Bonnie and Clyde remake — no, that doesn’t get it. They were, um, zombie Sonny and Cher. No, too glib. Liza Minnelli and that one dude she met in rehab and married? Gah, gaak. Noooooooo. How to describe this latest, but surely not the last, of many many extraordinary moments — former VP candidate Sarah Palin, on stage at Ames, Iowa, endorsing Donald Trump for the presidency? Three weeks out from the Iowa caucus, the first primary contest in the 2016 presidential race, they were on stage together for half an hour. Trump, looking like a mafioso c.1956, introducing her the way Republicans always introduce her — “she’s a wonderful woman, got a wonderful husband” — and then Palin wandered out in a top that appeared to be made of shredded metal, like the chandelier had fallen on her just before she came in. They looked like self-caricatures, like they had dressed up as the people they actually were for a Halloween party.

When Trump eventually spoke later, he didn’t sound anything like sinister and self-parodic. When Palin started, she sounded more so.

She sounded worse. Or better, depending on your point of view. The term “rambling” is used so often of Palin you presume they now put it in the media calls: “Former governor Palin will give a rambling press conference at 1315 hours EST …”, but I have always thought of it as bebop. The principle of bebop is to leave most of the actual song out, its shape defined by the notes around it, which are technically off-key. That’s Palin’s technique, and, well, well here’s a slice:

“When asked why I would jump into a primary — kind of stirring it up a little bit maybe — and choose one over some friends who are running and I’ve endorsed a couple others in their races before they decided to run for president, I was told left and right, ‘you are going to get so clobbered in the press. You are just going to get beat up and chewed up and spit out.’

“You know, I’m thinking, ‘and?’”

You can more or less hear Gregory Corso recite that over slow sax at the Hungry I sometime. But that’s just the warm-up. By the middle of it, she has lifted off, left bop behind for no recognisable tune at all. Palin has become the free jazz of the political right, taking off in Sun Ra’s spaceship to ask the Pharaohs whether Ben Carson’s right about the  pyramids. I mean:

“Where, in the private sector, you actually have to balance budgets in order to prioritise — to keep the main thing, the main thing — and he knows the main thing. A president is to keep us safe economically and militarily. He knows the main thing, and he knows how to lead the charge. So troops, hang in there, because help’s on the way because he, better than anyone, isn’t he known for being able to command, fire!”

The whole thing is worth watching, start to finish. I put it on, in a shoebox hotel room in Frankfurt, while starting to make a pot of coffee. Twenty minutes later, the coffee pot was still in hand, and Palin was still bubbling away. Presumably, she writes her own stuff — she’s long since fallen off the Republican roster, her TV channel has closed down, and she has returned to posting vids and feels on Facebook as an outlet — and, all crap aside, there’s a genuine talent to it. It’s a sort of incantatory love-in, and I presume someone’s done a cultural studies master’s deriving her sources. It’s more ’60s rave than old-school nativist stump speech, Huey Long meets Hanoi Jane, Still Life With Peckerwood, Tout Fisting in Amerikkka. That’s content, not just form. Dig this:

“Well, Trump, what he’s been able to do, which is really ticking people off, which I’m glad about, he’s going rogue left and right, man. That’s why he’s doing so well. He’s been able to tear the veil off this idea of the system. The way that the system really works and please hear me on this. I want you guys to understand more and more how the system, the establishment, works and has gotten us into the troubles that we are in — in America.

“The permanent political class has been doing the bidding of their campaign donor class and that’s why you see that the borders are kept open. For them, for their cheap labor that they want to come in. That’s why they’ve been bloating budgets. It’s for crony capitalists to be able to suck off of them. It’s why we see these lousy trade deals that gut our industry for special interests elsewhere.”

What are we to make of that, being delivered to a Republican crowd? Yes, it is the usual right-wing populist move, to take left-wing motifs. But this is beyond that, it’s straight out of the old new left of the late ’60s. Palin is two Xanaxes away from robbing an armoured car to pay for a revival of the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Trump has been running this sort of politics for months (as your correspondent pointed out last year), steering far away from the pieties of the libertarian right, which many Republican-leaning voters are now sick of. You can only be told so many times that in America everyone can be Bill Gates if it weren’t for that socialist Obama, before that stops being inspiring and starts being a cause of self-loathing. Trump offers something different: not a freedom, as arduous as it is illusory, but a release from it — a release into good jobs like we used to have, and straightforward life, and the maaaan making the decisions. Trump’s the boss, and a boss is a good thing to have. Trump as “the boss” works in a manner complementary to that of Bruce Springsteen — the man who has spent 40 years cultivating an image of himself as a fellow worker is honoured by being designated as the one guy who isn’t. He’s the one who’s not like us, but who makes it possible, by his actions, for us to be us.

Indeed, Palin made that explicit towards the end of her Coltrane-of-thought — after a moment where, thanks to the reversed US political colour system, she sounded like Rosa Luxemburg:

Tell her she’s not conservative? How about the rest of us? Right wingin’, bitter, clingin’, proud clingers of our guns, our God and our religions and our constitution. Tell us that we’re not red enough? Yeah, coming from the establishment. Right.”

Before ending much much later with:

Now, finally friends, I want you to try to picture this. It’s a nice thing to picture. Exactly one year from tomorrow: former President Barack Obama … packs up the teleprompters and the selfie-sticks and the Greek columns and all that hopey, changey stuff and he heads on back to Chicago, where I’m sure he can find some community there to organise again.

“There, he can finally look up. President Obama will be able to look up, and there, over his head, he’ll be able to see that shining, towering, Trump Tower. Yes, Barack, he built that. And that says a lot.”

There’s an MA in this speech alone.

Palin’s endorsement of Trump is not of huge importance as a positive act — though it doesn’t hurt in a rural state like Iowa, where some take to Palin’s cornpone ways more than to Trump — so much as being important for who she didn’t endorse. Were you to believe the Tea Party right believed in smaller government, a republic not an empire, etc, you’d be surprised that Palin didn’t endorse either Rand Paul (now dying away in the polls) or Ted Cruz.

Cruz has become the most uncompromising of the candidates in putting forward a right-wing American conservative view — small government within, strong borders without, forward defence, i.e. attack — and, until a week ago he was running comfortably ahead of Trump in the consonantless state. But Cruz faltered when he took a small-government stand against the “renewable fuel standard”, a venerable boondoggle that subsidises Iowa farmers to grow fuel for huge amounts of ethanol, a permanent and unchanging subsidy that the state’s Republicans have never got around to questioning. Cruz has — he wants to phase it out over five years — and the more widely known this becomes, the worse he does. Trump is now even with him in an average of all the polls.

That’s significant, because Iowa was the one place where Trump wasn’t ahead. In states like New Hampshire he has a lead double that of his rivals (in New Hampshire it’s either Marco Rubio or the socially “centrist” John Kasich). Elsewhere it’s a mere 10 points. Should he fail to storm through at least half-a-dozen primaries, the whole polling process will be shown up as so distorted as to be of no worth. That’s not impossible — a lot of this is junk polling done on the cheap — but for them all to be so utterly wrong would be to indicate that a division between fantasy and reality had developed in American politics of such durability as to suggest that millions of people now see “representation” — of values, beliefs, character — as so separate from representation politically as to have no relationship. They really want Trump, but they will never vote for him. That would be odd, but it’s the only scenario by which Trump doesn’t win, and doesn’t win many many primaries.

When that happens, if it does, the panic in the Republican Party will be marvellous to behold. That may well have been the driving force behind Palin’s endorsement: she has been so furious, first at the Republican establishment, then the right, then the Tea Party right, for successively distancing themselves from her that she is simply out for revenge now. Her enumeration of Trump’s values was contradicted by, well, Trump’s values — this socially liberal New Yawk fratboy, rich off rezonings, being celebrated as a Christian constitutionalist.

Through all that, through the whole speech, Trump mugged like, well, if Mussolini: The Biography had been filmed starring the late Rodney Dangerfield then a) I would so see that movie, and b) that’s what it would have looked like. Trump mugged his way through it because there were clearly points at which he had to stop himself from laughing. Palin not only gave an essentially fictional account of the man she was endorsing, she couldn’t even keep her own arguments consistent, simultaneously urging everyone to “kick ISIS’ butt” and also “stay out of those wars where they’re all jihading each other, and let Allah sort it out”. The difference between her and Trump is that, like much of the right, she remains wholly defined by Obama and a total opposition to him. That’s one reason she didn’t win. Trump barely mentions Obama at all. That’s one reason he might.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey