At some point on Saturday, the snake that operates Sarah Palin fell in love with a licorice whip and ran away, leaving her host body to deliver a half-hour nonsense speech at the Iowa Freedom summit. Lest you think I am indulging a liberal trope, I want to make it clear that this was not the usual folksy assault on syntax. It was bona fide word salad. I quote from the 26-minute mark:
Things like that: it must change. Things must change for our government. Look at it. It isn’t too big to fail. It’s too big to succeed. It’s too big to succeed, so we can afford no retreads, or nothing will change. With the same people and same policies that got us into the status quo—another that word, status quo, and it stands for man, the middle-class everyday Americans are really getting taken for a ride. That’s status quo. And GOP leaders, by the way—you know, the man can only ride you when your back is bent.
That’s 23 seconds of a speech that lasted a half hour. I urge you to watch as much of the video as you can tolerate, if only for the reaction shots. That is as publicly surly as Iowans get.
Somewhere in there, she strongly implied that she would run for President in 2016. That would be great for this blog, but I think we can agree it might not be good for the country. The question of whether Palin is good for anything to which she attaches her name has dogged her national political career since it began in 2008. Maybe she revitalized a limp ticket by joining John McCain, or maybe she helped turn one of America’s most respected senators into a laughingstock.
The notion of Palin as a candidate for any office but the presidency seems quaint now. Only a fool would make her Secretary of the Treasury, for example, and one struggles to imagine her competently running a county assessor’s office. She did not quite manage a full term as Governor of Alaska. She resigned in her third year—not during the election, but in 2009 when she had no other office to assume. At the moment her fame permitted it, she left government for a career in politics.
Somehow, it seems reasonable that she would run for President, even as the idea of her qualifying for any other position is absurd. Here the problem with Sarah Palin and a problem with American discourse intersect.
Palin is kind of a politician and kind of an entertainer. As the video above reminds us, Rep. Steve King did not invite her to his Freedom Summit for the value of her ideas. Besides its resistance to sense, Palin’s speech is striking for its seemingly automatic recourse to catch phrases. In the midst of her floundering, she lunges for clichés of contemporary rhetoric like “too big to fail.” Palin is a person who speaks in verbless sound bites and presumably thinks in them, too. She is a human distillation of cable news commentary, remarkable not for the content of her remarks but for their familiarity.
In a healthy political discourse, such a person would be useless. Why hire, much less nominate, someone who says the same things as everybody else but ineptly? In our political discourse, the answer to that question is “because she’s famous.”
Palin has an audience. We don’t really know how big it is, but plenty of powerful people seem to think it’s huge. I have not heard a serious commentator say that she is competent or insightful since 2010, but we all seem convinced that she is more important than, say, Donald Trump. We don’t base this assumption on our own assessments of her value. We base it on our assessment of what other, dumber Americans probably like.
I submit that Palin’s career since November of 2008 is based on a cynical underestimate of the American people. She apparently believes that everyone is as vapid as she is—how else to explain her terrifying confidence? But she only gets to speak into microphones because smart people who disdain her believe that there are enough dumb people out there to make her valuable.
She isn’t. Saturday’s speech embarrassed Steve King, which is no mean feat. She will embarrass the Republican Party insofar as it indulges her presidential ambitions.
Mencken famously remarked that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Like a lot of things he said, that sounds good but isn’t true. People screw up by underestimating their audiences all the time. Palin did it on Saturday, and she will do it again for anyone who lets her.