What Sarah Palin Should Have Taught Donald Trump

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The Sarah Palin of 2016 joins the original 2008 version at a Town Hall in Wisconsin yesterday (Kamil Krzaczynski / Reuters)

I made one very bad call about the 2016 election, which I quickly confessed! It was the same bad call most other people made: that Donald Trump’s lack of political experience and knowledge would make him the Herman Cain of this campaign cycle, and he would not get this far in the race. (I’m sticking by my call that he is not going to become president.)

To be fair, I made a very good call two cycles earlier concerning the Trump of that era, Sarah Palin. As soon as her selection was announced as John McCain’s running mate in 2008, I wrote in this space (in the middle of the night, from China) that despite her then-red-hot popularity she would be a huge liability for the ticket. Why? Because running for national office is a lot, lot harder than it looks. And if you come to it with no experience, you are simply guaranteed to make a lot of gaffes.

Let’s go to the charts. Here’s what I wrote when McCain announced her as his choice:

Unless you have seen it first first-hand, as part of the press scrum or as a campaign staffer, it is almost impossible to imagine how grueling the process of running for national office is… The candidates have to answer questions and offer views roughly 18 hours a day, and any misstatement on any topic can get them in trouble. Why do candidates so often stick to a stump speech that they repeat event after event and day after day? Because they've worked out the exact way to put their positions on endless thorny issues -- Iraq, abortion, the Middle East, you name it -- and they know that creative variation mainly opens new complications.

You can see where I am going with this, after Trump’s misadventures of the past week:

The point about every one of those issues is that there is a certain phrase or formulation that might seem perfectly innocent to a normal person but that can cause a big uproar. Without going into the details, there is all the difference in the world between saying "Taiwan and mainland China" versus "Taiwan and China." The first is policy as normal; the second -- from an important US official -- would light up the hotline between DC and Beijing.

So back in 2008 I was arguing that in just two months on the campaign trail, no beginner in national-level campaigning, like Palin, could learn all the lingo on these issues. Thus gaffes were sure to ensue, as they did. (This accurate call is all the more heroic in retrospect, since we’ve now learned that I was practically at death’s door, in China, when I filed that post! Ah the plucky life of the reporter.)

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Until this point in Trump’s campaign, he would seem to be the walking refutation of all such established wisdom. Gaffes? Never heard of ‘em! I’ll say whatever comes to mind, and the crowds will cheer for more!

The difference we’ve seen, with Trump’s sequential fumbles on abortion policy, and nuclear policy, and war-and-peace in Europe and Asia, etc is that until the past ten days he’s managed to be “outrageous” mainly on personal-performance matters. He’s been (as often noted) a figure straight from pro wrestling. He is not Rush Limbaugh called from behind the microphone; he’s Howard Stern. You can’t make fun of John McCain for his war record, can you??? Trump could! And did. You can’t mock your opponents to their face — Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted — and be taken seriously, can you??? Trump could! And did. The equally outrageous Howard Stern-style policy claims he made — let’s build a wall! and make Mexico pay for it — somehow didn’t register as “gaffes,” precisely because there is no chance whatsoever he could actually deliver on them. It was all in the fashion of pre-bout preening before a wrestling match: “I’m gonna smash him down so hard he’ll be cryin’ for his Mama, and the only words he’ll remember will be Wee, wee, wee all the way home!”

The setup of the GOP “debates” so far allowed Trump to get away with this, at least with his base. The “point” of each debate was to see who could bully or disconcert whom. And in his omnipresent “interviews,” Trump also got away with shunting any question into a discussion of how strong his polls were, how successful he had been, and how great things would be when he was in charge. Leading to this Onion-esque but apparently serious emission yesterday:

Why didn’t anyone think of that before?

Over the past two weeks, we’ve had the Washington Post editorial board interview, with its revelation of the vacuum that is Trump’s knowledge of policy; and the long NYT interview with Trump’s loose talks about bringing nukes to Korea and Japan; and his fateful interview with Chris Matthews, who to his credit was the first person really to push Trump for an answer on abortion; and the similar gaping-emptiness of Trump’s knowledge revealed in his Washington Post interview today.

What’s different now is Trump is being forced to talk about actual policy choices, like abortion, as opposed to talking about his own machismo, or striking purely symbolic “we’re gonna win again!” poses. And that he’s actually being forced, most impressively by Chris Matthews. You can never count him out, but the damage is beginning to show.

He is a more resourceful performer than Sarah Palin was, and he has changed politics more than she could. But she is actually better informed than he is, and finally that is catching up with him. That’s what we’re seeing now.