Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics” and the forthcoming “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.” She cohosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Before there was “fake news,” there was “lamestream media.”
The phrase, popularized by Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign, became part of her brand: folksy and snarling, the perfect combination for her media-savvy grievance politics.
Palin’s eventual political decline gave way to former President Donald Trump’s rise. Taken together, their careers have been mirror images: he went from reality television to Fox News to the campaign trail; she went from the 2008 Republican presidential ticket to Fox News to “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” and “The Masked Singer.” For years, it seemed as though she had – with her exaggerated persona, populist message and shots taken against the media – built a bridge toward Trumpism, one she herself, as an increasingly obscure figure, was then not invited to cross.
But in Tuesday night’s Alaskan primary elections, the state’s former governor attempted a two-part comeback. Her name appeared on the ballot twice, as a candidate in a special election for an open House seat, to finish out this session, and as a primary candidate for that same seat in November. As a primary candidate, Palin is among those advancing to the general election, according to CNN projections; the special election is headed to a ranked choice voting tabulation after no candidate broke 50%.
If Palin wins a House seat in either election, it will be a remarkable rebound in her career – and a reminder of how central she has been in the transformation of the Republican Party from that of her 2008 running mate, the late Senator John McCain, to that of Trump.
She was a relative unknown when she was announced as McCain’s running mate in August 2008. Though a state governor, Alaska’s distance and small population kept her off the radar of all but a handful of Republican operatives, who, after meeting her in 2007, decided she had a future in national politics. As McCain dithered over a list of potential running mates – he was enamored of Joe Lieberman, a fellow senator who had left the Democratic Party just a couple of years earlier – Palin’s boosters pushed her to the top of the list. After a brief meeting, McCain announced her as his choice, to a chorus of “Sarah who?”
Yet if Palin’s name was unknown, her political type was familiar. She was a blend of Eagle Forum founder and antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly and pundit Ann Coulter, taking the former’s social conservatism and appeals to motherhood and mixing it with the latter’s stinging, and often false, potshots. She had a well-honed hockey-mom persona that she leveraged to great effect during the campaign (Her go-to applause line: “The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick.”) And she engaged in sharp attacks, accusing then-Senator Barack Obama of “palling around with terrorists” and would later invent the fiction that health care reform involved government-run “death panels.”
Throughout the 1990s, right-wing women in organizations like the Independent Women’s Forum had updated the housewife activism of an earlier generation of conservatives, making room for high-powered professional women to become leaders on the right – a model that benefited Palin in the 2000s. Palin also represented a particular type of officeholder, a woman from the West, where libertarianism and White conservative evangelicalism mixed freely. In the 1990s, Republican women like Rep. Linda Smith of Washington and Rep. Barbara Cubin of Wyoming brought their style of western conservatism to the Capitol.
They were joined by Helen Chenoweth (who died in 2006), a right-wing representative from Idaho who most closely matched the politics that Palin would bring to the Republican presidential ticket. Chenoweth brought a talk-radio style to her politics, constantly mocking environmentalists with “endangered salmon bakes,” a favorite fundraiser for her campaigns. She also had a tendency to make wildly nonsensical statements. Asked during one of her salmon bakes whether she took the sockeye’s endangered status in Idaho seriously, she responded, “How can I, when you go in and you can buy a can of salmon off the shelf in Albertson’s?”
Underneath her flamboyant statements were more extremist politics. Chenoweth represented the part of Idaho that contained Ruby Ridge, where a federal standoff had turned deadly and become a key part of militia movement lore. A local paper dubbed Chenoweth “the poster child” for militias thanks to her support for the groups and the many conspiracy theories they thrived on. There were echoes of this in Palin’s own career, given her ties to the secessionist Alaska Independence Party.
All those commonalities made Palin a familiar figure when she arrived on the national scene in 2008. But unlike her predecessors, Palin landed in a media environment supercharged by blogs and nascent social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Palin-mania fueled both her devotees and detractors, as McCain rallies swelled with energetic, even fanatical, crowds and sites like Gawker published countless posts of her media appearances, missteps, and repeated stories of issues her family was dealing with. And her image was fixed in Americans’ minds through Tina Fey’s spot-on impression on “Saturday Night Live,” which ensured Palin would remain both a punchline and a household name.
After losing in 2008, Palin leaned into the infamy the campaign had brought her. Tabloid stories, Fox News spots, reality television: she forged ahead through it all, abruptly resigning as governor of Alaska to cash in on the new opportunities (or, as she put it at the time, to address mounting legal fees she and the state were facing to fight ethics charges from political enemies. But she didn’t abandon her political role. She adopted the role of kingmaker, endorsing primary candidates and riding the wave of the emerging tea party movement. It was only later, when she left Fox News in 2015 and lost the limelight to an ascendant Trump, that she lost her grip on the GOP.
But while Palin faded from view, her influence remained. She helped move the party from Country First, the slogan of the 2008 campaign, to America First, a brittle, bitter politics that had little interest in even the appearance of higher callings or self-sacrifice. It’s little wonder that, with her political style ascendant in her party, she would want to re-enter the political arena. The real question now is whether she can capture attention in a party that has not only adopted her style but continued to evolve in an ever-more radical direction.