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Palin And Trump: They Might Make Your Skin Crawl, But We Dismiss Them At Our Peril

Rich Barlow: Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, pictured here during a rally at the Iowa State University on Tuesday, speak to cultural grievances rather than ideas. And we'd be foolish to disregard the genuine dismay luring some voters to their camp. (Mary Altaffer/ AP)
Rich Barlow: Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, pictured here during a rally at the Iowa State University on Tuesday, speak to cultural grievances rather than ideas. And we'd be foolish to disregard the genuine dismay luring some voters to their camp. (Mary Altaffer/ AP)
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Ah, the electric company must be rejoicing. Juice usage doubtless surged this week as word spread that Sarah Palin endorsed Donald Trump for president. So many laptops and phones to fire up for the news. So many partisan minds, right and left, electrified in their reactions.

Trump lovers likely see validation in the blessing of the Republicans’ 2008 vice presidential nominee, a heroine to the Tea Party. The left surely will file the endorsement under birds-of-a-feather, or else feel confirmed in their fears that Trump is a dangerous, short-on-substance demagogue. Who else could love him but a woman who couldn’t even finish one term as Alaska’s governor and inspired Tina Fey’s deliriously air-headed caricature? Palin didn’t do her image any favors with an endorsement speech that The New York Times described as “meandering, fiery, sarcastic, patriotic and blustery.”

For admirers of these two politicians, it’s not about their ideas, or lack thereof. It’s about channeling the real sense of grievance that many Americans feel in a changing economy and culture.

She might have helped her candidate, though. David Frum, one of several conservative thinkers who loathe Palin (others include Christopher Buckley and David Brooks), speculated that her endorsement could deliver the Feb. 1 Iowa caucus to Trump, who polls suggest is locked in a desperately close fight with Sen. Ted Cruz.

Personally, I’m a Republican of the anti-Trump/Palin school. The Donald substitutes bigotrydetails-ducking, and bombast (“I would bomb the s--- out of [ISIS]”) for a presidential platform. Palin’s similar slightness is what turned the Buckleys and Brookses of the world against her years ago. But Frum’s analysis of her endorsement strikes me as spot-on: For admirers of these two politicians, it’s not about their ideas, or lack thereof. It’s about channeling the real sense of grievance that many Americans feel in a changing economy and culture. We ignore those sentiments at our peril.

The salient point about Trump’s supporters is that they’re angry: at elites, including those running the Republican Party, and at the state of America, which they believe is in decline. For some, that anxiety is justified; the economy is vastly better than during the Great Recession, but it has become especially difficult for those lacking a college degree -- and most Trump enthusiasts fall in that category. And after Paris and San Bernardino, many of us are at least a little jittery over the threat, however remote, of terrorism.

But there’s an ugly underside to Trump-ers’ anger. Some in America’s white majority are rattled by an increasingly multi-cultural, multi-racial society, emblemized by our first black commander-in-chief. Among the findings of a recent focus group, the BBC reported, “Trump’s backers are pessimistic about the future of the country and passionately hate President Barack Obama and the mainstream media. They’re wary of Muslims …”

With his talk of the “losers” running the nation and how we’ll all get tired of winning once he’s president, Trump plays to these raging bleachers. The Washington Post interviewed psychologists about the mindset of the billionaire’s backers and concluded, “We like people who talk big. We like people who tell us that our problems are simple and easy to solve, even when they aren’t. And we don’t like people who don’t look like us.”

Palin shares and plays to this mindset. Consider some lines from her endorsement:

On the Republican establishment elite: “They stomp on our neck, and then they tell us, ‘Just chill, OK, just relax.’ Well, look, we are mad, and we’ve been had.”

On the media: “Mr. Trump, you’re right, look back there in the press box. Heads are spinning, media heads are spinning. This is going to be so much fun.”

On President Obama: “With the skills of a community organizer maybe organizing a neighborhood tea, well, he deciding that, ‘No, America would apologize as part of the deal,’ as the enemy sends a message to the rest of the world that they capture and we kowtow, and we apologize, and then, we bend over and say, ‘Thank you, enemy.’”

The salient point about Trump’s supporters is that they’re <em>angry</em> ... But there’s an ugly underside to Trump-ers’ anger.

Leaving aside the more dubious claims—Obama never groveled in the way she suggested — these words ooze resentment. Perhaps they’re tinged with personal angst in a woman who undeniably is a laughingstock among the intelligentsia. Frum says that to her supporters, Palin is a “martyr,” and I have some sympathy for her. Too many of us seem to think politicians are so thick-skinned as to be inhumanly devoid of feelings.

Still, when smart conservatives join the Palin pile-on, there’s no getting around the fact that she (and Trump) have brought scorn on themselves, with their cavalier attitudes toward governing and thinking about public problems. Progressives are gleeful — some admittedly so -- in their view that Trump is the GOP’s Frankenstein monster, the predictable and deserved creation of a party that has trafficked in or tolerated Islamophobia, race-baiting and anti-intellectualism. (Palin would merely be Igor.) There’s some truth in this; the idea that the Tea-Party dominated Republicans bear special blame for our poisoned politics is pan-partisan.

But we’d be foolish to dismiss the genuine dismay luring some voters to Trump and Palin. To the extent that dismay is based on economic distress, we owe it to our countrymen and women to help them out. To the extent that it dons the garb of racial and xenophobic hate, we owe it to this great nation’s best traditions to call it out.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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