Trump's Rise, Collective Amnesia & the Palin Precedent by Kyle Green
The popular narrative surrounding Donald Trump’s unexpected rise to become the Republican nominee for president, and eventual victory over Hillary Clinton, is that it was unprecedented and unpredictable. His popularity only grew as he spurned the media, broke political norm after political norm, and made liberal use of easily demonstrable falsehoods. For this reason, much of the post-election analysis has centered on attempts to understand how Trump mobilized the white disillusioned working-class in a manner that previous candidates had failed to.
Yet, perhaps Trump does not illustrate something completely new and unusual-- a proposition that immediately attracts the skepticism of any good sociologist. Rather, the most recent election seems to be an indication of how short our collective memory is and how strong our ability is to ignore important political precursors.
One does not need to delve into complex analysis of social trends to find precedent. Just over eight years ago, Sarah Palin rose from “no-where” (otherwise known as Alaska) to capture the excitement of the masses and earn her selection as the Vice-Presidential nominee for Senator John McCain.
Palin portrayed herself as a Washington outsider, effectively turning her lack of experience into a strength when making promises to clean up the corruption and bureaucratic waste of Washington. She kindled the flames of nationalist pride with her demands for people inside our borders to “speak American” and her portrayal of all Muslims as potential threats.
Palin favored simplistic statements that resonated on an emotional level over policy-based arguments. Her linguistic habits were repeatedly the subject of Saturday Night Live mockery and the power of her speeches baffled the “experts” who commented that many of her sentences were not truly sentences and often had little to do with what came before or after.
Looking back, the parallels are difficult to ignore. Palin made effective use of the very same strategies that would later shock political pundits and experts and rallied a base that would later become a core part of Trump’s constituency. And, much like Trump, her popularity perplexed the experts and seemed to feed off their predictions that it was sure to be short-lived.
Considering Trump’s success, one could argue that Palin was a few years ahead of her time. Or, I would suggest, she took advantage of a growing distrust and fear and by doing so, helped build it to a point where Trump could ride it to the White House, and provided him a template for political success.
The differences between Trump and Palin are also quite illustrative. In many ways, the Sandpoint, Idaho native possessed a stronger claim to outsider status than Trump who was born into a network of elite developers and powerful politicians. However, while both transformed their respective lack of experience into a strength, Palin’s rise through the political system left her with a voting record. In contrast, Trump’s clean slate gave him an adaptability that few, if any, presidential candidate has ever possessed.
Perhaps most telling are the respective gender performances of the two public figures. It would be fair to say that Palin served an important role for the party by providing a direct response to characterizations of the Republicans as being not friendly to women. However, while this may have accelerated her rise, Palin always needed to engage in a balancing act between being the powerful leader and demonstrating proper femininity-- her fiery rhetoric was always offset by a folksy demeanor and her demands for strong action and tough response was always justified by the desire to protect. In contrast, Trump faced no such limitation as he excited his disproportionately male base. While Palin was forced to be the “Mama Grizzly” or “pitbull in lipstick,” Trump was able to simply be the bear or the pitbull.
Taken together, Palin and Trump provide an important reminder of the need to avoid the label of “unique” and instead pay attention to how social figures are both shaped by and shape the particular cultural moment from which they arise.
Kyle Green (kylegreen.org) is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Utica College.