Notwithstanding the howls of pain and rage from supporters of Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin’s decision to endorse Donald Trump for president makes perfect sense when you think about what she has distinctively represented in the Republican Party. Yes, she’s a “conservative” in the sense of standing for maximum confrontation with Democrats and constantly accusing the party Establishment of acts of betrayal. But no, there’s nothing particularly ideological — or, for that matter, intellectual — about her approach to politics or issues. She represents almost perfectly the passion and resentment of grassroots cultural-issues activists. When John McCain vaulted her into national politics, she was known for two things other than her gender: She was a “walk the walk” role model for the anti-abortion movement, thanks to her small child Trig, and she had taken on the “crony capitalist” GOP Establishment in Alaska and won. Thus she was a fellow “maverick” with Christian-right street cred and a “game-changing” identity.
The remarkably widespread belief that Palin lost the 2008 presidential election for her party is even more far-fetched than the hope that she could win it. And so the many fans she made in that campaign developed — with a lot of help from Palin herself — a deep resentment of all of the Democrats, Republicans, and media elites who belittled her. In a very real sense, she was the authentic representative of those local right-to-life activists — disproportionately women — who had staffed countless GOP campaigns and gotten little in return (this was before the 2010 midterm elections began to produce serious anti-choice gains in the states) other than the thinly disguised contempt of Beltway Republicans. And after 2008 she generated a sort of perpetual motion machine in which her fans loved her precisely for the mockery she so reliably inspired.
Unfortunately for those fans, St. Joan of the Tundra was never quite up to the demands of a statewide — much less national — political career. So she opportunistically intervened in politics between books and television specials and widely broadcast family sagas, mostly through well-timed candidate endorsements. It’s striking, though not surprising, that Palin is now endorsing the nemesis of one of her most successful “Mama Grizzly” protégées, South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, on the turf of another, Iowa’s Joni Ernst.
But in many respects, the Trump campaign is the presidential campaign Palin herself might have aspired to run if she had the money and energy to do so. Her famous disregard for wonky facts and historical context is but a shadow of Trump’s. His facility with the big and effective lie can’t quite match Palin’s, who after all convinced many millions of people in a Facebook post that the Affordable Care Act authorized “death panels.” And both of them, of course, exemplify the demagogue’s zest for flouting standards of respectable discourse and playing the table-turning triumphant victim/conqueror of privileged elites.
Conservatism for both Trump and Palin simply supplies the raw material of politics and a preassembled group of aggrieved white people ready to follow anyone purporting to protect hard-earned threatened privileges, whether it’s Social Security and Medicare benefits or religious hegemony. So it’s natural Palin would gravitate to Trump rather than Cruz, who’s a professional ideologue but a mere amateur demagogue. The endorser and the endorsee were meant for each other.