News of the death of Senator John McCain from cancer has generated enormous sympathy and praise. When he ran for president in 2008, McCain was known as a “maverick” in the media, even though his views were rarely that far removed from traditional Republican orthodoxy. Maybe it was his style that won him that nickname. A former Navy fighter pilot and prisoner of war during the Vietnam war, McCain was less guarded than most politicians, and he courted the media with candor and humor (what a contrast to Donald Trump, who denounces the media as “the enemy of the people”).
Rolling the dice in the 2008 campaign, McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, a folksy governor from Alaska with virtually no experience in national or international politics. But what Palin had was strong populist instincts and a certain plain-speaking charisma. If McCain was the “maverick,” Palin was the “rogue” candidate. She helped to unleash a populist (anti-intellectual) fervor in the Republican party that culminated with Donald Trump.
I well remember the 2008 election. I was living in rural Pennsylvania and both vice-presidential candidates came for a visit. Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, filled a high school gymnasium — roughly 600 people. Sarah Palin filled a minor league baseball stadium to overflowing — roughly 13,000 people.
Back then, Rebecca Traister wrote about Palin’s triumphal tour of rural Pennsylvania here. She also wrote about Palin’s rally at that minor league baseball stadium, Bowman Field. For some reason, the link to that article (which appeared originally at Salon.com) no longer works, but another blogger (“Lowell”) at Contextual Criticism cited portions of it back in early November 2008. Here’s how that blogger, quoting Traister, set the scene:
Palin is in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. It is a cold Thursday night. Thirteen thousand faithful, with “their Christian literature and thundersticks in tow,” have come to an outdoor baseball stadium to see the hockey mom from Alaska, the moose-slayer, the pit bull who ignites their basest instincts.
“Finally, about an hour before Palin’s scheduled arrival, Bowman Field kicked off its pre-party with the National Anthem sung under the giant flag suspended from a crane over the ‘Victory in Pennsylvania’ sign. A security sniper ogled the chilly crowd with his night-vision glasses, and a local minister took the stage to offer a benediction that hit the trifecta of guns, gays and abortion. The preacher asked forgiveness ‘for so many [who] have shed innocent blood through the course of abortions, and so many [who] would stop the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.’ With these abominations in mind, the preacher continued, ‘Thank you for raising up a woman like Gov. Sarah Palin at a time like this. Bless her for standing against those who would remove the guns from our cabinets, and those who would want to remove the baby from the womb of her mother. Bless her family as they adjust to changes in their lives that are going to be taking place on Tuesday.'”
Ms. Traister writes that “Palin was her down-home bestest, peppering her brief address with references to First Dude’s four snow-machine world championships, a lot of gratitude toward the veterans in the crowd, and a lot of folksy, g-droppin’ references to how ‘the time for choosin’s comin’ real soon,’ a golden-oldie reference to Ronald Reagan’s famous 1964 speech in support of Barry Goldwater. Combined with Palin’s repeated use of the phrases ‘You betcha!’ and ‘Drill, baby, drill!’ and her guess that the crowd was ‘so doggone proud’ of the Phillies, and her environmental justification that ‘God has so richly blessed this land with resources’ that [we] should probably strip-mine it, Palin seemed to be imitating Tina Fey’s imitation of her on ‘Saturday Night Live.'”
Toward the end, Palin invoked Reagan again, saying “In the end, what John McCain and I believe in is what Ronald Reagan believes in … we believe that America is still that shining City on a Hill that Ronald Reagan used to speak of.”
Now, lest you think Ms. Traister got out of that God-lovin’ bunch of folks without incident, think again. Here’s how she tells it:
“While I was interviewing some of the attendees, accompanied by another Salon staffer who was holding a video camera, a Palin fan in a newish silver sedan drove by and hit me hard in the back with the side mirror of the car, hard enough to bend the mirror back. Then the car drove off without anybody inside pausing to ask if I was all right. The middle-aged woman in the passenger seat, however, might have saluted me with an un-Christian hand gesture.”
Yes — that happened. Traister, a journalist, was hit “hard in the back” by a car, earning a middle-finger salute for her pains from one of the passengers. Talk about being anti-media! Small wonder that Trump’s diatribes resonate so well with “God-lovin'” people across the USA.
After the rallies in 2008, I asked my students (I was teaching college at the time) about them. They gushed about Palin. One of my students was especially taken by Palin’s husband, whom she considered to be a stud. None of my students had anything to say about the (much smaller and comparatively sedate) Biden rally.
Then and now, the mainstream media and the Democratic Party dismissed Palin as a joke, just as they initially dismissed Trump as a joke in 2015. Yet, as I wrote about Palin in 2010:
Much of what’s been said about Palin was also said of another backwoods American whose values were honed on the frontier: President Andrew Jackson. Palin may be no Jackson, but the liberal media’s sneering dismissal of her constitutes an indulgent, often self-congratulatory, narrative. It’s also a repudiation of our Jacksonian heritage of tough-minded, plain-speaking independence.
Like Jackson, Palin makes no pretense about being a cultivated American. Like it or not, she’s seen by her admirers as genuine precisely because she’s not a conflicted intellectual — precisely because she doesn’t confuse her followers by revealing a fourth side to every three-sided problem. Gosh darn it, she just loves God and loves America and loves our troops and loves her special baby and … well … that’s more than enough for her many admirers and followers.
Rural people in “fly-over” country are naturally suspicious of slick politicians who are both too smarmy and too clever for their own good. Palin is naturally “aw shucks” and seemingly content with her knowledge of the world. And, like Andrew Jackson before her, Palin is unapologetic, undeferential, and unabashedly proud to be an American. One simply can’t imagine her making a “patronizing apology tour” of European capitals, as President Obama was accused of doing by conservatives.
And which past president does Trump believe he’s most like? Andrew Jackson. Trump is, in a way, a male Palin with a lot more celebrity, lots more money, and scads of mendacity.
By selecting Palin as his running mate in 2008, McCain helped to open a door for future populists, a door Trump jumped through in 2015. It may not be McCain’s defining legacy, but it is, perhaps, his most negative.
Reference: See David Smith, “John McCain opened Pandora’s box – Sarah Palin came out, but Trump was right behind her. The senator regretted his choice of running mate. In 2008, no one could have imagined what it would mean,” at The Guardian, which got me thinking about this issue.