Sarah Palin’s public performances continue to be distinctive. Her endorsement of Donald Trump was less speech than podium jazz scat, with some early Elvis thrown in. “Trump’s candidacy, it has exposed not just that tragic, the ramifications of that betrayal of a transformation of our country, but too, he has exposed the complicity on both sides of the aisle that has enabled it, okay?” Essentially: Bee-bop-a-lula he’s my baby. She was scattered, rambly; at moments she foraged through her notes in a way that was almost endearing, looking for lines that would connect and explode. But it’s not as interesting as it used to be because it’s not new.
If you’re in the mood for irony, here’s one. The great foes of Sarah Palin now are the people who made her a national figure in 2008, defended her and attacked her critics. It is the GOP establishment that now most furiously disses and denigrates her. Everything has switched around in the GOP the past eight years. It is a world turned upside down.
In the short term her endorsement is said to help in Iowa. It would have helped Ted Cruz if she’d chosen him, because for the first time it would have drawn a line, for some people, between real conservatives and Mr. Trump. So it’s good for Mr. Trump she’s off the table and on his side. But in the long run it’s probably a wash. Mrs. Palin brings her own mad excitement, but at this point she sort of helps you with people who already like you and hurts you with people who already don’t.
She may become a distraction from Mr. Trump’s daily appearances and statements, which will probably get on his nerves. I wonder if his people are already telling her: Thanks, you’ve done exactly what we wanted and you can go home now. She won’t want to—this is her comeback tour. If she stays on the stump Mr. Trump’s people may ask her to stay on message. She’s heard that before. She was invented by an establishment playing Dr. Frankenstein; the monster could turn on Dr. Trumpenstein too.
The clever thing she did in her remarks was to bring up Phyllis Schlafly, still a generally uncredited force in the making of modern conservatism and a brave woman. Mrs. Schlafly supports Mr. Trump because she believes the conservative thing to do about a rotting edifice—the Washington political establishment—is to tear it down. Mr. Trump will “defeat the king-makers,” Mrs. Schlafly told Breitbart.com. I’d note that for those who admire the conservative philosopher-statesman Edmund Burke, this sounds radically at odds with his frequent counsel of restraint and respect for history.
But Mrs. Schlafly’s view, too, has Burkean antecedents. When he thought something so corrupt as to be destructive of British character and national life, he went at it root and branch, as he did with the East India Company, which existed at the heart of and was a symbol of the British establishment. He challenged imperial practices, which is to say imperial corruptions. The point here, again, is that what is at issue in the party right now is not the end of conservatism but what a conservative approach would consist of at this point in history.
What Mr. Trump really needs is to be endorsed not by Mrs. Palin but by a political figure with stature, some sane member or members or administrations past who could lend him credibility. He needs a gravitas injection. Trumpism suffers among its critics for a reputation for intellectual carelessness—it’s all political joyriding. Mrs. Palin’s presence does nothing to knock that criticism down, and in fact underscores it.
To a larger point. Eventually in this campaign some candidate is going to have to address Donald Trump and his rise in a thoughtful, serious way. The obvious one is Jeb Bush, by virtue of his name and its association with the way the party used to be—the old, orderly conservatism. Why doesn’t he do it? He insults Mr. Trump—“a jerk,” “unhinged.” He told the Journal’s Mary Kissel this week: “Donald Trump’s not a serious candidate.” Mr. Bush uncorks witless, prefab soundbites: Mr. Trump is a “chaos candidate.” What does that even mean? Mr. Trump’s burly supporters wouldn’t mind a little disruption, an exploding of the elites—that is, chaos.
Why not make a serious argument? Jeb especially has little to lose—Mr. Trump’s people will never like him—and, potentially, much to gain in terms of his own standing.
Here’s where he could start:
What is Trumpism? Define it.
What’s wrong with Trumpism? Tell us. Is it a threat? To what?
Is it an attitude and not a plan? In a country split down the middle between leftish and rightish, why would it be harmful to have a new category?
If Mr. Trump is not a conservative, why is that bad? That is, what’s good about conservatism? Why is it pertinent and necessary? If the GOP base is a big, broad jumble that includes people reliant on entitlements who also see progressive social ambitions as destructive to the nation, how does conservatism speak to them?
What do you imagine a Trump presidency would look like? His supporters think he’ll go in there and clean out the stables. Would he? Could he? Can you?
What’s wrong with a little disorder? Does Trumpism enliven our political life with zest and unpredictability, or does it diminish our political life with unthinking emotionalism and shallowness?
Why is it important that a president have previous governmental experience? (Here I will add that I have seen longtime officeholders start out with fire and idealism, only in time to learn too well what isn’t possible. “We can’t get that through.” “We lost on that one last time.” They quietly give up; their sense of reality becomes a lethargic pessimism. Mr. Trump, new to political office, would not know what’s impossible. Leaders like that, if they also have talent, wisdom, popularity and organization, can occasionally make the impossible happen. Is it worth the chance?)
Most important, did Mr. Trump come from nowhere? Did the GOP establishment make any mistakes the past 15 years? If so, how can the damage be repaired? Was the Republican elite, like the Democratic one, essentially uninterested in the eroding power and position of the American working class? Were GOP leaders insensitive, cynical and selfish regarding public disapproval of and anxieties about illegal immigration?
What do you see when you look at Trumpism? Aside from what Robert Oppenheimer saw when the bomb exploded: “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” Is Trumpism in part a hopeful tendency, or just a throwing in of the towel?
Imagine such a speech—a serious, respectful, historically grounded one.
And why not? History is serious. It isn’t just the beeps and bops of daily events in a political year, it has to do with major outcomes in the life of a people. This moment is part of the political history of the United States.
Have some imagination! Sarah Palin just entered the picture. This will make people hungrier than ever for thoughtful, candid, sober reflection. Someone has to be as big as history.