She walked out onto the stage in Iowa wearing a jacket resembling something used in wind tunnels to indicate airflow. I prefer to think it a deliberate allusion to the Republican race and not simply a fashion mistake. It has been obvious for some time which way the wind is blowing. It’s a wind that appears to be steering Donald Trump directly towards the White House and Palin’s support is the best indicator yet that Trump’s course has looked steady for months. It also represents a significant victory for Trump over his closest rival. Ted Cruz’s numbers have been improving but his reputation has veered wildly, with the Palin camp last night mumbling that there’s something not quite right about the senator from Texas. Rumours have long circulated about his troubled relationship with other Senate Republicans. Apparently to know Ted Cruz is to dislike Ted Cruz. Palin’s endorsement for Trump seems to confirm just that.
Not that personality really matters. Palin is political tumbleweed who has found a natural home in the Republican grassroots. She latches onto anything that will help her endure in the public’s consciousness and if she arrived behind Trump’s lectern it wasn’t because he’s simply the nicer guy. Her appearance in Iowa is the best indication yet that the prevailing winds will continue for the rest of this political season.
The surprise is that Trump appeared so keen to accept her support, though in truth, it’s probably a case of preferring to have her on his side rather than gifting her support to Cruz. If I detected a hint of wariness as he handed her the microphones then it is perhaps understandable. Trump has run a campaign built entirely on his own image. Nobody but Trump speaks for Trump which is how he has been able to make such a virtue of spending very little on his campaign thus far. He has broken the political machine through the simple force of his personality, a rough but extremely winning rhetorical skill, and a few policy suggestions that have dominated the news agenda. Getting Palin’s endorsement feels perfunctory. It’s the last tug of the cuffs or the straightening of the tie. The job feels done but Palin is there just to provide a double safety knot around evangelical voters who would traditionally be for Cruz.
Mrs Palin presents a remarkable soundscape as if Minnie Mouse were on a cocaine binge. She screeches and crows as a rooster does when trapped in a perpetual dawn. It’s a voice wired into the mains. She whoops and hollers and then does things for which there are no names outside the Palin vocabulary. ‘Are you ready to make American great again?’ she screamed as she twisted the poor unsuspecting microphones into position. Even the Donald looks pained as he stood behind her, his face stretched into a shiny porcelain grin but a certain nervousness revealing itself in the way his white eyeballs flittered around in their tanned bed.
‘You hard working Iowa families, you farm families, and teachers and teamsters, and cops and cooks, you rock and rollers, and holy rollers. You all work so hard. You full time mums, with the hands that rock the cradle, you all make the world go round.’
These tricks are vintage Palin: alliteration, internal rhymes, and old-fashioned cliches that mean little in themselves but are gestures towards a homestead wisdom. Her speeches seem to hop between thoughts, a style that Trump shares, but unlike Trump and his rambling digressions which usually return to their point of origin, Palin merely rolls forward never daring to stop long enough to ask if any of this makes any sense. Palin is a sensualist rather than a rationalist. She uses words in ways that are poetic and suggestive rather than well reasoned or clear. If you were to ask her to describe the sky, she would not say ‘It’s a blue sky with some signs of cloud that suggest we might have rain later’. She would say ‘Well, look at all the majestic blueness, white hovery bits, maybe rain, maybe not, but hey, what a glorious thing to behold and don’t it kind of just make ya think of God?’
This, perhaps, accounts for her success but also the opprobrium she attracts. She is easily ridiculed by those able to see through her tricks. To those that don’t, her language seems profound because it is memorable but expressive of something beyond words. Take a simple example.
‘Well, I am here because like you I know that it is now or never. I’m in it to win it because we believe in America, and we love our freedom.’
The first sentence says very little. In fact, I’m not sure what it says but the ‘now or never’ is memorable. So too is the ‘I’m in it to win it’. Add ‘we believe in America’ and ‘we love our freedom’ and you begin to form a sense that she’s saying ‘this is the last chance America has to rescue its freedom’. Her speech is riddled with such gestures which either play with words (‘are you ready to stump for Trump’) or merely copy the vernacular of Hollywood -”no more pussy footin’ around’, ‘he’s going rogue left and right’, ‘go kick ISIS ass’.
The dog whistles are there. At one point she directly compares political correctness to a suicide vest and when she argues that Trump has ‘been able to tear the veil off this idea of the system’ the important word is ‘veil’ and not ‘system’. These are the gestures that direct her passion towards something which is largely of her own and Republican imaginations. It is the thing that isn’t America. It is the mysterious thing known as ‘Obama’ which is greater and far more evil than even she can express. It is the evil of the ‘enemy’, at one point here, presented in the familiar guise of Iran.
I’m in it, because just last week, we’re watching our sailors suffer and be humiliated on a world stage at the hands of Iranian captors in violation of international law, because a weak-kneed, capitulator-in-chief has decided America will lead from behind. And he, who would negotiate deals, kind of with the skills of a community organizer maybe organizing a neighborhood tea, well, he deciding that, ‘No, America would apologize’ and as part of the deal, as the enemy sends a message to the rest of the world that they capture and we kowtow and we apologize, and then, we bend over and say, ‘Thank you, enemy.’
If you followed the story of the American sailors caught by Iran, you’d know how little of the story matches Palin’s narrative. The sailors neither suffered not were particularly humiliated, except by being forcibly filmed enjoying some Iranian food. Arguably, it was no more a violation of international law than the American’s straying into Iranian waters. America apologised because, for once, they were in the wrong and the apology and ‘thank you’ was part of the usual diplomacy between nations.
Reportage is not Palin’s skill which, as she puts it, is about ‘kind of stirring it up a little bit maybe’.
This is the Palin style. Her skill is the way she can modulate that voice, shrill with indignation one moment but shrill with exasperation the next. Rarely is the voice not shrill but it is a shrillness that does not extend to her words. She might wish to say something deeply contentious but she rarely actually says it in the very same way that she never curses properly. At one point she pauses and exclaims: ‘Oh my goodness gracious. What the heck would the establishment know about conservatism? Tell me, is this conservative?’
Liberals revile Trump because he talks about difficult things in uncompromising and often simplistic ways. Palin, however, says things which might be even more unpalatable but she knows how to say them. With her it’s about tone. Her allusions, coyly-phrased hints, and general just-a-simple-girl shtick are very deceptive. She might be a popular face of the right of American politics but the danger is that nobody can really tell how far she would turn that face if given a chance. Trump will surely be ware of getting too close. She is kind of good for Trump in Iowa, but, for his wider election prospects, kind of bad too.