Think of it as one of those superhero movies that combine two franchises in one, the reality TV equivalent of this year’s scheduled blockbuster, Batman v Superman . Two giants of the genre on stage at the same time: the star of the US version of The Apprentice, Donald J Trump and, at his side, the frontwoman of the Learning Channel’s breakout hit, Sarah Palin’s Alaska . From this celebrity tag team what a glorious half hour of television was born.
For once, Trump was reduced to the role of warm-up act and straight man, allowing himself only the odd grin and finger jab. Occasionally he seemed out of sorts, impatient at being forced to share the spotlight. For all eyes were on the former vice-presidential candidate who for a few giddy months in 2008 was the most talked-about woman in the world.
She was compelling. She spoke in a kind of half-rhyme, greeting the Iowa audience as “teachers, and teamsters, and cops, and cooks. You rockin’ rollers. And holy rollers!”, in a style that some hailed as poetry-slam, others as 1970s Christian rock opera. Syntax took a hike, logic and meaning left the building. There were new coinages: “squirmishes” became an instant social media meme. There was crudity: Obama’s foreign policy amounted to, “We kowtow, and we apologise, and then, we bend over and say, ‘Thank you, enemy.’” And there was the plain baffling: “Well, and then, funny, ha ha, not funny.”
Perhaps it seems trivialising to discuss a political event this way. But Palin was inseparable from the entertainment industry almost as soon as she became John McCain’s running mate. Her car-crash interviews that summer were global must-sees and her political identity was defined, in large part, by a TV impersonation. Her most famous saying – “I can see Russia from my house” – was not her, but Tina Fey ’s version of her. The two merged in the American consciousness, to calamitous effect on Republican fortunes.
Back then she was teamed with a more or less conventional politician. But on Tuesday she stood alongside a kindred spirit. Trump too obeys the laws of showbiz rather than politics, his compass set to LA rather than DC. There’s a striking pattern to his outrageous remarks, whether insulting women, Muslims or people with disabilities. They usually come just after his poll numbers have dipped. Like the best TV impresarios, he knows that if the ratings slide, you give the folks something to talk about. So far that’s worked every time.
What’s more, his campaign tactics seem taken from The Apprentice playbook. Like any canny player of the boardroom, he’s adroit at torpedoing his rivals the instant they pose a threat, most recently querying Ted Cruz’s status as a US citizen. That trick’s worked for him every time too.
From afar it’s easy to sit back and enjoy the show, simply to marvel at the extraordinary human drama America seems to serve up every four years. But that would be a mistake.
For one thing, disdainful laughter – especially from the media – only confirms everything the Trump/Palin form of populism says about the world. That there is a smug, condescending elite, concentrated on the east coast – the media, the Ivy League universities, Washington DC – which looks down its nose at the real America, the people who, as Palin put it in 2008 , “grow our food, run our factories and fight our wars”.
Every time a media commentator sniggers at her strangled syntax – as I’ve done here – it enables her to say to those voters: “They’re not laughing at me, they’re laughing at you.” The same goes for Trump. Mock him as an absurd blowhard, giggle at his inability to distinguish Hamas from Hezbollah if you like, but to the constituency he’s winning over it only makes him more, not less, a man of the people. We may want to howl with laughter when Palin says of Trump, the multibillionaire son of a property magnate, “he’s spent his life with the workin’ man”. But he’s casting himself as an outsider, and right now enough people are buying it.
This brand of populism has a long and ignoble history in US politics and it's poisonous
There’s another reason not to laugh. Which is that this brand of populism is not new: it has a l ong and ignoble history in US politics, and it’s poisonous. It channels genuine, understandable rage and frustration – at stagnant wages, say, or rising healthcare costs – and directs it not at the real source of those problems but at much easier targets. Those always include the media or the Washington establishment, but it rarely ends there. Eventually it turns on an easily despised minority.
Today that is Muslims, whom Trump wants to ban from entering the country and whom Palin spoke about so wildly. (Her Middle East policy: “Let them duke it out and let Allah sort it out.”) Before the war it was Jews: recall that in 1940, Republicans were swooning over another larger than life national celebrity, the aviator Charles Lindbergh, who campaigned across the country telling Americans they should stay out of the war against Hitler, no matter what “the Jewish” were saying. Every invocation of a “real America” always includes this subtext: that there are other Americans who are not real, who count for less and deserve less.
Above all, mockery is not a sufficient response because this form of populism is not so easily dismissed. In a climate like today’s – where median US household income in 2014 remained almost $4,000 below its pre-crash level , where people are earning far less now than they did in 1999, and where it’s rational for those whom Palin calls Joe Six-Packs to conclude that the system has failed – to be the candidate against the system is almost unanswerably potent.
Never mind that Trump is blaming those who are not to blame andoffering no practical solutions to the problems he shouts about; the shouting itself is enough. He is giving voice to the anger. He can leave the hard, boring work of policy to the little people who are running against him. Fat lot of good it’ll do them. As the conservative commentator Ross Douthat wrote this week , “At a certain point disillusionment with the system becomes so strong that no wonkish policy proposal is likely to resonate any more.” Only those who channel the rage will be heard.
Nor does this apply only to Republicans. On the Democratic side, the polls show the socialist insurgent Bernie Sanders pulling ahead of Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire . He too is running as the man against the establishment.
It is a mood that stretches far beyond the US and is advancing in Europe too. Rage against anything that smacks of the system – including even the kind of coherent reform plans that might actually change it – has become a great, unstoppable force. And this is what Hillary Clinton is up against. She embodies the system at the very moment the system has never been more hated. And that’s no joke.
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