Sarah Palin's star may have dimmed since 2008. Republican pundits and donors may have wearied of her. But Republican pundits and donors don’t typically vote in the Iowa caucuses. To many, many of the people who do vote there, Palin remains a heroine and a martyr. Endorsements are usually said not to matter much in today’s politics—but if any endorsement in any contest ever can matter, Palin’s endorsement in the Republican Iowa caucuses will.
In 2012, Romney and Santorum finished only 34 votes apart in Iowa. If Palin tips a few hundred votes toward Trump in 2016’s neck-and-neck Trump-Cruz contest, she could set in motion a dynamic where Trump may win both Iowa and New Hampshire—a stunning and once-unimagined result.
But Cruz has vocal friends, too. Radio talkers Rush Limbaugh, circumspectly, and Mark Levin, more explicitly, have made clear that although they like Trump, they prefer Cruz. The Texas senator has collected endorsements from Glenn Beck, James Dobson, Brent Bozell, and Ginni Thomas, among many other conservative luminaries. In the contrast between Cruz’s support and Trump’s, one sees something truly new and disrupting—a battle between those for whom conservatism is an ideology, and those for whom conservatism is an identity.
Since Donald Trump entered the race, one opponent after another has attacked him as not a real conservative. They’ve been right, too! And the same could have been said about Sarah Palin in 2008. Palin knew little and cared less about most of the issues that excited conservative activists and media. She owed her then-sky-high poll numbers in Alaska to an increase in taxes on oil production that she used to fund a $1,200 per person one-time cash payout—a pretty radical deviation from the economic ideology of the Wall Street Journal and the American Enterprise Institute. What defined her was an identity as a “real American”—and her conviction that she was slighted and insulted and persecuted because of this identity.
That’s exactly the same feeling to which Donald Trump speaks, and which has buoyed his campaign. When he’s president, he tells voters, department stores will say “Merry Christmas” again in their advertisements. Probably most of his listeners would know, if they considered it, that the president of the United States does not determine the ad copy for Walmart and Nordstrom’s. They still appreciate the thought: He’s one of us—and he’s standing up for us against all of them—at a time when we feel weak and poor and beleaguered, and they seem more numerous, more dangerous, and more aggressive.
Talk radio uses those feelings, too, of course, and has used them for years. But the more ideological stars of conservative talk—the Limbaughs, the Levins—try to use those feelings in service of a more-or-less coherent set of political ideas. Speaking to the feelings of persecution is only a means; some vision of a revitalized free-enterprise system is the end. For Palin, though, her personal grievances were always what the whole commotion was all about. She was effective, to the extent she was, because millions of people agreed that her personal grievances sometimes also represented theirs.
Although Palin did finish college, her life story resembled the lives of non-college white America in a way that the personal lives of the Bushes, of John McCain, of Mitt Romney, or of Paul Ryan never did or could. The themes and commitments that define Movement Conservatism—free-market ideology, organized religiosity—are increasingly upmarket themes … and increasingly remote from downmarket America. Sarah Palin did get rich in the end, but like Donald Trump, she didn’t get wealth or enjoy wealth in the way that the hated elite got and enjoyed wealth.
Meanwhile, Trump is battling against Ted Cruz of Princeton and Harvard Law School, a Supreme Court practitioner married to an investment banker, who insists that the dividing line between “us” and “them” is not life story, not personal experience, but ideas and values. His conservatism is defined not by personal wrongs but by a complicated set of principles, that connect opposition to abortion to support for the gold standard; missile defense to cuts in the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency; and gun rights to a lower corporate tax rate.
Ideology versus identity: That’s going to be the ballot question in Iowa on the first of February. A lot more than the Republican presidential nomination may depend on the answer.