Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Weisberg explains Palin

Sarah Palin has been a rhetorical train-wreck since she was foisted on the American public by the desperate John McCain two years ago. If she were a comedy act she would fail, but most of us are convinced that rather than her shtick being an act for an audience, she seems frighteningly real. So the question is - how can she be explained? Jacob Weisberg of Slate Magazine takes a pretty good shot at it.

So far as I can tell, Sarah Palin has four core beliefs:

1. Things go better with God.
2. Yay, Alaska!
3. Let's drill that sucker.
4. Curse you, political establishment


Tina Fey's caricature of Palin as an unprepared high-school student trying to bluff her way through an oral exam by mugging and flirting hit its mark not merely because of the genius of the mimicry, but because of its fundamentally accurate diagnosis of Palin as bullshit artist. Palin's exuberant incoherence testifies to an unusually wide gulf between confidence and ability. She is proud of what she doesn't know and contemptuous of those "experts" and "elitists" who are too knowledgeable to be trusted. This curious self-regard echoes through her book, Going Rogue, described by the critic Jonathan Raban as "a four-hundred-page paean to virtuous ignorance."

The issue is not that Palin, thrust upon the national stage with little warning, still doesn't know all the details. That's understandable. The issue is that she rarely appears to have the slightest grasp of what she's talking about even when she's supposed to know what she's talking about. For instance, in one of the 2008 campaign's most surreal examples of rhetorical excess, John McCain said Palin "knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America." A few days later, she offered a sample of her expertise in a town hall meeting: "Oil and coal? Of course, it's a fungible commodity and they don't flag, you know, the molecules, where it's going and where it's not. ... So, I believe that what Congress is going to do, also, is not to allow the export bans to such a degree that it's Americans that get stuck to holding the bag without the energy source that is produced here, pumped here."


The non-Sarah Dittoheads among us have to decide whether to regard this babble—favoring creation science, aerial wolf-shooting, and freedom of the press, so long as the press is "accurate"—as scary or funny. During the 2008 campaign, when there was a real chance that Palin could become the automatic successor to an impulsive, elderly cancer survivor, I found it more scary than funny. After McCain lost, and after Palin terminated her governorship in the effusion of furious gibberish known as her resignation speech, I have found it mostly funny.
I think Weisberg gets it rather well. My own conclusion on the Palin has been similar. She seems to have been an athlete in high school who was driven by the desire for celebrity hard enough to become a noticeable basketball player and a runner-up in some beauty contest, but her record of cramming a four year college degree into four or five schools in a variety of locations demonstrates the limitation of her efforts to bluff her way through life.

She seems to have found her ecological niche as a blatherer with chutzpa in the nearly unpopulated state of Alaska and in the evangelical fundamentalist church which puts no demand on her nearly non-existent intellectual and practical side. Her ability to say what the fundamentalists want to hear gave her the entry she needed into politics, where she promptly failed. But her base of support does not see her inability to govern as failure so they have not abandoned her. She has instead taken her personal need for celebrity and made herself into the liaison between the desperate Republican Party and the social Republicans.

She arrived at the perfect time for McCain and the Republicans when, after the Republican Presidential Primary of 2008 was over, found that there was no candidate who could appeal to both the conservative Republicans and the Social Republicans the way George W. Bush had been able to. When everyone else self-destructed in the Presidential Primary, John McCain was left as the closest to a viable candidate. But he was going to lead the Republicans into a disaster on the level of the Goldwater candidacy in 1964 if he didn't do something to get the social Republicans to turn out to vote. Sarah Palin appeared positioned to help him there to an extent no one else could.

I'd bet the McCain handlers thought that with her being so unprepared that they could handle her, but she promptly demonstrated that she would not be handled. No matter. She at least saved many down-ballot Republican candidates by giving the social Republicans a reason to go to the polls and vote. But then her mavericky anti-establishment image matched the disaffection of so many with the collapse of the economy and the loss of the Presidency by the Republicans. Many of those individuals drifted to the astro-turf operation of the teabaggers, with Sarah Palin as their standard bearer.

What's Sarah getting out of the deal? Several years of national celebrity and tons of money as she rolls along. But she is still a bullshit artist who is working to play her audiences as long as they will show up for her shows and buy tickets - And the Republicans have no one else who can match her as a steady reliable draw for the social Republican audiences and for the disaffected tea partiers.

That's my best guess about the Palin phenomenon, riffing off of Jacob Weisberg's excellent explanation. But it really is a snapshot of a train-wreck in progress.

Kudos to Tina Fey and Jacob Weisberg who so far have provided the best explanations of the Sarah Palin phenomenon that I have seen.

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