She’s back … and back … and back … Sarah Palin returned to the mediasphere this week, on the back of a hog, in a black German army helmet, roaring through DC as part of Rolling Thunder, the biker-Vietnam vet show of strength. The return of the irrepressible has sent a thrill through the hard right, and a shudder through any Republican interested in winning in 2012.
For millions of dispirited rightists across the US, the pic of Palin roaring in, riding pillion, half Valkyrie, half groupie, is not merely something to gladden their hearts—it is the only thing that will gladden their hearts.
There is simply no one else on the right who can do what Palin does—reaffirm and personify the idea that there is a real America in exile, a patriot shadowland whose exclusion from power is ample proof that the world has gone mad, up is down, night is day, and, above all, black is white—or where white, by right, should be.
They have had not had an easy few months, these stalwarts. The Tea Party pseudo-movement gladdened their hearts—and was demobilised the moment the GOP regained control of Congress (the House, at any rate). Since the very few genuine activists associated with the movement have now been taken up by the DC lobby groups who adopted them when genuine grassroots protest emerged in 2009-10, no one remains to actually organise the Tea Party.
And since the rank and file was created out of the atomised, isolated and obsessive, it simply returned to its natural state—watching Fox News, and listening to Rush Limbaugh, while raging, in the burbs and malls, at the iniquity of it all.
Meanwhile, the victorious Republicans rapidly became bogged down in the business of politics—and tarnished it faster than anyone could have expected. Despite their hubris, their leadership realised, from November 2010 onwards, that there were three looming crises—crafting a budget, provoking a possible shutdown, and dealing with the debt ceiling law.
They have avoided one potential disaster—a budget shutdown, the ’90s version of which helped Clinton to a second term—but in doing so have been caught by the other, a budget that, excluding tax rises, had to make savage cuts.
For reasons best known to themselves, they allowed the budget process to be handled by a narrow clique of Ayn Rand fanatics who, with perfect consistency, went on the attack against the largest piece of socialism in the US system—Medicare, universal, unlimited, socialised health care for the over-65s.
This essentially drew the Tea Partiers from fantasy into reality—Medicare is the magic portal they simply refuse to recognise as part of the state. The result was evident last week when the GOP lost the New York 26th—one of those lovingly handcrafted gerrymander districts designed to deliver a Republican majority for ever.
The attack on Medicare essentially made clear the division between the elite Republicans and beltway ideologues, and the greater mass of Tea Party supporters, essentially shattering the fantasy that there was a unity between them.
Palin is the one figure who can restore that fantasy of unity to the raddled masses. Indeed, part of her appeal now is that even the hard-right establishment disapprove of her—she’s gone double rogue, meta-maverick.
The more she is denounced by grandees as unelectable, the more a vital core of the hard right redouble their efforts and love for her. The movement is now well into martyrdom phase, happy to lose if that is what it takes to reaffirm their fantasy identity against a messy politics in which centre-left and right—on issues such as war, Medicare, etc—have become perfused and commingled.
Right from the start it was clear that much of Palin and the Tea Party’s energy was gained from a giant historical cross-over of political style—for they took the wild renegade Americanism of the ’60s “yippie” movement and channelled it into the right.
From Ron Paul’s R(love)ution, his orange and black banners, his remote-controlled mini-airships floating outside rival GOPers meetings, to the colonial dress-ups and the “Porkulus” protests—pigs roasting on a spit representing the budget – the right restaged all the energy and exuberance of a libertarian late ’60s moment.
The hard right—Fox News, Freedom works, etc—were so desperate following Obama’s victory that they were willing to flatter and draw on this energy, which they had hitherto avoided. And for good reason, for its dominant serious figure was Ron Paul, anti-war, anti-PATRIOT act, happy to describe the Republicans as no more than a host-body for his politics.
Now that politics has jumped the species barrier, as it were. Palin and others have come out against the low-level conflict in Libya, risking accusations of disloyalty from straitlaced types, and putting them in a difficult situation as regards Afghanistan.
The politics are obvious—to make Obama wholly own wars new and inherited, but it also puts libertarian anti-war politics at one pole of the right, while uber-patriotism persists at the other. Add the mess over Medicare, and confusion is total. The formation has ceased to exist.
Karl M would have said that this was farce following tragedy, but Palin’s helmeted hog-jockeying reminds one of something else. What is it? Of course:
Yes, the Republicans have entered their Animal House phase (on about the tenth anniversary of PJ O’Rourke making a funny joke). They’re in it for the kicks now, and the question of whether she’s running or not is to a degree a false distinction. It’s all about the energy. Toga! Toga! Toga!