One would have thought that no Republican would be able to drive pundits toward the edge of sanity as deftly as George W. Bush used to, but Sarah Palin has surpassed him. She is as hated by the Left as viscerally as Bill and Hillary were by the Right. She’s the latest in a string of conservative targets: Reagan, Bush, now Palin—all cast successively as rightwing bumpkins du jour.
Some of the horror is political, or claims to be. Andrew Sullivan, one of Palin’s most relentless critics, attacks Palin in the name of conservatism. She is a radical masquerading as a conservative. She’s unscrupulous, and a racist too. If Palin runs for President in 2012, Sullivan predicts, it will be ugly: “She will play the race card powerfully, often and repeatedly. . . . She will make the Willie Horton ad look like happytalk.”
Not content to attack Palin’s positions and tactics, Sullivan resorts to conspiracy theories and long-distance psychoanalysis. Trump, er, that is, Sullivan is a longtime un-birther, demanding proof that Palin is mother to her Downs Syndrome son Trig. Only in April of this year, following the publication of a lengthy Salon investigative piece, did Sullivan grudgingly concede that it might possibly be probable that Palin carried and gave birth to her own son after all. Sullivan has described Palin as “clinically deluded,” paranoid and vengeful, “psychologically unhinged.” She aims “to win power by a populist appeal, backed by a virulent Christianism” and leads a movement that aspires “to smash existing institutions and to ‘fundamentally restore’ the American status quo before the Great Society, and even, the New Deal.” Lust for destruction is “the core of today’s ‘conservative’ movement”—thus says the “conservative” defender of same-sex civil marriage.
I’m here to assure the Andrew Sullivans out there that America has nothing to fear from Palin. Even if she becomes leader of the free world, she will cause barely a ripple in the surface of American culture. It’s not just that her views are widely shared, or that she demonstrated uncommon courage, vision, and competence during her time as governor of Alaska. She’s no threat because she swims so easily in the eddies of the Zeitgeist. Rightwing she is on political hot buttons, but culturally she is as cheerily, effortlessly postmodern as they come. Palin is not a threat to the American way of life. She is the American way of life, a.d. 2011.
She’s one of us in so many ways. She gets confused about history for one thing—which side Paul Revere was on, for instance. And she has trouble remembering what she reads, as she revealed in the odd 2008 interview with Katie Couric. She misuses phrases like “blood libel” picked up from somewhere and never fully understood. She says we need to win the war “over in Iraq and Iran,” you know—a sweep of the arm—over there. She mangles English as amusingly if less frequently than Bush, but has the charming chutzpah to defend her misfudiations. Of course, every public person makes gaffes, but Palin’s gaffes and gaps and jolly self-defenses are so insular, so American. She is so us.
But she is us mainly because of the blobby mix of politics, celebrity, media, and pop culture that envelops her entire existence. The “blob” metaphor comes from Thomas de Zengotita, one of today’s most perceptive observers of our “mediated” culture and politics. We are surrounded by flattering appeals for our attention, too many to take any of them seriously. And we are producers of media as well as insatiable consumers. Our every move gets tweeted and FB’d, every event photoed or filmed and instantly uploaded for the world to see. Events still happen, but almost before they have stopped happening they are being represented with cell phone cameras or by CNN’s professionals. The blob begins to envelop life. We were there for the McDonald’s beat-down of the cross-dresser. It happened to us too. In mediated society, earlier distinctions between public and private, reality and representation, substance and style melt into a single mediated mess.
Palin didn’t create the blob, but she is fully at home there. Everyone who has paid the scantest attention can see that the “Lamestream media” is her lifeblood. She has her own reality TV show, a slot on Fox, and a best-selling score-settling autobiography. She creates a frenzied media wake every time she moves. We know her kids by their first names, like characters from a sitcom. What was that interrupted bus tour? The beginning of a Presidential run? A pseudo-event? A family vacation—in a flashy luxury bus decorated with American flags and a page from the Constitution? All and none, and nobody can do it better than Palin. Nobody else would even try. How American is that?
Palin’s celebrity, like all celebrity, illumines everyone around her. Bristol dances on Dancing with the Stars, with Sarah and Todd cheering from the stands. Catching a glimpse of the Palins on the show was my first clue to Palin’s pomo normalcy. Of course, any self-respecting twenty-first century family-values American is going to leverage a Vice Presidential bid to get her daughter a place on a popular TV program, where she can rip off her partner’s shirt and writhe sexily on the floor. Or, maybe, leverage her daughter into a position as spokeswoman for an abstinence campaign, another Bristol celebrity spot. Bristol is rarely far from the media. She puts in a guest appearance on a TV show, gets her picture to the covers of magazines, and has just released a juicy tell-all memoir at the ripe age of twenty. Levi (we all know who he is) is about to come out with his own tell-all-the-rest.
Writing back in 2005, de Zengotita saw Clinton as “Blobster-in-chief.” “Can the political get more personal?” he queried as he recounted the Lewinsky affair. Riding a mediated wave, Palin—who in politics and personal character is vastly different from Clinton—has answered his question with a resounding Yes.
Andrew Sullivan can relax. The world after the very conventional Mrs. Palin will be the same blobby world she inherited, only more so.
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).