While mulling one of the great political media questions of 2021 — Will Donald Trump soon fade from sight, and what will we write about if he does? — I ran across this Joshua Green quote in The Atlantic published exactly ten years ago: “It’s hard to escape Sarah Palin. On Facebook and Twitter, cable news and reality television, she is a constant object of dispute, the target or instigator of some distressingly large proportion of the political discourse.” I remember now that it was at about this period that liberal journalists often taunted one another for writing lazily about Palin on slow news days, just as they did with Trump more recently.
After a lot of speculation that she would run for president in 2012 produced no news-sustaining sensation for St. Joan of the Tundra, she began to fade into the background. When she produced a late pre-Iowa endorsement for Trump, it didn’t keep Ted Cruz from winning the state. And for obscure reasons (possibly her poorly timed criticism of a tax-subsidy deal to bribe the Carrier air-conditioning company to keep a plant open in Indiana), she was one of the few early Trump validators who never got rewarded with anything. Soon she began to fade from sight with episodic reappearances that were almost shocking in reminding us what a big deal she had been (including, last year, her appearance as a dancing Mama Grizzly on The Masked Singer, shown above, and a weird Instagram post hinting at a 2022 challenge to Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska).
Palin’s quick descent into oblivion gave pundit Peter Hamby hope earlier this year that Trump may do a similarly quick fade:
It’s already getting dark out there for Mister Trump. Without the presidency, he already commands much less of our mindshare than he did only a few weeks ago. Like Palin, Trump himself will recede over time, even if the damage he has inflicted on our political culture remains. The media has started to search for the next ambassador from Crazytown, the next ratings grab.
While Hamby may ultimately be correct, it won’t happen right away, it seems. Arguably, the grip of the 45th president and his lies on the Republican Party is even stronger than it was when he finally left office, even though he has been widely “de-platformed” and is only now beginning to resume his signature rallies. And even those who think his staying power is limited generally no longer think the GOP will resume some sort of innocent pre-Trump trajectory; at best, we will be dealing with Trumpism, if not Trump, for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps the best way to understand the Palin-Trump comparison is not as back-to-back comets doomed to flame out quickly but as one shocking figure in touch with some powerful grassroots dynamics being superseded by another with better skills and perfect timing. As I said when Palin endorsed Trump in 2016, “[I]n 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.” The people who cheered the amateur Palin didn’t need her much anymore when the professional huckster showed up in national politics.
As part of a new typology of America’s warring tribes (and warring narratives of the country’s past, present, and future), the journalist George Packer has a very clear understanding of the relationship between these two champions of “Real America.” Years before Trump perfected his pitch to an aroused and fearful base rooted in non-college-educated white residents of small towns and exurbs, Palin was on the 2008 campaign trail saying this: “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit … and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hardworking, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation. Those who are running our factories and teaching our kids and growing our food and are fighting our wars for us.”
Palin channeled the authentic fury of the white working class toward allegedly freeloading minorities and the supercilious overeducated elites aligned with them, united in the person of Barack Obama, “a Black professional who had gone to the best schools, who knew so much more than Palin, and who was too cerebral to get in the mud pit with her.”
But Palin was flawed and, above all, premature. “John the Baptist to the coming of Trump,” says Packer, alluding to the New Testament prophet who prepared the way for Jesus. So she was soon to fade, not because the impetus to her fame had subsided but because she herself was no longer necessary or sufficient to the savage cause she represented:
Palin crumbled during the  campaign. Her miserable performance under basic questioning disqualified her in the eyes of Americans with open minds on the subject. Her Republican handlers tried to hide her and later disowned her. In 2008, the country was still too rational for a candidate like Palin. After losing, she quit being governor of Alaska, which no longer interested her, and started a new career as a reality-TV personality, tea-party star, and autographed-merchandise saleswoman. Palin kept looking for a second act that never arrived. She suffered the pathetic fate of being a celebrity ahead of her time.
But the resentments that fed the careers of both Palin and Trump haven’t subsided at all. For a good while now, America hasn’t worked for “Real Americans,” and they blame educated elites and their minority clientele for ruining it. Restoring this often-imaginary white Eden won’t happen overnight, but in the meantime, the thrill of terrifying the class-race enemy with the hobgoblin of a crude, vengeful leader who “tells it like it is” can be a satisfying blood sport. Palin was good at it, Trump is better, and Lord help us if the true master of this brand of politics is still waiting in the wings.