When John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008, his campaign hoped to unite Republicans by pairing an establishment moderate with a folksy, populist outsider. In theory, the Alaska governor’s appeal to disaffected working class whites, whether Republican, independent, or Democrat, would help build a winning coalition.
The gambit obviously failed. But Donald Trump’s rise proves that a sizable faction can be rallied around outsider appeal, cultural grievance, and ressentiment.
In that respect, Palin’s support for Trump makes perfect sense. “Her real roots are not in Reaganism or libertarianism or the orthodoxies of the donor class,” Ross Douthat observes. “They’re in the same kind of blue-collar, Jacksonian, ‘who’s looking out for you?’ populism that has carried Trump to the top of the Republican polls.”
There is, however, one way in which the two were once at odds.
Sarah Palin has always been an interventionist hawk. Bill Kristol played a part in her rise. Matthew Continetti defended her at book length. If the Tea Party runs the gamut from non-interventionist Rand Paul to on-the-fence Ted Cruz to neoconservative Marco Rubio, Palin once aligned most closely with a Rubio-style foreign policy. It’s why an otherwise uncomfortable political marriage with McCain could work.
Take her views on Iraq.
“I support President Bush’s efforts to stop terrorism by taking the fight to the terrorists,” she said in 2006.
“Our nominee for president is a profile in courage, and people like that are hard to come by,” she declared in her 2008 convention speech. “He's a man who wore the uniform of this country for 22 years and refused to break faith with those troops in Iraq who have now brought victory within sight. And as the mother of one of those troops, that is exactly the kind of man I want as commander-in-chief.”
Debating Joe Biden in 2008, she declared, “Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq and that is not what our troops need to hear today, that’s for sure. You guys opposed the surge. The surge worked. Barack Obama still can’t admit the surge works. We’ll know when we’re finished in Iraq when the Iraqi government can govern its people and when the Iraqi security forces can secure its people. And our commanders on the ground will tell us when those conditions have been met.”
This election cycle, Donald Trump has claimed that his opposition to the Iraq invasion dates back to 2003. His account of when he turned against the war easily predates the surge. He regards American efforts there as a folly, a waste, and a catastrophe. Politicians who characterized the conflict in that way were once deemed by Palin to be disrespecting the troops and showing white-flag waving naiveté in the War on Terror.
They were unfit, in her view, to be commander-in-chief.
Now she has endorsed a candidate who, along with Rand Paul and Bernie Sanders, is arguably the biggest critic of neoconservative foreign policy in the race. “We are ready and our troops deserve the best,” Palin said in her endorsement speech. “A new commander-in-chief whose track record of success has proven he is the master at the art of the deal. He is one who would know to negotiate.”
That’s quite a contrast with “he's a man who wore the uniform of this country for 22 years and refused to break faith with troops in Iraq who have now brought victory within sight.”
Why the change?
One theory is that Palin never had any real foreign-policy convictions. She allied with George W. Bush when it was popular to do so in her party, adopted John McCain’s attitude when it was politically advantageous, and is changing again now that her most likely path to political relevance lies within a Trump Administration.
Another theory is that she was earnest in bygone foreign policy pronouncements, but it isn’t her priority. In this telling, Palin has substantive disagreement with Trump’s views, but they are inconsequential to her given other similarities in their outlooks.
Either way, Palin has defected from the neoconservative camp to a candidate who is openly antagonistic to the neocon worldview. And that strikes me as significant. The shift is eased by the fact that, like many neocons, Trump talks about foreign policy by declaring that the United States needs to be strong and tough. But the rhetorical similarities are juxtaposed with hugely different approaches.
Going forward, it will be fascinating to see what Palin says about foreign policy, especially if Trump squares off against Hillary Clinton, with her neocon proclivities.
For now, she is contradicting herself. She said in her Trump endorsement, “Are you ready for a commander-in-chief who will let our warriors do their job and go kick ISIS ass?”
In the same speech, she declared:
Let me say something really positive about one of those individuals: Rand Paul. I’m going to tell you about that libertarian streak in him that is healthy, because he knows, you only go to war if you’re determined to win the war!
And you quit footin’ the bill for these nations who are oil-rich, we’re paying for some of their squirmishes that have been going on for centuries. Where they’re fightin’ each other and yellin’ “Allah Akbar” calling Jihad on each other’s heads for ever and ever. Like I’ve said before, let them duke it out and let Allah sort it out.
I cannot resolve the contradiction in her views, but praising Rand Paul while endorsing Donald Trump isn’t the sort of thing one does while allied with the neocon right.