The time has come to give Alaskan Sarah Palin her due for putting the lie to an old adage often misattributed to Mark Twain, but once adhered to as if the country’s greatest writer scrawled the advice in blood in the community square: “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”
Whether consciously or unconsciously, the former governor of the last frontier state was among the first to fully recognize the world had shifted from ink to electrons, and in the tubes old rules didn’t matter. Long before the old media began to recognize its influence was dying, Palin put a fork in it.
It is interesting to look back now at the long decades before the 2008 presidential election when politicians, business leaders, public-relations experts, celebrities and others caught up in the “news” clung to that belief that fighting back against bad press would be the worst mistake.
Such was the conventional wisdom. Vice-presidential candidate Palin ignored it and made herself Facebook famous.
Her intellectual weaknesses exposed early in the 2008 Presidential campaign, the small-town Republican from the nation’s wilderness state was mercilessly bullied by the mainstream media dedicated to controlling the national narrative.
Don’t judge them too harshly on that. They believe they have a duty to keep the intellectually weak from hijacking national discussions. This is not such a bad thing.
But actually, on second thought, they didn’t bully Palin so much as try to bully her. It’s hard to bully someone whose personal motto is “don’t retreat, reload.” And the bully who fails isn’t really a bully; he’s just a loudmouth.
Palin, instead of allowing herself to be bullied, masterfully counterattacked the effort by both lashing out at her accusers and playing the victim card, the most powerful card in American politics today.
After taking a beating in the mainstream media and helping Arizona Sen. John McCain lose the election, Palin could easily have slipped away into obscurity as did Vice-President Dan Quayle after the media-hyped public embarrassment of misspelling “potato” at a spelling bee in 1992. But she didn’t.
She instead declared war on what she had come to call the “lamestream media,” and built herself a pol-ebrity plus a huge fan base by hitting back at how bad, biased and brainwashed the people who deliver America the news. All of which changed the dynamic of American politics for better or worse.
Enter the Donald
Anyone who thinks Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump was unaware of the totality of Palin’s reputation when he months ago asked her to join his campaign in Iowa on his way to a Republican primary victory clearly wasn’t paying attention to the big picture. Anyone puzzled as to why a narcissistic Trump stood back and let Palin rant, sometimes near incoherently, on an Iowa stage for almost 20 minutes hadn’t thought things through much.
The predictable media backlash that followed? The mob of talking heads, commentators, columnists and journalists of almost every stripe in a tizzy about her “word salad” and almost tripping over each other in the rush to dump on Palin?
All of that would appear to be just what Trump wanted. As a card-carrying member of the country’s ruling elite born with a silver-spoon in his mouth and living in a $100 million, 66th floor penthouse overlooking New York City, Trump needed Palin’s populist cred among blue-collar voters. He bootstrapped himself off it. But Palin was more than a Trump prop and stepping stone.
Trump’s later attack on Megyn Kelly of Fox News as unfair to him was a page straight out of the Palin play book. Lesson 2: Attack the media at the same time as you present yourself as a victim of a biased media that cannot be trusted.
Palin is by all indication Trump’s electoral role model. Palin found the new path forward. The more the national media criticized Palin, the more tenaciously Middle America supported her. The more the country’s elites hated on her country-bumpkin English and her distorted logic, the more some working Americans loved her.
As a man whose spent his life in marketing, Trump clearly saw in Palin’s performance a road to the White House. It is little more than a new spin on the “Give ’em Hell Harry” path of 33rd President Harry S. Truman.
Let’s be clear here; Trump is no Truman and Palin even less so. None of which stopped either from stealing a page from an old campaign playbook. And if Trump is demonstrating anything these days, it is that the country appears primed for a straight talker, or a seemingly straight talker, or at least someone who seems to be shooting from the hip without worrying about every word or looking down on working people.
That he puts on lipstick and goes pit bull on the media alla Palin doesn’t hurt either. The country is yearning for people to punch back at the media. The media comprise the least credible institution in the nation today.
As someone who spent most of his adult life in journalism, it pains me to write that line but it is hard to deny. The media are the perfect whipping boy, or girl, for today’s politician.
Blame the media; then do it again
Media bias has always been and always will be a reality, but the issues with the media today go far beyond bias. It’s hard to look at news anywhere on any given day and not find mistakes of ignorance, oversight, laziness or gullibility. Anyone of average intelligence will regularly find something wrong in the news.
For a news consumer, it’s hard to avoid asking a simple question: “I’m getting my information from these people why?”
Traditional electronic media has gone from Walter Cronkite and a host of other nightly news anchors who oozed credibility to a pack of Lyin’ Brian Williams types more interested in their appearance than the news. In the meantime, traditional print media, or at least much of it, has gone to rot.
And evolving internet media is everything and nothing.
No matter what you want to believe, you can find support for your ideas somewhere in the tubes. Some of the information is factual. Some of it is fictional. A lot of it exists in some Never Never Land between the two where people of marginal skill put together stories of dubious quality.
It’s obvious that a lot of the smart people have left journalism. And it was predictable. The young David Halberstrams and Tom Wolfes, both of whom started their careers at small newspapers, figured out there was no pay in the profession and even less of a future. They sensibly went into other fields of work. The best news organizations tried to patch things together by maintaining experienced editors in position to supervise green reporters.
A lot of those editors are gone now. Some of those who stayed are beyond their prime and mentally slowing down even as the news business speeds up.
Given this knowledge gap, not to mention the thought gap, the news has come to be driven by handouts. Most of these handouts come from government. When the late president Dwight D. Eisenhower left office, he warned of a growing military-industrial complex threatening the country. Today the country is confronted by a bureaucracy-media complex.
Good parts of the media are close to becoming organs of the bureaucracy. Americans of different stripes and persuasions both left and right appear to have recognized this. On a fundamental level, the protesters of the Tea Party and the protesters of Black Lives Matter aren’t far apart; they’re both angry with their inability to change bureaucracies they think are harming them.
The media, which somewhere along the line became more interested in worrying about the political correctness of what people say than watching what government does, is blind to how it is perceived. But then most of the media grew up comfortably in the urban, white, upper middle-class.
There aren’t many reporters who’ve been intimidated by a big, armed, white cop who thought they looked suspicious because they were black or had visibly armed agents of the government show up at their wilderness mining claim to check whether they’d dirtied the water.
There is a reason a significant number of Americans believed the 2009 Palin Facebook lie that the Affordable Care Act called for “death panels.” In some circles she had and still has as much, if not more, credibility than the media. In some circles, people believe a government that increasingly tells them what to do might well institute death panels.
Why wouldn’t it? The government has tried to ban sugary sodas because the government thinks they make us unhealthy. The government tells us we can’t drive our car unless we buckle ourselves in. The government forces us to abide by a tax code none of us can understand. The government snoops on our e-mails, and sends men in combat gear with automatic weapons to smash down our doors if they think we might have anything to do with drugs. The government shoots us because we’re black and nothing happens? Why wouldn’t the government kill those of us costing the government too much to keep alive?
Four years after the death panels fabrication, Forbes magazine was still pondering why people continued to believe the claim. It wasn’t because Obamacare was “complex,” as Forbes argued; it was because you really don’t have to be a whack job to start worrying about the government in this country, or to grow distrustful of a media that sometimes acts like a government mouthpiece.
Palin’s lamestream media almost daily gives Americans reasons to distrust it, and that helps the likes of Palin and Trump. Trump must be doing cart wheels with so much of the media attacking him now. His chances of winning the general election are only likely to be helped by such attacks.
The media is the enemy
How exactly the U.S. media got to where it is today is worth a book. It’s a long and complicated story. But the end result is simple. The media have ended up playing a part written into the 1997-movie “Wag the Dog.”
In the movie, a Washington, D.C. “spin doctor” is hired to distract the media from a presidential sex scandal. In reality, spin doctors have now been hired to distract the public from everything except what those in power want the public to believe. And it doesn’t take much directing.
The people in power use the media to protect the status-quo. Palin figured that out even if she didn’t know she’d figured it out. Directly or indirectly from the beginning, she attacked the media as the protector of the rich and powerful in a nation full of unhappy people hungry for a change in the status quo.
Trump merely stole her program, and so too to some extent Democrat Bernie Sanders. How else do you explain his taking on media darling Hillary Clinton and then going so far as to confess himself a socialist, a confession that freaked out modern-day Democrats.
“Here in the heartland, we like our politicians in the mainstream, and he is not — he’s a socialist,” Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri told the New York Times. “….As far as having him at the top of the ticket, it would be a meltdown all the way down the ballot.”
Apparently Nixon never got the memo explaining that to many in this country today a socialist is simply a liberal afraid to tell the truth. Sanders benefitted from telling the truth and seemingly separating himself from the ruling elite. There are Truman parallels there again.
Truman was a little-known placeholder of a vice president who President Franklin D. Roosevelt picked as his running mate in 1944. Truman became president by accident when Roosevelt died in office.
A failed haberdasher from Missouri, Truman was given no chance of winning the presidency on his own. The popular press viewed him as a plain-spoken and ineffectual shadow of his four-term predecessor.
If that wasn’t enough, Truman fractured the Democrat party by pushing for civil rights for African Americans and unified Republicans by attacking the GOP-dominated Congress “with accusations of laziness, incompetence, and bias toward the rich and influential,” as “American Experience,” the PBS history show now summarizes it.
Hmm, “accusations of laziness, incompetence and bias toward the rich and influential?”
Does that sound familiar?
Doesn’t it sort have the ring of Sanders’ “income inequality,” or Palin’s “crony capitalism” or even Trump’s “make America great again,” which is loaded with the suggestion we’re all in this equally together? And all three politicians have a natural aggressiveness in common with Truman.
As one historian has observed, “Harry learned that a man kept trying until he succeeded, that a man never admitted he was afraid, that a man had to speak bluntly and be prepared to fight.”
Speak bluntly and be prepared to fight?
Hello, Donald Trump. He’s no Truman. He is in some ways little more than Palin in an expensive, tailored suit. He favors her beloved “common sense” over Truman’s thirst for knowledge.
“There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know,” Truman once observed. Truman voraciously read books on history. Trump sounds sometimes clueless as to history. Could anyone who grew up with the Cold War and the Berlin Wall, where people willingly risked getting shot dead to go from one country to another, truly believe an unarmed fence across the southern border of the U.S. will keep Mexicans out?
But Trump, unlike Palin, is not averse to hard work. Palin made a show of flirting with a bid for presidency, but it was clear to Alaskans she was never going to run. She didn’t like being governor because of the work load. She prefers shopping. Trump doesn’t suffer this weakness.
“Trump credits his success, in part, to the fact that he gets only three to four hours of sleep each night,” according to Inc.com. “He’s said, ‘How does somebody that’s sleeping 12 and 14 hours a day compete with someone that’s sleeping three or four?'”
Trump is a better educated, harder-working Palin. Trump promises to do what Palin only talked about doing. He’ll make America great again. He’ll take “The Apprentice”
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Apprentice_%28U.S._TV_series%29) one of the nation’s top-rated television shows in the mid-2000s, to government.
And there are a lot of people in this country who would like to see a president who said regularly: “You’re fired! You? You’re fired! And you? Yeah, you’re fired, too.”
They’d like to see it done to the bureaucracy. They’d like to see it done to the media.
This is not a particularly good way to govern. But it could happen. And if it happens, it will be a toss-up as to whether to thank Palin or the media who helped create Palin and everything that followed. The media did it in part by pissing away much of whatever credibility it once had.
A lot of the same media is now saying Trump doesn’t have a chance of becoming president. It’s the Truman-Dewey election all over again. The old media missed the fact Truman’s message connected with average Americans. The lamestream media of today could well be making the same mistake.
Clinton, the presumed Democrat nominee, is a brainiac, establishment candidate running for office in a country that has in some ways turned on the establishment and the intelligentsia. Forget the Post’s yammering about how “demographics”will torpedo Trump.
Trump can’t be counted out because his anti-establishment messaging – crazy as some of his ideas sound – might trump the demographics. There might be more Americans than the pundits think willing to vote for him because he represents a political change in course even if he doesn’t. And if wins with this strategy, he will owe thanks to an Alaskan.
Sarah Palin, the trail blazer.