How Sarah Palin Created Donald Trump

The rabble-rousing former Alaska governor pioneered the rhetorical style now powering the frontrunner's rise.

Mary Altaffer / AP

Just when you thought the 2016 election couldn’t get any nuttier or more absurd, Sarah Palin has joined the fray. And as usual, it’s hard to look away.

In a speech in Iowa endorsing Donald Trump on Tuesday night, America’s mama grizzly-in-chief deployed her inimitable style—a bizarre, free-associating enjambment of disparate concepts and slogans, tossed together in a crazy salad of words. “Looking around at all of you, you hardworking Iowa families,” Palin declared in her lilting singsong. “You farm families and teachers and Teamsters and cops and cooks. You rock-’n’-rollers and holy rollers! All of you who work so hard. You full-time moms. You with the hands that rock the cradle. You all make the world go round, and now our cause is one.”

Later, Palin assessed Trump’s ideological critics on the right: “Well, and then, funny-ha-ha, not funny, but now, what they’re doing is wailing, ‘Well, Trump and his, uh, uh, uh, Trumpeters, they’re not conservative enough.’” But Palin concluded these critics did not have standing: “How ’bout the rest of us? Right wingin’, bitter clingin’, proud clingers of our guns, our God, and our religions, and our Constitution. Tell us that we’re not red enough? Yeah, coming from the establishment. Right.”

She praised Trump for disrupting the status quo: “Trump’s candidacy, it has exposed not just that tragic ramifications of that betrayal of the transformation of our country, but too, he has exposed the complicity on both sides of the aisle that has enabled it, okay?” And she termed the squabbles of the various Mideast factions “squirmishes,” a coinage of which Lewis Carroll would be proud, rivaling “refudiate” and “lamestream” for Palin’s best contributions to the language.

She’s irrelevant! the pundits cried, then rushed to file a million takes on what she means.

Remember the heights of Palin-mania? She went overnight from a popular governor with a moderate image to a right-wing martyr with a family worthy of a telenovela. After the 2008 election, which the GOP blamed her for losing, she quit the governorship, aligned herself with the Tea Party, and tantalized fans with a possible presidential run. When that didn’t happen, she gradually faded from view, hosting a reality show, losing her Fox News contract, and popping up every now and then to do something weird, like drinking from a Big Gulp onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference or stumbling through a speech in Iowa last year. When she said she might run for president this year, the press mostly shrugged—a testament to how far she’d fallen off the map.

At the time of Palin’s operatic rise and fall, she seemed like a one-off—an odd figure who would fade into justified obscurity. But seen through the lens of Trump’s rise, she appears shockingly prescient.

Like no one else before Trump, Palin saw a constituency on the right for a politics of resentment that sought as its champion a pure agent of chaos, unfettered by positive or substantive views. As David Frum has noted, Trump, like Palin, is playing to a populist, antiestablishment politics of white working-class cultural resentment. Like Palin, he’s insistent that conservatism is whatever he says it is. Like Palin, he’s less concerned with the abstraction of small government than with taking down the fat cats—the corrupt alliance of politicians, donors, and lobbyists.

Palin doesn’t get enough credit for pioneering this particular approach. She was railing against “crony capitalism”—“the collusion of big government and big business and big finance to the detriment of all the rest, the little guys”—before practically anybody else on the right. “Do you want to know why the permanent political class doesn’t really want to cut any spending? Do you want to know why nothing ever really gets done?” she said in 2011. “It’s because there’s nothing in it for them. They’ve got a lot of mouths to feed—a lot of corporate lobbyists and a lot of special interests that are counting on them to keep the good times and the money rolling along.”

You can hear the echoes of this today from countless candidates. When Palin’s endorsement was announced on Tuesday, I happened to be in New Hampshire with Ted Cruz, where I heard him repeatedly denounce the “cronyism” of “the Washington cartel of career politicians in both parties who get in bed with lobbyists.” (Cruz, a Palin protégé who had hoped to get her nod, attempted to take the blow in stride, saying: “Sarah Palin is fantastic. Without her friendship and support I wouldn’t be in the Senate today.”)

It’s said that Palin has declined since her 2008 convention speech brought down the house, but think back to how much of that address revolved around defining “real America” by contrast with the elitist cultural snobbery represented by Barack Obama. Noting that “our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down” on her past as mayor of Wasilla, she said, “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.” She took a shot at the “bitterly clinging” line, then added, “I've learned quickly these last few days that, if you're not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone.” She promised to shake up the status quo in D.C.

Before you roll your eyes, think what the establishment was already, at that point, doing to Palin. The GOP elites had plucked her from relative obscurity, largely for her superficial characteristics, then mocked her for all the things she didn’t know. They took her to Neiman Marcus for an image makeover on the party credit card, then leaked word of it to the press to make her look like a greedy, starstruck hick. They expected her to be a docile pawn—but she went rogue.

Palin saw the way people reacted to her in 2008, when she drew crowds orders of magnitude larger than her running mate’s. She correctly sensed that there was a segment of the Republican base that wasn’t being served by party elites. No wonder, when the Obama backlash came in 2009, Palin was its perfect mascot. She had already helped put it in motion before he was even elected. While other Republicans tried to rebut Obama’s policy proposals, and even to offer their own alternatives, for Palin it was always about this fundamental cultural antagonism. She tapped a vein of previously unheralded biker-bar conservatism that has lain dormant ever since, waiting for Trump to speak to it.

Alienated from both parties, Palin proceeded to find a home in the then-nascent organs of the GOP fever swamps, which, as McKay Coppins has noted, Trump savvily courted for years before launching the current campaign. In 2011, a right-wing filmmaker named Stephen Bannon made an adulatory movie about Palin, The Undefeated; he went on to become executive chairman of, the website that has served as Trump’s most loyal cheering section. Palin’s people are Trump’s people.

Now, as Trump and Cruz battle for the nomination, the right is split between its policy commitments and its attitudinal id. Palin has made her choice—and now she may finally get her chance to be vice president.