Sarah Palin’s heavily publicized book tour begins in earnest this Monday, but weeks before, her ghostwritten memoir, Going Rogue: An American Life, had already vaulted into the number one position at Amazon. Warming up for a tour that will take her across Middle America in a bus, Palin tested her lines in a November 7th speech before a crowd of 5,000 anti-abortion activists in Wisconsin. She promptly cited an urban legend as a “disturbing trend,” claiming the Treasury Department had moved the phrase “In God We Trust” from presidential dollar coins. (The rumor most likely originated with a 2006 story on the far-right website WorldNetDaily.)
In fact, a suggested alteration in its position on the coin was shot down in 2007 after pressure from Democratic Senator Robert Byrd. Nonetheless, Palin did not hesitate to take up this “controversy,” however false, since it conveniently pits a tyrannical, God-destroying, secular big government against humble God-fearing folk. In doing so, of course, she presented herself as this nation’s leading defender of the faith.
In a Republican Party hoping to rebound in 2010 on the strength of a newly energized and ideologically aroused conservative grassroots, Palin’s influence is now unparalleled. Through her Facebook page, she was the one who pushed the rumor of “death panels” into the national healthcare debate, prompting the White House to issue a series of defensive responses. Unfazed by its absurdity, she repeated the charge in her recent speech in Wisconsin. In a special congressional election in New York’s 23rd congressional district, Palin’s endorsement of Doug Hoffman, an unknown far-right third-party candidate, helped force a popular moderate Republican politician, Dede Scozzafava, from the race. In the end, Palin’s ideological purge in upstate New York led to an improbable Democratic victory, the first in that GOP-heavy district in more than 100 years.
Though the ideological purge may have backfired, Palin’s participation in it magnified her influence in the party. In a telling sign of this, Congressman Mark Kirk, a pro-choice Republican from the posh suburban North Shore of Chicago, running for the Senate in Illinois, issued an anxious call for Palin’s support while she campaigned for Hoffman. According to a Kirk campaign memo, the candidate was terrified that Palin would be asked about his candidacy during her scheduled appearance on the Chicago-based Oprah Winfrey Show later this month—the kick-off for her book tour—and would not react enthusiastically. With $2.3 million in campaign cash and no viable primary challengers, Kirk was still desperate to avoid Palin-backed attacks from his right flank, however hypothetical they might be.
“She’s gangbusters!” a leading conservative radio host exclaimed to me. “There is nobody in the Republican Party who can raise money like her or top her name recognition.”
During the 2008 presidential race, some Republican Party elders warned of Palin’s destructive influence. They insisted she was a polarizing figure whose extremism would accelerate the Party’s slide toward the political and cultural margins. New York Times columnist David Brooks, a card-carrying neocon who had written glowingly of Senator McCain, claimed Palin represented “a fatal cancer to the Republican Party.” Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Reagan and columnist for the Wall Street Journal, blasted Palin as “a dope and unqualified from the start.” Last June, Steve Schmidt, the former McCain campaign chief of staff, warned that Palin’s nomination as the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee would be “catastrophic.”
New polling data appears to support such doomsday prophecies. According to an October 19th Gallup poll, the former governor of Alaska has become one of the most polarizing and unpopular politicians in the country. Since she quit the governorship to pursue her lucrative book deal, a move that upset many in Alaska’s Republican leadership and cost the state’s taxpayers almost $200,000, her unfavorability rating has spiked to 50% while her favorability has sunk to 40%, again according to Gallup’s figures. (The only nationally-known politician who is less popular right now, according to the poll, is John Edwards, the former two-term senator who fathered a child out of wedlock and paid his mistress hush money while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination on a social justice platform.)
If Palin is indeed a cancer on the GOP, why can’t the Republican establishment retire her to a quiet life of moose hunting in the political wilderness? Why has her appeal only increased in the wake of her catastrophic political expeditions? Why won’t she listen to, or abide by, conventional political wisdom?
The answer lies beyond the realm of polls and punditry in the political psychology of the movement that animates and, to a great degree, controls, the Republican grassroots—a uniquely evangelical subculture defined by the personal crises of its believers and their perceived persecution at the hands of cosmopolitan elites.
By emphasizing her own crises and her victimization by the “liberal media,” Palin has established an invisible, indissoluble bond with adherents of that subculture—so visceral it transcends any rational political analysis. As a result, her career has become a vehicle through which the right-wing evangelical movement feels it can express its deepest identity in opposition both to secular society and to its representatives in the Obama White House. Palin is perceived by its leaders—and followers—not as another cynical politician or even as a self-promoting celebrity, but as a kind of magical helper, the God-fearing glamour girl who parachuted into their backwater towns to lift them from the drudgery of everyday life, assuring them that they represented the “Real America.”
If McCain had taken his preferred choice for a running mate in 2008, he would have chosen Joseph Lieberman, the turncoat Democrat and his best friend in the Senate. But with the base of the Republican Party subsumed by a Christian right that detested the senator, his advisors urged him to choose the untested, virtually unknown Alaskan governor to bring the faithful back to him. Their gamble paid off—at least in the short-term. When Palin was revealed as the vice presidential nominee at an off-the-record gathering of the Council for National Policy, a secretive cabal of the conservative movement’s top financiers and activists, Tom Minnery of the Christian right outfit Focus on the Family recalled, “People were on their seats applauding cheering, yelling… that room was electrified.”
Before her nomination, the provincial Palin had traveled outside the country only once and demonstrated little, if any, intellectual curiosity. During the campaign, she was flummoxed when CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric simply asked what magazines she read. Yet the fact that she had such a limited understanding of the world actually recommended her to the Republican base.
The gun-toting, snowmobile-cruising former beauty queen became an instant cultural icon. Little understood by those outside this culture was her religious worldview, cultivated during the 20 years she spent worshipping at the Wasilla Assembly of God, a right-wing Pentecostal church in her hometown north of Anchorage. When I visited the church in October 2008, a pastor from Kenya, Bishop Thomas Muthee, was at the podium comparing Palin to Queen Esther, the biblical queen who used her wiles to intercede for her people. The reference was clear enough: Palin, the former beauty pageant contestant who had chosen Esther as her biblical role model when she first entered politics, would topple America’s secular tyrants, leading her people, the true Christians, into the kingdom. As he concluded his sermon, Muthee gesticulated wildly and spoke in tongues, urging parishioners to “come against the spirit of witchcraft as the body of Christ.”
Three years earlier, in 2005, Muthee had anointed Palin during a public ceremony at the Wasilla Assembly of God, laying his hand on her forehead while praying to protect her “against all forms of witchcraft.” The bishop claimed that he had personally battled a witch in his hometown of Kiambu, Kenya, driving the evildoer from the town and thereby ending an epidemic of crime and licentiousness. The episode was later revealed as a farce by a reporter from Women’s eNews who traveled to Kiambu and found the supposed witch, a local healer named Mama Jane, still living happily in her compound. In palling around with Muthee, whom she credited with helping propel her into the governor’s mansion by anointing her, Palin revealed herself as an authentic religious zealot. Whatever her flaws might have been, this was what mattered to the movement in 2008—and what matters now.
Once Palin was nominated, her sixteen-year-old daughter Bristol (named for Bristol Bay, Alaska) became the subject of ferocious media scrutiny. She had, it turned out, been impregnated by Levi Johnston, a local eighteen-year-old jock who identified himself on his MySpace page as “a f**kin’ redneck.” To media outsiders, Bristol’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy was particularly startling, given Palin’s advocacy of abstinence-only education. In the eyes of many liberals, Palin had been revealed as but another family-values hypocrite, but to members of the Christian right, she was something quite different—a glamorized version of themselves. As the Palin family became a staple of late-night comedy monologues, Palin fought back against the secular enemy, slamming David Letterman for “sexually perverted jokes” about her daughter. With that, the movement’s adulation for her overflowed.
The Culture of Personal Crisis
Palin’s daughter’s drama caught vividly a culture of personal crisis that defines so many evangelical communities across the country. That culture is described in a landmark congressionally funded study of adolescent behavior, Add Health, revealing that white evangelical women like Bristol Palin lose their virginity, on average, at age 16—earlier, that is, than any group except black Protestants.
Another recent study by sociologists Peter Bearman and Hannah Bruckner notes that over half of evangelical girls who have pledged to maintain their virginity until marriage wind up having sex before marriage, and with a man other than their future husband. Bearman and Bruckner also disclose that communities with the highest population of girls who attend so-called purity balls, where they vow chastity until marriage before their fathers in a prom-like religious ceremony, also have some of the country’s highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases. In Lubbock, Texas, where abstinence education has been mandated since 1995, the rate of gonorrhea is now double the national average, while teen pregnancy has spiked to the highest levels in the state.
“So many families deal with the same issues Sarah Palin is dealing with, so we really can relate to what she is going through,” Grace Van Diest, a middle-aged Alaskan delegate from Wasilla, told me on the floor of the 2008 Republican National Convention. Van Diest then described how each of her daughters went on “a date with their dad” to discuss their pledge to “keep themselves pure until marriage.”
Palin consolidated her bond with the movement in another very personal way. She cradled her new son Trig, born with Downs Syndrome, before the klieg lights. Her husband Todd had chosen the name believing it was Norse for “strength.” (“Trygg” actually means “safe” or “reliable” in Norwegian.) Palin’s decision to carry the baby to term excited many evangelicals and anti-abortion activists, including James Dobson, who wrote a letter congratulating her for having what he called “that little Downs Syndrome baby.” “What a way to emphasize your pro-life leanings there!” he exclaimed during a radio broadcast in which he endorsed the McCain-Palin ticket, even though he had denounced McCain as a “liberal” only weeks before.
After the market collapsed in the fall of 2008 and the McCain campaign ran off the rails, Palin untethered herself—as her book title has it, she went “rogue”—ignoring McCain’s rules on attacking Obama. Instead, she lashed out at candidate Obama in her own distinctive way. “This is a man who launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist,” she insisted. “This is not a man who sees America the way you and I see America.” With these two lines, apparently uttered without the permission of McCain or his top aides, Palin opened up a deep schism within the campaign, while unleashing a flood of emotions from the depths of the Party faithful.
“Kill him!” a man shouted at a campaign rally in Clearwater, Florida, when Palin linked Obama to terrorism, according to Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank.
The next time she mentioned Obama, another man cried out, “Terrorist!” “Treason!”
“Go back to Kenya!” a woman typically screamed during a Palin rally in Des Moines, Iowa.
While Obama entertained visions of a blissful post-partisan, post-racial America, Palin almost single-handedly gave birth to the birthers who would, after his inauguration, dedicate themselves to proving he was not, by birth, an American. By “going rogue,” Palin instinctively and craftily propelled her ambitions beyond Election Day, and so anointed herself as the movement’s magical helper in the Obama era.
Elevated by yesterday’s man, Palin now represents her Party’s future—and the greatest danger it faces. Her intimate bond with the Republican grassroots has made her the indispensable woman, even if she provokes a visceral sense of revulsion from many independents and moderates. Other Republican frontrunners like former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty have a debilitating problem to face in any race for the presidency: they are viewed as inauthentic candidates by the movement—cardboard men in suits who are only pantomiming appeals to cultural resentment.
Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister who understands the nuances of evangelical culture, nonetheless bears the burden of being a 2008 primary loser. At that time, the former governor of Arkansas had a clear field when it came to the religious right, but was unable to expand beyond his Southern bastions of support.
Palin was, after all, chosen. She never lost a primary—and it was McCain who lost the race. If Huckabee sought to run again for the nomination, he might have to compete against her for the allegiance of the evangelical constituency.
Nor can she be easily criticized. Palin is so well positioned as the darling of the movement that any criticism of her would be experienced by believers as a personal attack on them. In this way, their identification with her through the politics of personal crisis is complete. Any Republican primary challenger assailing Palin will be seen as victimizing her, as channeling the attacks of the liberal elites, and possibly as having a secret liberal agenda. On the other hand, to embrace her is to risk losing the great American center.
For the 2010 mid-term elections, Palin’s endorsement is already a coveted commodity—as Mark Kirk’s desperate bid to secure it demonstrates. The more she is attacked, the more the Republican base adores her. As she sets out on her book tour, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune only propel her forward. Her influence on a party largely devoid of leadership is expanding. If she doesn’t prove to be the Party’s future queen, she may have positioned herself to be its future king-maker—and potentially its destroyer. You betcha.