Correction: An earlier version of this op-ed misattributed to Washington Examiner columnist Byron York a quote from Iowa Republican Craig Robinson. This version has been updated.
Jane Coaston is a writer and journalist based in Washington.
Nine years ago this month, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) picked Sarah Palin as his running mate for his presidential campaign. Conservatives immediately fell for the popular Alaska governor, proclaiming her the new star of the right for years to come. Less than a decade later, Palin is a political nonentity. She largely keeps her thoughts to paid speeches, the occasional interview and Facebook, where she shares links to conservative clickbait farms.
And yet Palin remains critical: to a faction of the Republican Party, and to understanding the emergence of Donald Trump and Trumpism — the ideology created by the president’s most ardent supporters, though not necessarily by the president himself. Palin’s popularity with the GOP and the American right as a whole wasn’t based on her speeches or her conservative bona fides, her gubernatorial history or her political beliefs, but on what she could be made to mean. In his run for president, Trump was much the same. Now even as Trump’s base of support shrinks, those who remain, the truest of true believers, will never renounce him.
From the moment Palin entered the national scene, the praise for her on the right was heavily tied to her image. After the 2008 vice-presidential debate, National Review editor Rich Lowry described her as “so sparkling it was almost mesmerizing, [sending] little starbursts through the screen and ricocheting around the living rooms of America.” In one of the earliest conservative critiques of Palin, written in September 2008, Post columnist Kathleen Parker said of her initial interest in Palin: “She was the antithesis and nemesis of the hirsute, Birkenstock-wearing sisterhood — a refreshing feminist of a different order who personified the modern successful working mother.” Nowhere in the piece were Palin’s conservative viewpoints referenced; her views on, say, health care or school choice, or even abortion, went unmentioned. Palin’s problem, in Parker’s view, wasn’t her beliefs but her tendency to ramble. What mattered about the governor was what she could reflect back to a hungry Republican base: an “attractive, earnest [and] confident” woman in a position of power.
And Palin said what the base was thinking. She accused Barack Obama of “palling around with terrorists.” She praised those willing to “screw the political correctness.” She cheered the birther movement promoted by one Donald Trump. As the keynote speaker at the first-ever National Tea Party Convention in February 2010, she taunted Democrats, “How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out?” In turn, she was greeted with a standing ovation and chants of “Run, Sarah, run!”
Liberals condescended to Palin. Newspapers corrected her statements on “death panels.” “Saturday Night Live” satirized her relentlessly. That treatment infuriated her supporters. And none of it changed their minds anyway, because Palin was an avatar for how her supporters felt about themselves and the world they wanted to see, one they saw rapidly slipping away from them. Sure, she might be wrong, they seemed to say, but she’s like us. She is us.
Two years later, Palin’s influence had diminished considerably, and she didn’t enter the 2012 presidential race. But she remains tremendously popular to a part of the GOP base, with nearly 5 million fans on Facebook. And her departure left an opening that was filled by Trump, whom she endorsed last year in a speech that seemed odd even to him.
Trump campaigned on the Palin model. In fact, he improved upon it. His identity was his trademark, rendering the constant shifts in policy goals and promises almost meaningless. His base saw in Trump what they wanted to see. Some saw a fighter who would stand up for them, others saw a vaunted truth-teller, and a few, truth be told, likely saw a potential white-nationalist hero. And he gave it to them: the image, the veneer, the blank slate upon which their deeply held dreams — for themselves as much as their country — could be written. His fans weren’t dissuaded by his past support for Democrats (including his 2016 opponent), or his lies, or his personal liberalism, or his crudeness, or his long history of mistreating small-business owners of the kind he claimed to champion, because his fans weren’t voting for Trump. They were voting for what Trump meant to them personally.
In turn, his base will not leave him, because to abandon Trump would not be to abandon the current president but to leave behind deeply held beliefs of their own. His popularity is cultural, not political, resilient to the notions of truth and fiction and to Trump’s own failures. Even after his presidency, regardless of whether it ends in impeachment or in two consecutive terms in office, the image will remain undaunted.
At the 2015 Freedom Summit in Iowa, Palin gave a 35-minute speech described as confusing at best and career-ending at worst by conservative writers and commentators in attendance. The Washington Examiner’s Byron York quoted Iowa Republican Craig Robinson as saying Palin “made a guy like Trump look like a serious presidential candidate.” How appropriate then that the student became the master.