You Do Not Understand Sarah Palin

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, right, endorses Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a rally at the Iowa State University, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

The conservative commentariat has imploded in dismay at Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump in Iowa on Tuesday.

Fans of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Trump’s main rival in Iowa and beyond, were understandably dismayed.

But the reaction went far beyond that. Some said Palin betrayed her conservative principles by choosing a candidate whose conservatism is shallow at best. And some rehashed the personal attacks that have been a staple of the left.

In fact, Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Trump makes sense, and fits both her politics and her personality.

Yes, she has been the iconic symbol of conservatism and the Tea Party, whereas Trump seemed perfectly happy to go along with Obama and the Clintons until a few years ago.

But just as Palin has never let herself be defined by the Republican Party, she has never felt bound by ideological checklists, either. She is a conservative, but she is anti-establishment first.

Palin became the governor of Alaska in 2005 by running against the establishment of both parties. In 2014, in Wacko Birds: The Fall and Rise of the Tea Party, I noted:

Ironically, though she would soon become a conservative icon, Palin was billed as something of a political centrist. McCain introduced her to the country as “someone who reached across the aisle and asked Republicans, Democrats and independents to serve in government.” She was socially conservative, but had vetoed a bill that would have prevented same-sex partners from enjoying visitation rights in Alaskan hospitals. She was said to share something of McCain’s rebellious streak, and his willingness to confront his own party’s interests as she took on corruption and special interest groups.

In the Obama era, conservatism became the dominant anti-establishment theme of American politics, thanks partly to Palin. However, over time, Palin has found herself increasingly at odds with the conservative establishment itself, parts of which are anti-populist–happy to have her backing, but faintly embarrassed by her and repulsed by her supporters.

(Update: Ted Cruz has made his reputation as an anti-establishment politician, so it would not have been surprising had Palin supported him instead of Trump, simply on ideological grounds. Palin’s reasons for choosing Trump may be more personal than political. But the dismissive reaction of some Cruz supporters to Palin suggests a kind of elitism. Parts of the anti-establishment conservative movement turn out to be their own kind of establishment.)

It is now fashionable, even among some “true conservative” pundits, to bash Palin’s intellect and mock her speech. Trump’s supporters are often treated with the same disdain as Palin’s fans, as if not even their votes are wanted.

Surprisingly, Ross Douthat of the New York Times came closer to understanding the Palin endorsement than many conservatives outside the mainstream media bubble, tweeting: “Seriously, this is who Palin was meant to be. Her neocon + movement phases were opportunism/osmosis. This is closer to where she started.”

That is too harsh: her “opportunism” included resigning from the governorship and turning down several chances to run for office again. And Douthat may be implying, as others have said outright, that what Trump and Palin really have in common is just celebrity.

That would miss the convictions that motivate Palin, and that still attract millions of Americans to her. Regardless, the kernel of truth in Douthat’s tweet is that Palin was, and remains, the leader of a popular resistance to what American politics has become. It is a conservative resistance, but does not always conform to conservative politics.

It is unclear, as of this writing, that Palin’s endorsement will have a significant effect on the Iowa caucuses, where polls had been trending back in Trump’s direction.

What is remarkable is that just days after defending “New York values,” Trump brought Palin–so often the target of New York elites–on board. It confirmed that he intends to build a big coalition–the “big tent” of political lore.

How odd that some conservatives would still prefer to bar the clubhouse door.