Comment: Palin Politics and the Tea Party
Three or four years ago a monster storm swept across the centre of the united states and wrapped the land in a coat of ice. From an aeroplane a few days later, the country looked enamelled. Beneath the creamy porcelain the patterns of life in Oklahoma and Missouri revealed themselves in minimal relief: the grids of towns and suburbs, the linking roads, the gigantic circles marking crops. In this immense stillness and silence, suggesting a nuclear winter or a new ice age, the lines etched in the rime took on exaggerated meaning, as if they might contain essential facts about a lost civilisation.
The fact of the automobile for instance; and Big Oil, which fuelled it; and the strip malls, which made the car indispensable to commerce, including commerce in food; and agribusiness, which made the greater part of United States farming a state-subsidised vertically integrated corporate industry and an alarmingly large number of American citizens obese. Those lines etched in the ice were the sinews of power and influence, though a great many of the people down in the ice would say that they were there by God’s will. Either way, something in their design suggested that, for all the clamour and glory of its suburbs and satellites, poetry and bars, more than just the will of the people and the tenets of the Constitution underlay American democracy.
Sarah Palin would doubtless be among those insisting that the lines were drawn by the hand of God. Campaigning for the construction of a gas pipeline in 2008, she implored students in an Assembly of God ‘Master’s Commission’ program (in which 18 to 25 year olds are instructed in “deference to authority, Biblical memorization, prophesy and miracle healing”) to pray for it, “to make sure God’s will has to be done here”. She numbers herself emphatically among God’s chosen and believes he made her Miss Wasilla 1984, John McCain’s running mate in 2008 and everything in between, including governor of Alaska. A lifelong member of the Assembly of God (and by its grace the governor), she would say the lines made by pivot irrigators and highways were in truth made by God because she believes it. But an astounding mass of evidence suggests that, when it has suited her purposes, she has never had to believe something to say it is so. She would say those lines had been drawn by interplanetary aliens if it meant picking up the alien-abductee vote. And so long as God is the author of all things (including the things Palin says), once she’s said it, it must be true.
Whatever persuaded Palin not to try for the Republican presidential candidacy this time, the recent publication of two deeply unflattering books about her – Geoffrey Dunn’s The Lies of Sarah Palin and Joe McGinniss’ The Rogue – must have helped make up her mind. Though different in approach and style, the books are strikingly alike in their gruesome assessments of the subject. The woman is a liar. Not just any old liar who bends the truth from time to time, or says things such as “Read my lips. No new taxes”; or like all political leaders and governments makes promises she cannot keep. Palin is an instinctive, incurable, possibly psychopathic liar. She would lie even if she were not an outrageously ambitious politician, an ignoramus, a super-narcissist and a fundamentalist Christian, but because she is all those entangled things she is compelled to lie much more than she would if she had settled on just being a hockey mom.
Palin never had much hope of winning the nomination this time, and for now, outside a spot in the Fox News line-up, it is hard to imagine what she might make of herself. Still, it could be a mistake to write her off for good: not with those primordial instincts. She has been reinventing herself since junior high school in Wasilla, and the last time she did it she became the Republican candidate for vice president. Given a couple of relatively minor divine interventions, the Oval Office would have been hers. Those in whom she aroused the animal in 2008 will likely be just as susceptible eight years from now and, should the American heartland continue to decay, there will be plenty more where they came from. She could easily invent herself again, and with the bottomless inner resources of the victim she now believes she is, she could be even more potent than she was that day at the 2008 Republican National Convention when she sent shivers down millions of American spines. Palin is a political lap dancer, to borrow a phrase from Joe McGinniss. It’s not likely that she’ll ever be president, but nor was it likely that Richard Nixon would get back after 1961, or John Howard after a decade and a half of failing. Or that George W Bush would be elected twice: and who is to say Palin would make a worse president?
Her hopes, like those of all populists, depend on the rot continuing in the American heartland. Rank populists of the Palin kind live like a virus in the body politic, dormant for long periods, springing up at times of real or imaginary crisis. The country has always been a congenial home for tub-thumpers of various sorts, but in general the political system has found ways to limit or pacify the numbers of frightened, angry and alienated citizens they need for political traction. Now in the midst of the deepest economic and social crisis since the Great Depression, with fear abounding (terrorism, the national debt, foreclosure, unemployment, illness without insurance, bankruptcy) and mainstream politics in gridlock, the conditions are ideal for a mass hatching of demagogues.
Bizarre as some of her antics are, it was not Sarah Palin who said Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional: that was Texas Governor Rick Perry. And it was Perry who in April this year officially proclaimed three “Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas”. Perry who said, apropos of the nation’s problems: “I think it’s time for us to just hand it over to God, and say, ‘God, You’re going to have to fix this’.” Perry who two years ago said Texas can leave the Union “any time we want. So we’re kind of thinking about that again.” If Palin lives in one fantasy world, Perry surely lives in another. And Michele Bachmann in another. And Newt Gingrich, for that matter, in another.
The difference between what is orthodox or mainstream and what is generally called populism is commonly held to be the difference between the rational and the irrational. One confronts a complex reality with reasoned arguments and solutions; the other escapes it in a make-believe world of conspiracies, supernatural forces and flat taxes. In one, metaphors help to explain reality; in the other there is no distinction. A pipeline built by capital, labour, machinery and graft is a pipeline willed by God. A government that bailed out Wall Street is a government of socialists. A health system that affords insurance to the majority of citizens is a system of ‘death panels’.
The striking thing about populist arguments is how they seem to gain force in proportion to their unreason. Enlightened self-interest, the country’s watchword, becomes its opposite. Self-interested plantation owners persuaded the South’s poor white trash that slavery was also in their interest and, as Ulysses S Grant observed, on this fallacy the Rebel army safely depended for cannon fodder. The Tea Party – and the Republican Party – attracts hordes of poor citizens by vowing to abolish the government welfare on which they depend. The Tea Party states receive anything from twice to three times the government assistance received by New York or California.
To attend a Tea Party rally, or to listen to them talk, is truly to enter a parallel universe; one every bit as mad as, say, a gathering of university Maoists in Melbourne in 1970. But the Maoists were not in charge of one of the mainstream parties; they were not setting the terms of the national debate; they were not backed by the Koch brothers and given a free run on Fox News. And they were not feeding on the despair, poverty and ignorance to which great swathes of American society have been steadily reduced. The Tea Partiers are, and they have been for most of the last two years. If one of their heroes does become president, it will not be by putsch or civil war, but by popular election through orthodox political processes. A President Palin, Bachmann or Perry will be elected because her or his predecessors in office made it possible.
Let’s imagine a President Palin. She maintains – or reinstates – the Bush tax cuts, slashes government welfare, cuts health-care coverage, boosts defence spending, finds a foreign battlefield or two, leaves 44 million poor to fend for themselves, sacks the environment and drills, baby, drills, and in the name of unfettered markets and rugged individualism faithfully serves the corporate interest and intensifies the concentration of wealth in even fewer hands – all this before she gets to abortion, creationism and ever more manic flag-waving activities. Has she no original ideas?
Mad as she and her fellow demagogues might seem, big as her lies might be, Palin steps directly from the last chapter of American history, the one that begins with Ronald Reagan. So she is irrational: explain to us again the story about how the wealth trickles down. Peggy Noonan reckons she’s a nincompoop: but was it Palin or Reagan, Noonan’s employer and hero, who made the world safe for trickle-down economics and the neo-conservatives? Palin’s a terrible liar of course, and a fantasist: but then she isn’t the one who said it was morning again in America.