Obama knows the long odds against a right-wing populist winning the presidency, no matter how good she looks in a skirt or running clothes, brandishing a gun. He shouldn’t be too cocky, however, because the death of the center is ultimately a problem for him and the whole country. If the Palinistas seize the GOP, they probably cannot take the White House. But their brand of no-prisoners partisanship sure can tie up Congress.
The really beautiful thing about the culture war, from an entertainment standpoint, is that it is fundamentally irresolvable. There isn’t a concrete set of issues involved, where in theory both sides could give in a little and find middle ground, reach some sort of compromise.
That’s because there are no issues at all. At the end of this decade what we call “politics” has devolved into a kind of ongoing, brainless soap opera about dueling cultural resentments and the really cool thing about it, if you’re a TV news producer or a talk radio host, is that you can build the next day’s news cycle meme around pretty much anything at all, no matter how irrelevant – like who’s wearing a flag lapel pin and who isn’t, who spent $150K worth of campaign funds on clothes and who didn’t, who wore a t-shirt calling someone a cunt and who didn’t, and who put a picture of a former Vice Presidential candidate in jogging shorts on his magazine cover (and who didn’t).
It doesn’t matter what the argument is about. What’s important is that once the argument starts, the two sides will automatically coalesce around the various instant-cocoa talking points and scream at each other until they’re blue in the face, or until the next argument starts.
And while some of us are old enough to remember that once upon a time, these arguments always had at least some sort of ideological flavor to them, i.e. the throwdowns were at least rooted in some sort of real political issue (war, taxes, immigration, etc.) we’ve now got a whole generation that is accustomed to screaming at cultural enemies as an end in itself, for the sheer dismal fun of it. Start fighting first, figure out the reasons later.
Sarah Palin is the Empress-Queen of the screaming-for-screaming’s sake generation. The people who dismiss her book Going Rogue as the petty, vindictive meanderings of a preening paranoiac with the IQ of a celery stalk completely miss the book’s significance, because in some ways it’s really a revolutionary and innovative piece of literature.
Palin – and there’s just no way to deny this – is a supremely gifted politician. She has staked out, as her own personal political turf, the entire landscape of incoherent white American resentment. In this area she leaves even Rush Limbaugh in the dust.
The reason for that is that poor Rush is an anachronism, in the sense that his whole schtick revolves around talking about real political issues. And real political issues are boring.
Listen to Rush any day of the week and you’ll hear him playing the old-fashioned pundit game: he goes about the dreary business of picking through the policies and positions and public statements of Democrats and poking holes in them, arguing with them, attacking them with numbers and facts and pseudo-facts and non-facts and whatever else he can get his hands on, honest or not, but at least he tries. The poor guy nearly killed himself this summer trying to find enough horseshit to arm himself with against the health care bill, coming up with various fairy tales about how state health agencies used death panels to try to kill cancer patients who just wanted to live a little longer, how section 1233 is Auschwitz all over again, yada yada yada.
Rush is no Einstein, but the man does research. It may be fallacious and completely dishonest research, but he does it all the same. His battlefield is world politics and most of the time the relevant action is taking place in Washington. As good as he is at what he does, he still has to travel to the action; he himself isn’t the action.
Sarah Palin’s battlefield, on the other hand, is whatever is happening five feet in front of her face. She is building a political career around the little interpersonal wars in the immediate airspace surrounding her sawdust-filled head. And in the process she connects with pissed-off, frightened, put-upon America on a plane that’s far more elemental than the mega-ditto schtick.
Most normal people cannot connect on an emotional level with Rush’s meanderings on how Harry Reid is buying off Mary Landrieu with pork in the health care bill. They can, however, connect with stories about how top McCain strategist and Karl Rove acolyte Steve Schmidt told poor Sarah to shut her pie-hole on election day, or how her supposed allies in the McCain campaign stabbed her in the back by leaking gossip about her to reporters, how Schmidt used the word “fuck” in front of her daughter, or even with the strange tales about Schmidt ordering Sarah to consult with a nutritionist to improve her campaign endurance when she herself knew she just needed to get out in the fresh air and run (If there’s one thing Sarah Palin knows, it’s herself!).
Complaining about the assholes we interact with on a daily basis is the #1 eternal pastime of the human race. We all do it, and we get to do it every day, because the world is full of assholes. Me personally, I waste an enormous amount of time seething over people who get onto crowded subway cars with big backpacks on and/or talk in the Amtrak quiet car and/or drive 57 mph in the fast lane or, my personal favorite, walking with glacial slowness in a horizontal row four overweight tourists across on a New York City sidewalk. We all get into furious arguments at work that make us want to explode in self-righteous fury (in my office dramas I always realize I was actually the asshole a day or so later) and when we get home from work, this is usually what our loved ones hear about for at least the first hour or so.
Not health care, not financial regulatory reform, not Iraq or Afghanistan, but – assholes.
Sarah Palin is on an endless crusade against assholes. It’s all she thinks about. She doesn’t really have any political ideas, in the classic sense of the word – in fact the only thing resembling real political convictions in Going Rogue revolve around the Trans-Alaska pipeline and how awesome she thinks it is.
Most of the rest of the book just catalogs her Gump-esque rise to national stardom (not having enough self-awareness to detect the monstrous narcissistic ambition that in reality was impelling her forward all along, she labors in the book to describe her various career leaps as lucky accidents or mystical acts of Providence) and the seemingly endless parade of meanies bent on tripping her up along the way. The book is really about her battles with these people, how much they did and do suck, and how difficult and inherently unfair life is for a decent hardworking American gal who just wants to live life, serve God, and try to be president without being bothered all the time.
Viewed through the prism of this particular brand of insanity (Palinsanity? does that work?), Katie Couric’s notorious Palin interview last year really was a cheap shot. After all, Katie was trying to nail Palin – which is mean! Who among us can’t sympathize with the experience of being sandbagged by some slick professional rival who catches you in a moment of weakness and, instead of lending a helping hand, drives a? fireplace poker through your eye?
You’d have to be thinking about the broader picture, about the fact that the president of the United States ought not to be a drooling yahoo whose two favorite Supreme Court cases are Roe v. Wade and Roe v. Wade and who thinks living near Canada counts as foreign policy experience, to not see what an asshole Katie Couric was being. And that other reality, the reality where one worries about a national political candidate having the brains of an innertube, is less immediate than the five-foot airspace radius around the Palin bobblehead. It’s harder for the average person to connect with, I guess.
Palin’s extraordinary ability to inspire major national controversies around these injustices done to her immediate person is going to guarantee her some kind of major role in American politics for the next dozen years. In this regard she is going to have a willing ally in her supposed keen enemy, the mainstream media, which likewise loves nothing more than a political narrative that has nothing to do with politics. It’ll be a virtually endless war over nonsense like this latest Newsweek cover, which hilariously is being seen as one or the other of a) a liberal media plot or b) a sexist assault on a prominent female politician by the male-dominated media world when in fact, as all of us in this dying print media business know, the magazine’s motive was grounded entirely in the nihilistic desperation to sell newsstand copies.
And Sarah Palin sells copies. She is the country’s first WWE politician – a cartoon combatant who inspires stadiums full of frustrated middle American followers who will cheer for her against whichever villain they trot out, be it Newsweek, Barack Obama, Katie Couric, Steve Schmidt, the Mad Russian, Randy Orton or whoever. Her followers will not know that she is the perfect patsy for our system, designed as it is to channel popular anger in any direction but a useful one, and to keep the public tied up endlessly in pointless media melees over meaningless nonsense (melees of the sort that develop organically around Palin everywhere she goes). Like George W. Bush, even Palin herself doesn’t know this, another reason she’s such a perfect political tool.
With Going Rogue, the 2012 reality show has already begun. As brainless political theater, she can’t be topped. It’s just too bad for conservatives that she happens to be unsustainably divisive and, as Newsweek points out, a really good bet to permanently marginalize the Republican party by reducing it to a pissed-off, semi-coherent mob that repulses independent voters on a visceral level. To paraphrase John Doman’s Deputy Ops Rawls character from The Wire, she’s “brilliant – fuckin’ shame it’s gonna end our careers, but still.”