The above photo shows Sarah Palin speaking to the 2010 Tea Party Nation convention, a seminal event in the movement’s history. I will never forget hearing Palin declare that her son Track, who was serving in the US Army, had “never watched C-SPAN in his young life,” a line which inspired the audience to cheer wildly. For a moment, the disparate religious, libertarian, and populist paranoid fringe elements within the year-old tea party phenomenon seemed to be united behind a visible leader who was ‘unafraid to take on Obama,’ by which they meant Palin lacked a filter. Her 2008 candidacy for Vice President excited fringe elements of barely-sublimated racism and unapologetic religious bigotry into coming out for John McCain’s campaign rallies. By the end of 2009, she was outdrawing Mike Huckabee at book signings with the full power of Fox News behind her. Later in 2011, Palin was the subject of a fawning documentary by Stephen K. Bannon, who is now the executive chairman at Breitbart News.
But tensions were already tearing at that apparent unity. In Nashville, Andrew Breitbart argued with conspiracy website WorldNetDaily.com’s Joseph Farah over whether President Obama’s birth certificate was a winning issue or not, reflecting an early split between conservatives who organized to win and reactionaries trying to tear everything down. Although the Republican Party has ridden the tea party ‘wave’ to midterm victories in 2010 and 2014, that rift has become a gaping chasm. Tea parties have kept Republicans terrified ever since Mike Castle took abuse over Obama’s birth certificate at a 2009 town hall and went on to lose his reelection bid to upstart tea party candidate Christine O’Donnell, who was not a witch but lost in the general election anyway. Now less popular than ever before, tea parties represent a highly-activated demographic minority and a Faustian bargain. The House ‘Freedom Caucus’ currently imposing chaos on American government is an artifact of tea party influence. Tea parties have given the GOP power, but only at the expense of its standing as a mainstream, responsible political party.
On Sunday, the Washington Post ran an op-ed by former Obama White House Chief of Staff William M. Daley that identifies Palin’s candidacy as the moment when this polarization and qualitative decline began.
Palin’s blatant lack of competence and preparedness needs no belaboring. What’s critical is that substantive, serious Republican leaders either wouldn’t or couldn’t declare, before or after the election: “This is not what our party stands for. We can and must do better.”
By the campaign’s end, GOP operatives were shielding Palin from even the simplest questions. (She had flunked “what newspapers do you read?”). Barack Obama cruised to victory.
Palin became a Fox News fixture, reinforcing the newly formed tea party’s “never compromise” demands. Bombast, not reason, reigned. Now the “settle for flash” aura of Palin’s candidacy looks like a warning that the party was prizing glib, red-meat rhetoric over reasoned solutions.
Of course, Sarah Palin’s popularity is much reduced now thanks to all her incoherent speeches and word-salad punditry, but she still has defenders. At Breitbart News, Joel Pollak has tried to flip the narrative like a third grade bully by accusing Daley of attacking “the Republican grassroots as a way of knocking Trump, Dr. Ben Carson, and others” and then denouncing Democratic congressional leaders. Responding to new polls that show the movement’s popularity at an all-time low, Breitbart News editor-at-large Ben Shapiro defends the honor of tea parties against the GOP insiders who want to crush it, and declares the movement “will be back with a vengeance” soon to empower the outsider candidacies of Donald Trump and Ben Carson. If you had wondered why both of their sideshow acts seem so familiar, now you know the answer.