Yesterday, Sarah Palin endorsed Donald Trump. Palin is the former governor of Alaska and was John McCain’s running mate in 2008 but I did not need to identify her for the readers really. Most one-time vice presidential candidates who lost, or one-term governors (or almost one-term governors, as Palin did complete her first term), are not so recognizable as Palin is. Is there something special about her? You betcha. If you did not watch the announcement, here it is.
For fans of Palin, the quality that attracted them to her is the same that attract them to Trump: Not just do both enjoy a reputation for spurning politically correct language, but she has the ability to make people listening think that she is talking just to them, as does Trump, that her frustrations are their frustrations. However unlikely it is that the billionaire and the hockey mom actually understand what anxieties people are feeling, about the economy, about terrorism, even about the demographic changes in the country, they give the impression that they do.
Both Palin and Trump also are skilled at articulating the sense of emotional grievance that lurks in many a working class heart, and which has become the rationale for Trump’s campaign: Our country is changing in ways we don’t like, and “our America” needs to be defended. Palin in 2008 delivered some of the same red meat lines, not explicitly racist, but walking right up to the racist line, maybe putting a toe over it, that Trump delivers today. Whatever the rest of us think of the spectacle of a Trump rally today, or one of Palin’s equally enthusiastic rallies back in 2008, the fact is that both create an emotional connection themselves and their audience.
There obviously is not, in either case, much of an intellectual connection between candidate and audience. Both Trump and Palin are capable of extended rants, stream of consciousness blather, that simply does not scan as recognizably coherent. His tend to be far more self-referential, his opinions about people, how they look and how they speak, flowing intermittently from his mouth alongside his policy bromides. Palin’s inflections are different and they tend to resonate with a kind of conservative Christian language that is part dog whistle and part biblical citation. When she announced her endorsement yesterday, she recalled her nomination as the party’s vice presidential candidate and she said, "when I was on the stage, nominated for VP, and I got to say, 'I’ll go, send me.'" The phrase may have been lost on most secular reporters, but religious conservatives in Iowa recognized a hint of Isaiah 6:8, in which the prophet says, “Here I am, Lord, send me.”
It is this last quality, Palin’s ability to reach conservative Christian voters, that makes her endorsement significant in Iowa. Yes, she is not the star she once was. Yes, she was something of a national laughingstock by the time the 2008 campaign finished. But, in Iowa, where conservative Christian voters tend to dominate the GOP caucuses, she still has an appeal that Trump needs. It was no coincidence that Palin’s explicit endorsement of Trump came one day after Jerry Falwell Jr.’s implicit endorsement at Liberty University. Those conservative Christians who are already lined up behind the candidacy of Sen. Ted Cruz are probably out of reach, but those supporting Ben Carson may be looking for another candidate as caucus night unfolds. And, in Iowa, a few dozen votes in a few key precincts can make all the difference.
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I am not a moviegoer. I wait until I can catch the movies at home. And some movies I can watch over and over again: "Auntie Mame," "Babette’s Feast," "The Devil Wears Prada." One other movie I can watch over and over is "Game Change" which chronicles the selection of Palin as John McCain’s running mate and her subsequent campaign. I can watch it again and again. The performances by the actors are very fine, but it is the story itself, its sheer improbability alongside the fact that this actually happened, a major, venerable political party really did nominate someone to be one heartbeat away from the presidency who not only failed to know the answers to basic questions, but who oftentimes did not even understand the question. This happened to Trump, too, during one of the debates, when he was asked about the nuclear triad and clearly did not know what the nuclear triad is. If Palin was watching that debate, I am sure she was nodding, "I know what that feels like. You betcha. Like it really matters."
Of course, the nuclear triad, or the role of the Federal Reserve in setting monetary policy which Palin did not grasp, really do matter. A president should understand such things. Every president relies on advisers and experts, to be sure, but a president has to know enough to ask the right questions. Trump thinks because he has been successful in business, how hard can it be to run the government, which is not a business. Palin thought that because the crowds cheered, her ignorance was of no consequence. I do not believe intellectual gifts are the most important qualities a president brings to his work. The oft-cited, possibly apocryphal comment of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. about Franklin Roosevelt -- "Second-class intellect but a first-class temperament" -- rings true, not least after eight years of a president with a first-class intellect and second-class temperament. But, some knowledge of the important issues and the workings of government is not too much to ask.
The crowds that cheer on Mr. Trump, like the crowds that cheered on Palin, do not ask for such basic knowledge in their leaders. They see a country that is vastly different from the one they grew up in, and changing more every day, and they do not like it. Their economic circumstances are causes of anxiety or worse. They are looking for leadership. Many of them hold to a biblical understanding of the world that is not very sophisticated but it grounds them, permits them to distinguish right from wrong, a skill which some of America’s elites, for all their knowledge, have forgotten. It is a shame that some Christian conservatives fall for charlatans. It is a shame, too, that some on the left embrace other equally wrongheaded ideas and those who espouse them. But, there is no false equivalence here. One party did nominate Sarah Palin in 2008 and that same party is itching to give the nomination to Donald Trump. The Democrats have their problems but it is the GOP that is in danger of self-imploding.