With the benefit of hindsight, Sarah Palin’s bright-burning, incredibly brief Kardashian-of-the-Fox set influence on our politics was one of those turning points that we never quite fully appreciated in real time. Pre-Palin, vice presidential candidates looked like Al Gore and Dan Quayle; they could defang Katie Couric; they went to Ivy League schools and weren’t grandparents in their 40s. And here was Palin, the self-professed hockey mom, ushering in an era of unabashed white-trash-chic political philistinism wherein it was a credential to view an international map like a Saul Steinberg blob, ransack a department store on a campaign’s dime, and introduce the world to Tripp, Todd, Trig, and the rest of the crew.
Now, a decade later—post-Todd, post-reality TV, post-Anchorage, post-Trump—Palin occupies an odd lane. Sure, she might be the O.G. populist, the ancestral progenitor of today’s MAGA movement. But one of the questions setting Official Washington off is what she might be like if she were to come to Congress. On Wednesday, Palin lost a special election to serve out the term of the recently-deceased Congressman Don Young, falling behind Democrat Mary Peltola by three points, but she is still Trump’s endorsed candidate for the general election in November, which will determine the future of the seat. (After her loss, Palin exhorted her Republican rival in the ranked-choice election, the relatively moderate Nick Begich, to drop out of the general election.) Should Palin win in November, after a decade-plus spent cashing in on her evanescent fame out of the political spotlight, she would be joining a Congress that contains Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz. We’re not in Wasilla anymore.
Whether she gets the seat in November depends on Alaska’s newly-instated ranked choice system that would hypothetically reward centrism rather than political extremes, and whether any new factors come into the race between now and then. But the question that interested me most of all was what sort of representative Palin would be if she were, hypothetically, to come to Congress. After all, in the ancient times of 2008, Palin’s reputation was set in stone by a horde of angry John McCain advisors calling her a “diva”, preemptively blaming her for his loss. Endless reports focused on her $150,000 shopping sprees and contracts fished out of dumpsters that revealed her preferred type of private jets (“a Lear 60 or larger”). Rivers of digital ink were spilled on her divorce, and, well, she had two TV shows. And considering the types of Republicans making up the core of the G.O.P. House—moderates being primaried out, tweet-generating populists coming in—the competition for air time is going to become intense. “I think the whole caucus, especially if they’re in control of the House, every day is going to be a competition to get the most play over who can say the craziest shit,” Joe Walsh, a former Tea Party congressman turned Never Trump radio host, told me.
Palin’s team didn’t respond to an interview request, but tellingly, her reputation inside MAGA circles diverges wildly from the McCainite’s grievance-filled narrative—largely because, for once, the populists are in charge of the G.O.P. and the establishmentarian haters have been exiled. One MAGA consultant called her “super chill,” predicting that while she might not be the sort of social media superstar that Greene or Gaetz have become, Palin would be a strong ally for the Trumpian agenda inside Congress.
Palin, according to some of the people I spoke to in the MAGA super-nucleus of the Republican party, is the political version of an entertainer—say, Betty White or Dolly Parton—whose early works are being embraced by a younger generation. “I think she knows now who she is, what she likes, what she’s not going to put up with,” a second MAGA-oriented operative who knows her predicted. “That might be diva to some, but to me it was just not bothering with the things she knows she doesn’t need to mess with this time around.”
Or, to put it another way, Palin is more of an old-school, Tea Party, Freedom Caucus type of Republican, rather than full-throttle, extremely-online MAGA warrior. “It’s sort of like driving the previous model, but it still drives fine. Just doesn’t have car play and mobile wifi,” the G.O.P. operative continued. “It’s still American made. We’d take that over a Kia, to draw the analogy out to a painful degree.”
The operative’s observation stuck with me for quite some time: what, exactly, makes someone a MAGA populist versus any other type of American populist? Both movements have emphasized nationalism and anti-establishmentarianism to a degree, though arguably Trumpism jacked up whatever cultural anxieties animated the Tea Party. Members of the Tea Party proper, after all, became more extreme under Trumpism: consider that a top organizer of the Stop the Steal rally, Amy Kremer, was a founding Tea Party activist. Now she’s been subpoenaed by the Jan 6 committee.
Internet fluency, for sure, has played a massive part in this generational change. Trump’s entire political candidacy was turbocharged on Twitter; digital grassroots activism spawned movements like QAnon and built influencers like Greene. So has a sense of anti-liberal grievance that expands well beyond the confines of politics and into the realm of culture. In Palin’s hayday, for instance, the dog-whistle objections to Barack Obama’s presidency manifested as libertarian objections to the size of the government. Today, the far right couldn’t care less about government spending—they’re too busy owning the libs online, protesting drag queens, picking fights with The Walt Disney Company, and shopping anti-woke razors.
Palin does have one recent culture war credential under her belt, a long-running defamation lawsuit against the New York Times, which she recently lost. But her successor populists in the Republican Party possess a burn-it-all-down mentality that Palin, so far, seems loath to embrace. In a recent article, Alaska Public Radio noted that despite her general vilification of Democrats, Palin seemed to refrain from attacking her former Juneau colleague Mary Peltola, whom she called a “sweetheart.” Marjorie Taylor Greene would sooner drop dead than praise a Democrat.
Could Palin pivot from the analog politics of the Tea Party to the multi-channel, loyalty-demanding, institution-breaking instincts of the MAGA movement? Would she even want to? Or would she confirm the stereotypes that the McCain campaign lobbed against her: that she is, at heart, a fame-seeking political dilettante with no interest in policy and every interest in maximizing profit. It’s not yet clear what her political focus would be if she ended up in Congress—drill baby drill?—and considering Peltola’s current performance, the question might be moot, anyway. But should Palin be sworn in, the second operative predicted that, true to form, the one time Alaska governor would be a maverick, just like she’d been in 2008. “She’s a bit of a strange fit no matter where you put her,” this person said. “She’s her own thing. But she’ll do just fine, I think.”