Nine years ago this month, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) picked Sarah Palin as his running mate for his presidential campaign. Conservatives immediately fell for the popular Alaska governor, proclaiming her the new star of the right for years to come. Less than a decade later, Palin is a political nonentity. She largely keeps her thoughts to paid speeches, the occasional interview and Facebook, where she shares links to conservative clickbait farms.
And yet Palin remains critical: to a faction of the Republican Party, and to understanding the emergence of Donald Trump and Trumpism — the ideology created by the president’s most ardent supporters, though not necessarily by the president himself. Palin’s popularity with the GOP and the American right as a whole wasn’t based on her speeches or her conservative bona fides, her gubernatorial history or her political beliefs, but on what she could be made to mean. In his run for president, Trump was much the same. Now even as Trump’s base of support shrinks, those who remain, the truest of true believers, will never renounce him.
From the moment Palin entered the national scene, the praise for her on the right was heavily tied to her image. After the 2008 vice-presidential debate, National Review editor Rich Lowry described her as “so sparkling it was almost mesmerizing, [sending] little starbursts through the screen and ricocheting around the living rooms of America.” In one of the earliest conservative critiques of Palin, written in September 2008, Post columnist Kathleen Parker said of her initial interest in Palin: “She was the antithesis and nemesis of the hirsute, Birkenstock-wearing sisterhood — a refreshing feminist of a different order who personified the modern successful working mother.”