By Eugene Robinson
No force on earth can stop Sarah Palin from becoming our very own “lite” version of Eva Peron—a glamorous and tragic legend, minus the tragedy. Eventually, some clever composer will write a blockbuster musical about her life and times. Stage directions will include: “SARAH fires gun. MOOSE dies.”
It’s futile to try to ignore Palin, however noble the effort may be. She’s a phenomenon, and it hardly matters that so many people believe she augurs the final dissolution of American politics into a big, frothy bowl of mush. The republic will survive even her.
Anyway, she’s unlikely ever to become—shudder—commander in chief. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that 60 percent of Americans believe Palin is not qualified to be president, and 53 percent “definitely” would not vote for her.
You do have to wonder about the 37 percent who’d think about it, though. And as for the 9 percent who definitely would vote for Palin, that’s enough people to qualify as a movement—the equivalent of Evita’s fervid descamisados, or “shirtless ones,” who entrusted her with their hopes and dreams.
Palin’s followers can afford shirts. But evidently they feel so disenfranchised, so ignored, so put upon by forces beyond their control, that they are willing to look past her every shortcoming and forgive her every betrayal. What matters is “Going Rogue”—not the cleverly titled book itself, but Palin’s willingness to thumb her nose at political and social convention.
So what if she displayed no real grasp of the issues in interviews during last year’s campaign? Those reporters were being beastly, trying to show her up. So what if the inside-the-Beltway crowd thinks she’s an airhead? The state of mind called “Washington” is the problem, and she’s the solution. So what if she quit as governor of Alaska with a year and a half left in her term? “Only dead fish go with the flow,” she explained, demonstrating once more her sassy roguishness.
Palin’s knack for being cleverly transgressive is almost like performance art. Her doppelganger, Tina Fey, did a hysterically prescient bit, right before Election Day, in which “Palin” vowed that she was never going away. Fey’s “Palin” predicted that she’d become either president or “a white Oprah.” So on whose show does Palin launch her book? Oprah’s, of course—adding to the long list of Palin lore that you simply couldn’t make up.
Palin indeed would be a terrific talk-show host, but she has much bigger ambitions. I think her ultimate impact, like Evita’s, may be more sociological than political.
She taps into several broad currents of discontent. She speaks for social conservatives, long taken for granted by Republicans who brandish their opposition to issues such as abortion and gay rights at election time but never actually do anything about them. She speaks for small-town and rural Americans who feel their concerns are ignored. She speaks for hunters who fear that “Washington” wants to take their guns away.
Unlike so many of her detractors—Republicans as well as Democrats—she didn’t go to an Ivy League school. She scrapped and scraped her way through college, as a lot of people do. And she’s a woman who juggles a complicated family and a demanding career. This is one of the most important elements of the Palin persona, because it resonates with so many other American women who see their own daily struggles in Palin’s.
Of course, Palin’s feminism is highly situational. She has expressed sisterly solidarity with Hillary Clinton, of all people, on the added burden that female candidates must bear in deciding what to wear on the campaign trail. But that burden was lightened for Palin by the $150,000 in designer clothing bought for her and her family with campaign funds.
True believers will not mind. Palin’s unconventional trajectory and unkempt mind are seen as authentic, in the sense that we all know people who’ve had ups and downs in their lives and who couldn’t point to Kazakhstan on a map. Her success to date represents a triumph of authenticity over accomplishment. In the final analysis, I believe, that’s not enough to make her president. But others seeking the 2012 Republican nomination underestimate her at their peril.
Toward the end of her life, Eva Peron gave a famous speech in which she vowed, “I will return, and I will be millions!” Sarah Palin, our Evita, has returned—and she will make millions.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group