Lot’s going to be made of this Vanity Fair article on Sarah Palin and it’s full of stuff that could take days to unpack. But, really, there’s nothing much we didn’t already know in it.
Sarah Palin still appears to be what she’s appeared to be all along, vain, shallow-minded, ambitious, self-serving, not particularly bright but very clever at going after what she wants and picking out and exploiting the weaknesses in other people’s egos for her own ends, a reflexive bully, and a wannabe celebrity queen who has lucked into the opportunity to make a lot of money while crowds of adoring fans cheer wildly and tell her she is every bit as wonderful as she has always believed herself to be, an opportunity she is making the most of.
There’s plenty here that will confirm people who already don’t like her in their dislike. Lots to laugh at and nod knowingly over, if you want. But, really…
Sometimes the children rebelled. A campaign aide remembers that one of the Palin children found her mother’s public displays of piety especially grating. Though Palin prayed and read the Bible every night, aides never saw the family join her for devotionals. “You’re just putting on a show. You’re so fake,” one of the children said when Palin made a point of praying in front of other people. “This is not who you are. Why are you pretending to be something you’re not?”
Wow. A teenager who thinks her mother’s a phony? I’ve never heard that one before.
There is, however, a hint of something new.
It’s obvious that she has a mean streak a mile wide. She may also have problems.
There are hints that Sarah Palin is troubled.
What’s troubling her is something the reporter Micheal Joseph Gross can’t tell us. Few people who know her at all were willing to talk on the record or go on at length. Practically nobody who knows her well would talk to him at all.
All we know is that she has a violent temper, she’s prone to wild mood swings, she has incredible energy but difficulty keeping her focus, she drifts in and out, and she feels unappreciated and wronged all the time. Add to this what we learned from Levi Johnston, she is prone to debilitating lethargies and long sulks. Levi’s accounts are suspect, but this has the ring of truth because it fits with what others have said about her lack of discipline and lapses in attention.
No clinical diagnosis from me. But all this seems to add up to one seriously unhappy human being.
And this leads into what rang bells for me in the article.
Palin and the crowd might as well be one. She’s glad to be here with the people of Independence, Missouri, “where so many of you proudly cling to your guns and your religion”—the first laughline in a 40-minute stump speech that alludes to many of the perceived insults she and her audience have suffered together, and that transforms their resentments into badges of honor. Palin waves her scribbled-on palm to the crowd, proclaiming that she’s using “the poor man’s teleprompter.” Of the Obama administration, she says, “They talk down to us. Especially here in the heartland. Oh, man. They think that, if we were just smart enough, we’d be able to understand their policies. And I so want to tell ’em, and I do tell ’em, Oh, we’re plenty smart, oh yeah—we know what’s goin’ on. And we don’t like what’s goin’ on. And we’re not gonna let them tell us to sit down and shut up.”
“Wearing their resentments like badges of honor.”
This has always been the dark side of American populism. It’s a perversion of pride in which people don’t seem so much angered by their grievances but ecstatic at having them. They like feeling injured and insulted.
It gives them permission.
To be selfish. “I’m going to get what I got coming to me.”
To be self-righteous. “How dare they treat me so unfairly.”
To be afraid. “They are out to get me! It is as bad as I thought!”
To hate. To lash out. To indulge fantasies of violent retribution. “They’ll be sorry. They picked the wrong guy this time.”
And this is why so many reasonable people on the left and the right see populism as dangerous. There’s the possibility of no end to a populist uprising because that ecstasy of resentment is addictive. Take away the supposed cause of resentment by solving the stated problem and a new cause appears out of nowhere because the addiction demands to be fed.
Lately, obviously, it’s been the Right that has incited and exploited that addiction to resentment, and plenty of conservative politicians and thinkers have been paying the price for this, the now lame duck Senator from Alaska Lisa Murkowski being the most recent.
Soon to be former Congressman Bob Inglis of South Carolina learned it.
Utah Senator for the present, Robert Bennett, who’ll be involuntarily retiring come January, learned it.
It’s not enough to be right on the issues. You have to deliver the fix.
According to almost everyone who has ever known her, including those who have seen the darkest of her dark side, Sarah Palin has a great gift for making people feel good about themselves. Her knack for remembering names and faces and the details of her interactions with people—and for seeming to be present to the person in front of her—constitute an extraordinary power of engagement. Now she is using that power in a fundamentally different way. In part she is using it in the service of her own ambitions. But she is also planting the idea with audiences that they might not be good enough, by telling them she thinks they’re plenty good, no matter what anybody else may say. (“They talk down to us… They think that if we were just smart enough … ”) To some, the message sounds like an affirmation. But is it really? Or does it seed self-doubt and rancor among her partisans, and encourage them to see everyone else as malign?
All in a day’s work for a demagogue, selling the mob the magic elixir of anger and paranoia they already own.
After reading the article, though, I see Palin selling them something else, a magic ingredient of her own concoction. She’s selling them her unhappinesses and resentments, her sense of injury, her insecurities based on her sense that she is not what she ought to be.
She is selling them her own self-loathing.
Which makes her like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, obvious self-loathers who’ve made careers out of peddling their own insecurities to audiences willing to feel abused, misused, exploited, and despised by their betters.
There were hypocrites who sat in the meeting houses and nodded along as preachers like Jonathan Edwards told them they were sinners in the hands of an angry God who was looking for a reason to drop them like spiders into the fire and thought, “Yes, that’s exactly what they need to hear.”
But there were more members of the congregations who wanted to hear how much God despised them, how unworthy they were of His mercy and even His notice.
It’s another perversion of pride. “See, God, what a wretch and a sinner I am.” People can become as addicted to their self-loathing as to any other feeling.
Palin, Limbaugh, and Beck are enablers.
Pointing this out won’t do us any good come November.
For one thing, their audiences won’t listen. Their minds are made up and trying to prove to them that Glenn Beck is a conman, Rush Limbaugh is a coward and a hypocrite, Sarah Palin is vain, self-centered, and mean is like their trying to prove to us that President Obama is a Socialist and a Muslim. Doesn’t matter that the facts on our side. The feeling of being right is as intense.
But for another thing, their adoring audiences don’t really see them as their leaders. They are messengers and messengers are expected to have flaws. It’s the message that matters.
And it’s the message that isn’t being addressed.
And the message is spreading.
Nobody in Washington cares!
The Democrats aren’t going to lose Congress because the Right Wingers are going to come out to vote. They’re going to lose because Democrats are going to stay home.
And this isn’t going to happen because the President has been insufficiently attentive to the vanities of liberal bloggers who like to think of themselves as the President’s base.
It’s going to happen because the President and the Democratic leadership have been insufficiently aware and sympathetic. They don’t seem to realize that it’s not just the Right Wingers who are angry and afraid. They don’t seem to care that people, Democrats as well as Republicans and Independents, are unhappy.
People have cause for resentment, for their fears, for their anger. They have grievances. They have been abused, misused, exploited, despised, and cast aside.
Look at all we’ve accomplished, the President and the Democrats say, justly.
But the economy still stinks, the people reply.
Give it time, the President and the Democrats answer back. You’ll see.
But that’s not reassurance. It’s a dismissal.
The President set out to save the economy by saving the system, and people hate the system.
We grow up being told that the world is our oyster, that we can do anything we want to be, that dreams really do come true, that if we try hard enough we can achieve anything.
Then we spend our entire working lives having it proved on a daily basis that none of this is true.
Let the Republicans run Congress and things are only going to get worse!
Worse for whom?
His name is Alan Simpson. He’s co-chair of the President’s own deficit commission.
In the last week and a half he’s made it clear how much worse he’d like to see things get.
Did he get fired?
Did the President tell him off?
Did the President say anything?
Things will get worse if the Republicans gain control of Congress. A lot worse. And the President and the Democrats have accomplished a lot. And I believe that what they’ve accomplished will bear fruit, given time.
But people don’t feel like they have the time.
People feel that at the moment they are in a lot of trouble.
People feel that nobody in Washington is listening, that nobody in Washington cares about what they’re feeling.
Sarah Palin’s supporters, fans, admirers, and adorers are hard-core Right Wing Republicans. They’re not going to vote for a Democrat come hell or high water.
Palin herself doesn’t matter, because of that.
What’s important about the article is what she does with her base.
She feels with them.
Not hard since she helps plant the feeling and they are her feelings.
But voters’ feelings matter, because voters are people, and people’s feelings matter.
And right now people feel bad.
Because things are bad.
And the only politicians who seem to notice or care are Right Wing demagogues like Sarah Palin.