Jonathon Ernst writing for the Atlantic posted an article today based on conversations he had with McCain 2008 campaign staffers and offers up what he believes Sarah Palin started during that campaign.
Much of this is not new to those of us here on IM since we not only discussed a lot of this after the campaign but even as it was happening during the campaign.
However, I am always interested in watching other journalists following the breadcrumbs and realizing that almost everything that is happening today was set in motion back in 2008.
Here is the main body of the article that I will share in full and then comment on at the end.
Courtesy of The Atlantic:
We recently spoke with top McCain and Obama aides for our podcast marking 10 years since the Palin interviews. According to Steve Schmidt, a senior McCain adviser, Palin’s vetting did not include asking any questions like “Do you understand the U.S. tax system?” or “Do you know where Iraq is?” Schmidt said they simply assumed that a governor would be knowledgeable about public policy.
Fundamentally, it was the priority the campaign placed on optics—Palin’s outsider image and undeniable charisma—that led to the selection of a politician who believed that Saddam Hussein attacked the U.S. on 9/11 and that the British government was run by Queen Elizabeth.
Ten years ago, it was also assumed—not just by journalists but by the people running presidential campaigns—that a candidate for national office would be tested by tough interviews with serious journalists. And so, in addition to a session with Sean Hannity at Fox News, the Palin team arranged interviews with ABC and CBS. In putting together the questions, our goals were simple: be fair, follow up, and get Palin to explain her positions and philosophy to the American people.
After the governor stumbled, with widely mocked answers about Russia and the economy, it did not occur to the McCain team to cancel the second scheduled interview. They also chose not to shoot the messenger by going after the “liberal media.” Nicolle Wallace, another senior adviser, told us the campaign believed that “there was nothing Katie did that could fairly be attacked.” Sitting next to Palin, McCain himself told us he thought it was a good interview. All of that feels quaint today, when nearly one in three Americans believes the press is the “enemy of the people,” when the definition of “fake news” is news the president doesn’t like, and when many partisans restrict themselves to watching, or appearing on, shows that provide affirmation and not information.
As the campaign went on, Palin bridled at the tone McCain set. When a McCain supporter said “I don’t trust Obama. I have read about him and he’s an Arab,” McCain responded, “No ma’am, no ma’am … He’s [a] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” When one man said he was scared of Obama, McCain replied that “[Obama] is a decent person, and a person that you do not have to be scared [of] as president of the United States.” The crowd booed. McCain also said, “I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments. I will respect him and I want everyone to be respectful, and let’s make sure we are.”
Palin took the opposite tack: She stoked her supporters’ fears—and won their cheers. At her rallies, Palin said, “I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America.” At one, a man shouted “Treason” and Palin said nothing. At another, Palin’s anti-Obama diatribe led a man to yell out, “Kill him!” Palin did not push back against her often-angry crowds. In the strongest echo of today’s Trump rallies, she instead used her speeches to go after the free press (or the “lamestream media”), reserving particular scorn for elite publications. Palin’s supporters then started verbally attacking her traveling press corps, including hurling a racial epithet at an African American journalist. Again, Palin not only refused to lower the temperature, she seemed to bask in that kind of heat.
This is not to say that McCain or other “old school” politicians were unwilling to go negative or attack their political opponents. They would and did. It’s that there were lines they wouldn’t cross—especially when it came to respecting the legitimacy of their opponents and of journalists. These are lines that politicians like Palin and President Trump won’t even acknowledge. And in a big, diverse democracy, where power is transferred peacefully, where compromise and consensus are required to get things done, those boundaries matter.
Another corrosive trend: Palin’s contempt for experts and elites. The then-governor didn’t study policy journals or even follow national news. She resisted when McCain aides tried to get her to focus on preparing for our interviews. But she thrilled her supporters with attacks on coastal liberals and support for “normal Joe Six-Pack Americans.” Among some conservatives, a disdain for the liberal intelligentsia morphed into a disdain for the highly educated or for facts that contradicted their worldview. That has led to the current environment, where no matter what evidence the experts have brought to bear—against Brexit, against Trump’s trade and tax policies—it doesn’t matter to many voters. These elites, and the arguments they make, are dismissed out of hand.
At the end of the article, Ernst suggests that female politicians are treated worse than male politicians, and that is certainly true.
However, in Palin’s case, I always thought that she was treated much like Dan Quayle had been treated before her.
He was, in my opinion, the closest thing we had to a Sarah Palin before there was a Sarah Palin.
However, he was only buffoonish, not a nasty populist who sought support from the ugliest fringe of the American populace.
Sarah Palin clearly did.
And it was her success at igniting the anger and hatred among these people who clearly felt disenfranchised, that I believe inspired Donald Trump to follow a similar path to the Republican nomination.
As I have said before, but it always bears repeating, if there were no Sarah Palin, there would be no Donald Trump.
Now my new fear is that Trump’s presidency will not serve as an awakening for this country instructing us that we need to return to a time of civility and respect, but that it will set a new precedent, just like Palin did before him, and we will only see politics moving forward become even more divisive and adversarial.
If that is the case, I think we might actually see this country torn apart, and when historians trace that event back to its cause, the name Sarah Palin will be written in bold print.