In as success-fixated a society as the United States there are two acceptable forms of failure: tragic heroism and unreached potential. Most Americans expectedly prefer not to pine for either of those options, but if forced to choose the balance would weigh decidedly in the favor of the former. To wit, history is full of tragic heroes, even among our top brass. It is at the root of rehabilitation efforts for both Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, and it is how Woodrow Wilson’s legacy has morphed from that of an overreaching tyrant to that of an acid rain-scarred marble gargoyle.
But that is the lot of an elite few. For the vast majority of us who will simply choke before that one crucial moment there is only the hope that, even for a fleeting instance, we could have done something at least modestly more profound than the bare minimum required of us. It is our lot, as we intone this to ourselves in front of the mirror in between flossing and brushing, and just as it is Sarah Palin’s lot to do it before hundreds of people in a convention hall.
Sarah Palin is just like us after all. Though she has more money than a lot of us will see in our lifetimes, her destiny is every bit as bereft of true distinction or greatness as everyone else’s. She proved as much this past weekend when speaking at the NRA’s convention in Indianapolis where, amidst the reliable bluster of Second Amendment culture-warring, she made what I consider to be her most candid admission yet: “Well, if I were in charge, [our enemies] would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”
This is Sarah Palin in 2014, a mix of Ted Cruz and William Jennings Bryan. The hawkish cruelty of her words is weaved into a sound and fury signifying what she and a host of others thought very plausibly could have been.
The sentence is unsurprisingly troll-ish to be sure, a typical Palin crescendo around which the rest of the speech was seemingly composed. Yet its explicit dalliance with alternate history makes it more fascinating than run-of-the-mill vitriol. What she offers us is a fantasy, meant as much for all of us as it is meant for her, in which she is not only chief executive of the United States, but the sole arbiter of its character and its people’s collective destiny. Her leadership would be robust and decisive, with a power permitting her to nullify the distinction between investigation and punishment, perhaps even repealing the Eight Amendment altogether, by sheer force of will.
A dramatic and troubling vision, indeed, and perhaps one fit for Joseph de Maistre were it not also borderline heretical, but a fantastic one all the same. Following its conception would be a parade of if onlys that could not be overcome: if only the American people were better informed, if only they were not putty in the hands of the Liberal Media, and if only John McCain had just picked Tim Pawlenty. On that last one, she and I would heartily agree.
Two things were inevitable in 2008: the defeat of John McCain and the rise of Sarah Palin. That they voluntarily conjoined themselves and fed off each other like disoriented parasites was to watch an error unfurl in real time. I did not like Sarah Palin when she debuted — indeed, as an antiwar Democrat who went in the end for Bob Barr that year, I could not be less endeared to that entire campaign — but it became apparent in the wake of the election that that debut and everything that followed was unfair to her and disastrous for the Republican Party in the long term.
To many, Palin is little more than a personified political mood ring; when not saying baldly outrageous things she merely parrots, sometimes almost to the letter, sentiments well known to certain people of certain mindsets. Fair enough, but so was Barack Obama before he had to propose and defend actual policies, which is entirely the point. If 2008 and the years after weren’t going to be about someone defeating Obama, then they would be about being his adversary. That narrative would be hijacked time and time again by Clinton, McCain, Ryan, Romney, and even Jan Brewer for a split second. Yet all seem entirely incompatible compared to Sarah Palin.
Obscene as it sounds now, America’s post-Rove polarization had two perfect figureheads going into the 21st century. Both were charismatic and exceptionally canny politicians, both came decidedly outside the Washington bubble, both had inauspicious upbringings, both had minority identities while complimenting their chosen party’s broad self-image and philosophy, and, most crucially, both were born at the shortest edge of the baby boom. Both, however, had different fortunes, as Obama ascended to the presidency and Palin became little more than a “game-changing” ploy for someone else’s basically futile presidential ambitions before becoming a ploy for her own brand. The rest, as they say, is very messy and very real history.