Palin's mass appeal feeds off contempt

Posted: Tuesday, December 01, 2009

It's week three of Sarah Palin's "Going Rogue" book tour, and although she has been met with rapture from her fans, she has received a wave of hostility from the mainstream media. David Letterman devoted four minutes of his monologue on publication day to mocking her. New York Times columnist David Brooks called her a joke, and Newsweek referenced "The Sound of Music," asking on its cover "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sarah?" Even domestic diva Martha Stewart weighed in, calling her "boring" and "dangerous." Palin is a media punching bag.

Which is exactly the way she likes it. It's not that Palin is a masochist. It's that she realizes how powerful a weapon contemptuousness toward her can be in the political war she probably will be waging in 2012. As commentators revile her, Palin realizes they are also empowering her. Indeed, she is engaged in one of the greatest feats of rope-a-dope in political history. Laugh at her, but you laugh at your peril. She can ride that laughter right into the White House.

Of course, Palin didn't discover the politics of contempt. America was born not only as a protest against English political rule but against a larger sense of English superiority. What distinguished America more than anything else from Europe was its sense of egalitarianism. Americans tended to bristle at all the European formulations of high culture, and they rapidly devised their own popular culture of dime novels, crime pamphlets, vulgarized theater and more, which was a backlash against "official" high-minded European prescriptions. It is commonplace among intellectuals that vast swaths of American popular culture are largely idiotic. What those intellectuals never understood is that the popular culture was often idiotic by design - as an act of hostility and aggression that continues to this day. Nobody tells ordinary Americans what they should or should not like.

If our popular culture evolved into a kind of protest against hauteur, so did our politics. Early on, politicians vied to show who was the least patrician and the most plebeian, and the election to the presidency of the hero of the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson, is often cited as the point at which American politics turned and the egalitarian strain triumphed. The upper crust hated "the people's president," Jackson declaimed, and "the people" too. By instinct or design, he knew just how to play on ordinary folks' sense of grievance.

This conflation of the maligned outsider and the maligned populace has been firing American politics ever since. In contemporary times, no one mastered it as well as Richard Nixon, who came by his anger honestly as a poor boy growing up in Southern California, where he felt ostracized by the local "in" crowd. He spent a lifetime trying to get even. Nixon was able to turn his entire existence, much less his political career, into a battle between them and us, the Brahmins and ordinary folk, which made his loss to John F. Kennedy more than a personal political loss. To him, it was a galling defeat of the common man by his presumed social betters.

By the time he ran again for president in 1968 - after the best and brightest drove us into Vietnam and the liberal social engineers saw their dreams of racial harmony burst by race riots - Nixon had learned how to nurse Americans' resentments, how to make himself the living symbol of the elites' alleged hatred for the low-born and how to tap what may be the single deepest reservoir in American politics: They think they are better than you are.

Nixon understood that anti-elitism trumps everything - in his case, even his own unlikability. And when he delivered the masterstroke of lumping the mainstream media in with those elites, he effectively deflected any criticism of him as just more of "their" arrogance. Every time he was attacked, Nixon emphasized, the silent majority of ordinary Americans was attacked.

Palin is playing that same card on the gamble that anti-elitism will trump her own inexperience, incompetence and lack of knowledge. She knows that the more pundits harp on these so-called deficiencies, and the more the media cover it, the more she can claim that they are really just engaging in an old sport: expressing contempt for ordinary Americans, of which she is the self-proclaimed political exemplar. Her self-promotion is designed to elicit their contempt for her and express her's for them, including the very title of her book. At one point she describes inviting NBC's Andrea Mitchell to Alaska, ostensibly so Palin could be interviewed but really, she says, so that Mitchell and her fancy-pants East Coast crew could be "slimed" with fish guts.

We've been getting a lot of stories like that one during this tour, and we'll be getting a lot more - because it is really all Palin has to sell, and because it works. It may even be more successful than Nixon's similar gambit.

Nixon's conflation of himself with the people was metaphorical. He really wasn't very much like them. Educated at Duke Law School, proud of his own sophistication, he shared only their hostility toward a sneering Eastern establishment. In some ways, he undermined himself by his envy of the very people who despised him, including Kennedy, about whose success and ease he frequently prattled. He pined for respect.

Palin appears to be unencumbered by any such complications. Supporters profess to love her because she is just like them, without airs, which may be true. Palin seems to have the benefit of her sincerity. She isn't a metaphor. She is something more effective: a personification. If she prefers the "worst and the dumbest" to the "best and the brightest," Palin fans think that is exactly as it should be, which drives the elites to revile her further, which in turn further feeds the Palin contempt machine.

And she knows she has a very good foil in the Ivy League-educated, erudite, articulate Barack Obama, who is obviously everything Palin isn't. "He's not one of us" - a "tea-baggers"' cry - could very easily turn into "he condescends to us."

Sarah Palin can only hope that the barrage continues - that "they" keep treating her as if she were a ninny, that "they" keep making fun of her. She can hope because she knows that mockery has a way of triggering revenge, and revenge may be the best politics of all.

• Neal Gabler is at work on a biography of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.



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