no one was reassured.
Which is kind of what happens when you take the audience away from the performer who needs it to breathe — in this case, it sometimes seemed, literally. Politics ceases to be a show. What’s left is only the reality.
We’re about to find out how the backdrop of a global pandemic changes our politics, at least for a while. Sen. Bernie Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden will debate in a Washington studio Sunday, instead of in a theater with a live audience. Trump will be kept away from rallies and rope lines. There will be no playing to the crowds.
My guess is that an environment such as this one, with all the performance art suddenly stripped away, will expose the emptiness of our loud extremes, even as their most avid consumers continue to holler away on social media.
Biden will come off as a solid, semi-articulate guy with a lifetime’s experience in confronting political crises. Sanders, on the other hand, will look like an old man shouting at no one in the middle of the night, recycling the same old grievances.
And then you have Trump, whose craven monologue of a presidency has been exposed, this week, for what it is: the desperate act of a performer who has no plan beyond whipping up a crowd. He’ll come through the crisis all right, but his brand of celebrity-driven politics might not seem quite so compelling on the other side of it.
Eventually, all viruses run their course.