To millions of Americans, Sarah Palin is the one person who can save the US from the perils of communism, gay marriage and gun control. But can she ever win the White House, or will she destroy the American right?
It is a freezing night in Indiana. A light drizzle is turning to ice as a crowd of 1,000 people shiver and huddle under umbrellas in a shopping mall car park outside the small Midwestern town of Noblesville. But no one is complaining.
“I came to hear the truth get told,” says Roy Hendrickson, a moustached 66-year-old retiree from the town of Lebanon, about 30 miles away. “I want to see her go rogue!”
She, of course, is Sarah Palin, and Going Rogue is the name of her autobiography. The event tonight is the third stop on one of the most audacious book tours in the history of publishing. It is a 14-state, three-week-long trek through the heartland of America that has already drawn tens of thousands of fans. No other figure on the right of American politics can pull in crowds and generate excitement like Palin. Like Obama with Democrats, people believe in her. But Palin World is a very different place from Obama Nation. In Palin World, America is succumbing to the foreign ideology of socialism, and the lifeblood of the free market is being squeezed by Big Government. The threat of “death panels” haunts the elderly. It is a nation of whispered conspiracies that Obama wants to take away people’s guns, and where communist appointees plot secret internment camps and the forced indoctrination of innocent American youth.
Who could possibly save America from such a fate? The answer rides in on a gigantic bus that pulls up in front of the Noblesville Borders bookstore. It is emblazoned with a huge portrait of Palin staring into the distance against a backdrop of soaring mountain tops and cloud-speckled blue skies. Palin emerges cradling her youngest child and looking a little like the Virgin Mary in a black pantsuit. The crowd surges forward shouting: “There she is!” and local cops spring into action. “Stand back! You’ll all get to see her!” yells one panicking officer.
Palin is not a woman famed for soaring rhetoric. But her one-word opening comment eloquently sums up the reaction of the conservatives who love her and the liberals who are terrified of her. “Wow!” she says.
Sarah Palin is everywhere. It is an astonishing achievement for a woman who holds no elected office and whose career should have flamed out in the wreckage of last year’s defeated presidential ticket. But while the former presidential candidate John McCain has retreated quietly back to the Senate, his former running mate’s profile has soared. She has tapped into a rich vein of discontent among conservative Americans, and as the Republican party has fallen increasingly under the sway of its extreme right wing, she has become its patron saint.
The media blitz surrounding her book tour has been unprecedented. “We’ve had the Stone Age, Ice Age, Jet Age – comes now the Palin Age,” gushed the veteran society columnist Cindy Adams in the New York Post. Palin has been interviewed by Oprah and Barbara Walters and just about every Fox News host. She has graced the cover of Newsweek and hundreds of newspaper front pages. Her book is a runaway bestseller. Its first print run of 1.5m copies looks distinctly modest.
To conservatives, her success comes as no surprise. “She has a very intense charisma that makes her very exciting and attractive,” says Chuck Hurley, president of the Iowa Family Policy Center, which campaigns on behalf of evangelical Christians in the politically highly influential state, one that could decide the identity of the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. “She will be a force.”
There seems little doubt of that. The campaign behind Palin’s book tour is designed to give her power and make her rich. It is going well. Palin’s political stock has never been higher with the millions of conservatives who love her. She has pocketed a reported $1.25m advance, stands to make millions more from royalties, and has signed up with the Washington Speakers Bureau to get on to the lucrative lecture circuit. “Sarah Palin’s rehab tour is more about Sarah Palin Inc than Sarah Palin 2012,” snipes Joan Walsh, editor of the Salon website.
That attitude sums up many liberals’ reaction to Palin. To even moderate Republicans, Palin is a painful political joke. Her staggering missteps during last year’s campaign were indications of a political mind not suited to being a heartbeat away from the presidency. She was lampooned on Saturday Night Live by Tina Fey. She was leaked against by McCain’s own staff, who planted numerous media stories against her. Columnists such as Maureen Dowd of the New York Times called her “Caribou Barbie” and “one nutty puppy”. All that laughter means Palin should be a write-off. But to a significant number of Americans, such attacks are not evidence of Palin’s flaws.
“Watch who the left hates the most – that is somebody with high potential,” says Hurley. “They don’t shoot their bullets at someone who is not a threat to them.”
Sarah Palin’s appeal to her fans is not difficult to identify: mostly, it is the opinion those people have of themselves – she is a hardworking, plain-speaking American patriot. “She is a down-to- earth person. She is like my next-door neighbour. I feel I know her,” says Rachel Barager, 72, as she waits for Palin to sign books at a Barnes & Noble store in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Palin kicks off her tour.
Palin expertly cultivates that image. She refers to herself as a hockey mom, touts her record as mayor of tiny Wasilla, Alaska, as proof that she knows how to run a world superpower, and admonishes opponents in the way of a disproving nursery school teacher. Her beliefs can be summed up handily around three Fs: faith, family and flag. On the first count she ticks off all the boxes beloved of religious social conservatives. She sees abortion and gay marriage in the black-and-white terms of morality: she is against them. In Indiana, when she hauled her youngest child in front of the crowd, it was not just an act of motherly love. It was political. The child, Trig, has Down’s syndrome and Palin won wide praise for refusing to think of an abortion when she was pregnant. Thus when people in Palin World see her with Trig, they don’t just see a mother, they see a woman who lived her beliefs.
“I am so happy that she brought that child into the world. That is such a statement,” says Rebekah Thairu, who has come to the Noblesville event and carefully points out that the “k” in her name gives it a “Biblical spelling”. A supporter in Michigan is even more blunt. “I think God has chosen her to lead the country,” says Edward Zaagman, 70, a real estate broker.
The second F is family. Again Palin assiduously cultivates an image of the working mom, struggling with the pressures of raising five kids. She married young and speaks in simple English. When she emerges from her bus in Indiana she is careful not to seem apart from her supporters. “I have dedicated my book to all you people who are hardworking, good Americans,” she says. In a country where every politician claims to hate Washington, Palin does not have to pretend.
The final part of Palinism is flag: the uber-patriotism that is common throughout America but which thrives on the right. Palin’s America is a simple place: it worships the military; it believes Islamic terrorists hate American freedom, not American policy, and it thinks America is a God-blessed country that is by far the best to have ever existed. It uses words like “pro-America” with no real definition of what that means beyond drilling for oil, spending money on defence, owning guns and paying less in taxes to a government it distrusts.
To many, such a philosophy seems based on platitudes and a profound disinterest in the complexities of the real world. But Palin World’s strength is its simplicity: its appeal is a black-and-white view of a complex, shifting, frightening world. That is what inspires people like Rachel Barager to endure a long, cold night camping outside a Michigan mall and then a day patiently waiting in line. “I’m getting by on three hours’ sleep,” Barager confesses with a mischievous grin that belies her seven decades. She looks excited and alert. How does she do it? She points to a red sticker stuck to her clothes that says simply: “Palin Power”.
That Palin power is on the rise – and not just in its ability to inspire grandmothers to go through the night – is clear. It is taking over the Republican party in a vicious civil war that is being waged between conservatives and moderates. “We have a Republican party that is willing to tear itself apart,” says Larry Haas, a political commentator and former aide in the Clinton White House.
Language is brutal on both sides. David Brooks, a moderate Republican columnist, said of Palin recently: “She’s a joke. I just can’t take her seriously.” During the campaign he called her “a fatal cancer” on the party. But conservatives have little time for figures like Brooks – they dub them Rinos (pronounced as in the horned animal), which stands for Republican In Name Only. Like their African namesake, they too appear headed for extinction at the hands of ruthless hunters. Moderate Republicans are being purged from the party or forced to toe a more right-wing line when it comes to touchstone conservative issues such as abortion, gay marriage or opposing healthcare reform and the economic stimulus package. “The Republican party is hell-bent on ideological purity,” says Haas.
Going Rogue devotes its fiercest attacks not to Democrats or liberals but to John McCain’s staff. Palin continually insists that if only she had been let loose and free to say what she believes the campaign would not have faltered. That myth has a powerful currency. It says McCain was a poor candidate because he was too moderate and that if Republicans had swung more to the right then they could have captured the White House. The fact that Obama’s victory reduced the party to its core ideological strongholds – which are mostly white, rural and southern – only makes the myth easier for the party to swallow.
“It is the same as the Labour party in the early 80s or the Tories in the late 90s,” says Professor Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California. “One wing says they need to be more radical to win, the other says they need to move to the centre. The radicals are winning in the Republican Party at the moment.”
That victory charge is like nothing seen in American politics for a long time. Spurred on by a horrendous economic crisis, a widening equality gap and – whether consciously or not – the election of America’s first black president, the Republican right has morphed into a paranoid, angry social movement with a mob mentality. It is also overwhelmingly made up of white people, often from economically suffering sectors, who treat media stars such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh as secular preachers. It takes the form of various groups, such as the Birthers, the Deathers and the Tea Party protesters, depending on which conspiracy theory is in vogue.
Birthers, whose ranks have even spread to the army, believe Obama may not be a legal American citizen. Deathers, who include Palin and many senior Republicans, hold that Obama’s healthcare reforms will deliberately kill old people, while the Tea Party movement, backed by powerful corporate lobbying groups, argues that Obama has embarked on a project to turn America into a socialist or communist country. To enter this world can feel like passing through a looking glass into an alternative universe, where equating Obama – a natural political centrist – with Lenin feels perfectly reasonable. It is an America where white suburban people are a put-upon minority, sidelined by their own country.
“We are heading towards a socialist government,” says Pam Lincoln, 50, who holds up a huge sign declaring herself a “Limbaugh conservative” at Palin’s Michigan kick-off. “The America that we are heading towards is nothing like the America that I know. This is not a capitalist society any more,” she adds, despite the fact that Palin is about to demonstrate the extreme vigour of the free market for her book.
The paranoia is getting uglier. Across America, gun owners have been hoarding ammunition out of a misplaced belief that Obama is planning anti-gun laws. In some areas, stocks have run so low that police stations have had trouble getting supplies. A group called the Oath Keepers has emerged over the past six months, made up of serving soldiers, police and firemen. They believe their government is a threat to its citizens and have vowed to disobey orders they deem unconstitutional. Those orders include rounding up American citizens and helping foreign troops invade America.
“We will not obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps,” reads one part of the group’s manifesto, despite the fact that such an order is nonsensical. It sounds like the delusional workings of an isolated internet nutcase. But the Oath Keepers recently held their first national convention and have thousands of members (nearly all armed) in every state in America. Its leader, Yale-educated lawyer Stewart Rhodes, has been interviewed widely on cable news shows.
These are clearly dangerous times in America, fuelled by a rising unemployment rate and a crash in many Americans’ standard of living. “In this economy there is a search for simple answers, and that is when conspiracy theories take off and play on a fear of the unknown,” says Professor Ken Leicht of the University of Iowa, author of The Post-Industrial Peasant, which charts the collapse of the American middle class. For Leicht, the growing economic disaster gripping America is a recipe for potential disaster. “We have the perfect storm for some pretty uncivil political activity,” he says.
The role that Sarah Palin will play in this is yet to be defined. Could she one day occupy the Oval Office? Palin has been coy about the issue of running for president in 2012. In one interview she revealed that she would if she felt God was calling her to do so. In another she said she simply felt grateful for any opportunity to spread her message, and that returning to politics was not a priority. It is impossible to say what is true. Her book tour certainly looks like a campaign trip. Her stops have all the familiar choreography of political rallies. Yet that is no guarantee she will run.
She could more easily content herself with a behind-the-scenes power, becoming a Joan of Arc figure for conservatives, martyred by the 2008 campaign but revered as the ultimate might-have-been. This theory holds that Palin will use her power to bestow her blessing on other conservatives, who must seek out her endorsement to win over her supporters.
There is certainly much evidence that, since she hit the national stage, Palin’s career has taken too much of a hit for her to make a realistic political comeback at the voting booth. The argument that she emerged from Alaska unvetted, untested and unprepared appears to be strong. “She is extremely charismatic and people are drawn to her. She is fun to be around. The problem is that she skyrocketed on to the national stage without any foundation,” says Beth Kerttula, a Democrat state congresswoman in Alaska who has observed Palin’s career from the beginning.
The incidents of overshoot are copious. Palin’s disastrous interview with Katie Couric of CBS News, where she fluffed a question about which newspapers she read, was almost a career-ender in itself. Her comments that she had foreign policy experience because Alaska was close to Russia revealed a startling lack of insight about diplomatic realities. In response to her attacks on them in Going Rogue, former McCain staffers have leaked emails about her unpreparedness. One, sent by Palin to top McCain aides after an especially bad interview, reads as if it was written by a texting teenager, not a potential vice president. Complete with Palin’s original spelling and punctuation it reads: “I am very sorry – u guys are working double-triple time on this blundered-up stuff that they spin bc of my visits w press – while I apologise I say I love you guys!!!”
Since the campaign ended, she has been dogged by a soap opera-like spat with Levi Johnston, the father of Bristol Palin‘s child, her granddaughter. Johnston has gossiped to Vanity Fair about Palin’s marital problems and betrayed a vindictive streak that the media has exploited. After Palin publicly invited him to Thanksgiving dinner, he refused, then posed naked for Playgirl. That all adds up in the national polls. No matter how much her base loves her, 52% of Americans view her unfavourably. Indeed, one study showed only 9% of people would definitely vote for her. An anaemic 28% said she was qualified to be president. It seems Palin World, for all its heat and fire, might be a small place.
Yet in modern America, power does not necessarily come from winning an election. The giants of the new Republican party are not senators, governors or congressmen; they are angry white guys with radio shows and TV programmes. It is Beck and Limbaugh who demand (and receive) apologies from Michael Steele, the head of the Republican National Committee, not the other way around.
Palin’s impact could be felt far more powerfully outside a 2012 run for the White House. She is blending her politics and celebrity into a cultural phenomenon. Take Mandi Sutton, 19. She waited long hours to see Palin but does not appear a typical fan. She is a former college student with a tongue piercing and a T-shirt featuring a quote from JFK. But she goes almost giddy at the thought of meeting Palin. “I love Sarah Palin!” she says, clutching her copy of Going Rogue. She had agonised over what to say when meeting her idol. “I am trying to come up with something a lot more substantial than just ‘I love you’. But I am sure I am just going to stand there and tell her that I love her. I am smitten. I really am,” she gushes.
In order to promote her conservative agenda, Palin might find (like Beck and Limbaugh before her) that trying to get elected is more of a hindrance than a help. Her gift now lies in blending politics and celebrity into power: becoming a “polebrity”. “Palin is a cultural phenomenon, not just a political one,” says Professor Bowler. “She is going to go on and on. She is like Paris Hilton now – she’s famous for being famous.”
But if Sarah Palin is unlikely to ever occupy the White House, what chance does Palinism stand? The conventional wisdom has a straightforward answer: none at all. “There is a base of very angry people, but the ability to broaden that is quite limited,” says Professor Leicht.
The logic is simple. Obama Nation has embraced the demographically changing face of America while Palin World has not. The Democrats have built a multi-ethnic electoral coalition of young or affluent whites, black Americans and Hispanics, who are the fastest-growing minority in America. The Republicans, meanwhile, have been reduced to a base of mostly southern and rural whites, backed by a wealthy corporate elite. One of these electoral coalitions is large and growing larger. The other is growing smaller.
The theory concludes that running a Republican candidate on a Palinist agenda in 2012 would hand Obama a landslide victory. There is strong evidence to support this. Last month, New York State’s 23rd congressional district provided the perfect test bed for the strength of the conservative message. In the American equivalent of a by-election, the local Republican party in the very rural area selected the moderate candidate Dede Scozzafava to hold the rock-solid seat. But Scozzafava’s socially liberal views – she is pro-choice – attracted the outrage of the Palinite wing of the party. Palin herself publicly endorsed Doug Hoffman, a candidate for the tiny but extreme right-wing Conservative party. Other pantheons of the conservative movement, such as Beck and Limbaugh, did likewise. Vicious “robo-calls” suddenly assailed the district’s voters, with computerised phone calls calling Scozzafava a “lesbian”, a “homo” and a “child killer”. She fled the race, leaving the field open for Hoffman. The Palinite Republicans celebrated and prepared for a triumph. Then the voters had their say and the Democratic candidate Bill Owens won, giving the Democrats a seat that Republicans had controlled since 1872 – 137 years of Republican dominance in the region shattered overnight. “Cancer kills the host. Palin and those like her are a short-term strategy that cannot survive in a modern election,” says Bowler.
But there is another, more unsettling theory. The fact is America has an institutionalised two-party system, and while an extremist Republican party might not be able to win 2012, could Obama lose it? The Democrats have not had an easy year in power. The economic crisis has shocked Middle America. The official unemployment rate stands at 10%, but once the long-term jobless and other groups are added, the number becomes 17%, almost one-fifth of the workforce. Obama has failed so far to deliver on his big post-election promises of closing Guantánamo Bay and pushing through healthcare reform. His administration is stuffed with former financiers who have done little more than resurrect the old, flawed and now reviled banking system. And all at public expense. His popularity, and especially that of his party, is sinking. Obama’s approval rating recently dipped below 50% for the first time. Among vital independent voters he has lost 12 points since August, while those who disapprove have risen from 19% to 41% in 10 months. Most observers believe the Republicans will do well in 2010’s mid-term elections, taking back perhaps 20 or more congressional seats from Democratic targets. In short, if the economy continues to tank and core supporters and independents stay away from the polls, Obama could suddenly be vulnerable, even to a Palinite candidate.
With or without Palin herself, power is certainly the dream of those tens of thousands of people flocking to stops along Palin’s tour route. The inhabitants of Palin World are not turning out for the fun of it. They mean business.
In Grand Rapids they turn up a day early to grab the precious orange wristbands that will allow them to have their books signed. Many camp overnight and stand patiently in line throughout the next day. Yet the atmosphere is one of a carnival. Chants of “Sarah! Sarah!” break out sporadically long before Palin arrives. People wear Palin shirts, Palin badges, Palin headgear and Palin stickers. “She’s worth waiting through the night for,” says a gleeful Robin Case, 44, a recently laid-off car worker, who is third in line. She has few doubts that the future of America belongs to her cause, and thinks Obama will soon be swept away by the movement. She gestures at the line of people snaking away behind her. “In a funny way, we needed someone like Barack Obama to be elected to wake us up,” she says.