Love her or detest her, maybe it’s time give former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin her due as a figure who changed American history.
There is simply no denying her role in creating the partisan mess that is U.S. politics today. She provided the template that helped President Donald Trump win election in a post-truth society.
She was quick to recognize that in the enlightened days of internet communication emotion can still be exploited to trump reason only now at light speed.
And thus began a trophic cascade in the political ecosystem.
There is now a line that runs from Palin through the mainstream media and Trump to the Covington Catholic boys on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to Empire TV star Jussie Smollett, who is in all kinds of trouble at the moment for reporting what the media was all too quick to embrace as a “hate crime” targeted on a gay, black man.
Before we can examine that case now burning up the tubes, however, we have to go back and review the history of Alaska’s most famous polebrity and what she wrought.
With her woodsy wisdom, Palin was able to grasp that in modern times as in ancient ones what people desire to believe is more important than what is true, and if you tell people what they want to hear is the truth, they will believe it no matter how untrue.
It’s only common sense as Palin has said so often. Good, old-fashioned common sense.
A universal wave
Some would have you believe Palin’s pitch only resonated with the now almost forgotten Tea Party. They are wrong. The Tea Party was only the wave that started across the pool, hit the other side, rebounded and came back to leave the whole pool covered in waves.
Old ways disappeared beneath the maelstrom never to resurface.
On a whole lot of fronts – forget the Tea Party, the Palin-effect has now gone way behind on that – what people wanted to believe became a defining, societal reality in this country.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, R-New York, is a direct, political descendant of Palin. The only real difference between them is that one is on the left and the other is on the right, and one is the city mouse and the other is the country mouse.
On their own, neither has any real power, either. They need their enablers.
Enter the lamestream media as Palin liked to call those who once dominated news coverage. Palin quickly learned how to play them like hungry bass. Put a sound bite on the hook, toss it into the pond, and “fish on!”
Remember how the media spent the summer of 2011 all gaga in pursuit of her East Coast motorhome vacation intended to boost sales of her book?
“Sarah Palin kicked off her “One Nation” bus tour with reporters in tow, and as Jan Crawford reports, the direction of the trip was kept confidential leaving the media to wonder where she will go next,” CBS News reported, as if the outlier from the outback was the second-coming of the Beatles.
Already labeled by Palin, the news hounds chasing the bus did everything they could to help make the lamestream designation stick with their pursuit of Palin for no reason other than that she was the hottie of the moment.
Granted, the mad pursuit for internet clicks predated Palin boarding her bus, but it accelerated after. Along the way, media coverage just kept sliding from reasoned criticism and healthy skepticism toward what would turn into full-blown hysteria under Trump.
The Palin assaults on President Barack Obama during his second term now look like minor skirmishers before a war that is defining almost everything along lines of good and bad that don’t always track party lines of Democrat and Republican, but most assuredly hue to the tack of political correctness.
That the country generally avoided this chaos in the last of the Obama years despite Palin lobbing a political grenade now and again can largely be attributed to the fact the lamestream and Obama were pretty much on the same page in the Playbook of the Ruling Elite.
When Obama came to Alaska on his 2015 global-warming tour and participated in a whopper of a charade wherein he pretended to partake of a salmon that reality TV show host Bear Grylls had found discarded by a real bear along an Alaska stream, the media dutifully played along.
Imagine the reaction if Trump tried a stunt like that. It certainly wouldn’t be this:
“Mr. Obama has…seized the opportunity to become the ultimate tourist,” the New York Times gushed, “methodically setting aside time to marvel at the world’s most spectacular sights, seemingly soaking up every experience. (Want proof? Watch the episode of “Running Wild With Bear Grylls” in which the president joins the host in eating some salmon already munched on by a bear.)
“‘It’s a Jeffersonian impulse. He’s intellectually curious,’ said Jon Meacham, a presidential historian, who compared Mr. Obama’s penchant for sightseeing to Thomas Jefferson’s travels through France from 1784 to 1789, though that was before Jefferson became president.”
Oh how things changed even before Trump was elected. The major media was clearly not inclined to dance cheek-to-cheek with Trump the way they had with Obama.
It was in August of 2016 – three months prior to the vote – that Times reporter Jim Rutenberg posed this question:
“If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?
Rutenberg went on to label Trump an “abnormal and potentially dangerous candidate” and observe that “you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career. If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.”
Courage, the author Ernest Hemingway once observed, is nothing but “grace under pressure.” Rutenberg flunked the test. Or maybe, considering that he was a journalist, it was more a test of trust than of courage – a test in a reporter’s belief in the idea that if journalists do their job and cover the news fairly and accurately, the masses will figure things out come election day.
That’s supposed to be the basis of American democracy. But we’ve strayed a long way from that standard into a world where reporters, along with almost everyone else it seems at times, feel obligated to pick a side.
That an angry Palin can be credited with starting this is downright ironic given that upon obtaining her first political position of note – that being governor of Alaska – she delivered an inaugural speech about nothing so much as unity.
Sadly the measured calm then shielding the high school basketball player they called “Sarah Barracuda” wouldn’t survive the journalistic heat of her bid for an even bigger political office.
As the Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2008, she stumbled through her first major, television network interview with the suggestion that Alaska’s nearness to Russia gave her some foreign policy chops, went from stumble to fumble with a bizarre reference to protecting the U.S. from “Putin’s head” as she tried to recover from her first misstep, became a Saturday Night Live punchline – “I can see Alaska from my house!” words she never uttered – and afterward decided she was going to let loose those barracuda teeth and bite back.
No one knew it at the time, but this was the first salvo in a war. Palin and the late John McCain lost the election. Palin went home to Alaska. National media thought she was history. She only looked to be more so when she unexpectedly resigned as governor only seven months after returning to Alaska.
And then she rose like a phoenix, or maybe more like a zombie version of that pit bull with lipstick she’d joked about being during the presidential campaign to rally middle Americans against an elitist, smart-than-you, lamestream media in love with the country’s first black president.
Palin set the fires that would light Trump’s path to the White House. Democrat Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton poured a little gasoline on the flames with her reference to how half of Trump’s supporters belonged in a “basket of deplorables,” and off we went.
By the time Trump was elected, the nation was pretty well split between those with “Make America Great Again (MAGA)” fever and those with Trump Derangement Syndrome.
Trump, Dr. Robert Lustig, emeritus professor of pediatric endocrinology and a member of the Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California San Fransisco has hypothesized, not only got into people’s heads, he managed to alter their brain chemistry.
“Many have remarked that Trump operates out of his ‘lizard brain’, Ludwig wrote at the website MedPage. “Rather, I would argue that Trump has turned our brains reptilian. The two emotions that belie this effect — greed and fear — are the same two emotions that govern Wall Street’s behavior. No surprise.
“Greed drives dopamine action in the nucleus accumbens (NAc), the reward center deep within the limbic system, the emotional part of the brain (Freud called it our id). Appealing to our avarice with promises of ‘good jobs’ and ‘healthcare for everyone’ and ‘tariffs on our competitors’ and ‘better trade deals’ and ‘tax breaks’, Trump jacks up our dopamine the same way a roller coaster does. Thrills in both directions, up and down. When the NAc goes into hyperdrive, it translates into ‘I want more.’ The problem with the dopamine response is it’s a bell-shaped curve — there is an optimum below which people are lethargic and above which they become irritable.”
Ludwig believes Trump Derangement Syndrome is real and chemical. You may know someone who has it. You can find them still clinging to the idea a Russian scandal is going to unseat a president now more than halfway through his term.
That Trump remains in office grates on some people. That Trump supporters embrace his call to Make America Great Again grates on others.
And that brings us back to Jussie Smollett, a Chicago actor who told a story a little too hard to believe from the get go:
He pulled on his fur coat at 2 a.m. on a 4 degree below zero night and went out to visit the Subway in one of Chicago’s better, camera-filled downtown neighborhoods. And then, on the way home, while talking to his manager on the telephone, he was accosted by two men who recognized him from the fading television show on which he appears, assaulted him, threw some liquid on him, put a rope around his neck, and then fled for reasons that never were explained.
He then got up and retrieved his phone and his Subway order (or he somehow hung onto them during the assault, which was never made clear), walked back to his apartment with the roping hanging around his neck, spent 40 minutes talking with a friend about what to do (with the rope still hanging around his neck), and finally called Chicago Police (with the rope still hanging around his neck).
“Totally not fishy” were the three words atop the link a veteran reporter forwarded me almost immediately after the first TMZ story about this bizarre attack hit the tubes.
“The 2 men — both white and wearing ski masks — viciously attacked Jussie as he fought back, but they beat him badly and fractured a rib. They put a rope around his neck, poured bleach on him and as they left they yelled, ‘This is MAGA country.'”
In a photo, Smollett appeared to have suffered a small wound on his right cheek, which raised an immediate question: Why did his assailants leave? The horrible history of racist and homophobic attacks in this country is not of someone getting punched a time or two and the assailants leaving, it is of people suffering serious beat downs or death.
As I messaged back and forth with that fellow reporter, the pondering began: So these guys are “wearing ski masks and carrying rope and bleach on the off chance he’d decide to get a hankering for Subway at 2 a.m. Seems totally plausible. Also, how the hell can you tell a white person from say, and Asian, if they’re in a ski mask?
“‘This is MAGA country!’ Does that sound even remotely like something a real Trump supporter would say? Even his most racist ones? Color me skeptical, but I’m betting hard on this being some kind of hoax.”
The reporter is not being named here because the text messages were personal and because the reporter might well end up in trouble at work for making these comments. Healthy skepticism is not highly valued at most news organizations these days, and the reporter is a skeptic:
“Hoax, cover-up, whatever. It just doesn’t add up. But once again the media is running with the hate crime angle before even talking to a single actual witness. All the majors have already picked it up.”
“Commentator Kmele Foster put it this way on ‘Reliable Sources’ on Sunday: ‘Two in the morning, almost the coldest night of the year, you were attacked and someone conveniently had a rope? My heart goes out to anyone who gets attacked, but it’s totally appropriate to exercise a bit of skepticism and to exercise a bit of patience in waiting for the facts to develop around this story,'” reporter Brian Stelter wrote.
There was no mention of why that skepticism wasn’t exercised or what exactly happened instead.
Run with it
Twenty-four hours after the attack, the Washington Post had the story all figured out: “Analysis: The Jussie Smollett attack highlights the hate black gay Americans face.”
My friend the skeptical reporter was still skeptical.
“…How gullible do you have to be to get pulled into something like this?” came the question. “This story was so clearly ‘off’ from the beginning, yet everyone went all in. Nancy Pelosi tweeted about it. Shaun King is ‘f—ing furious and crushed.”
There was plenty of furious going around. There were a lot of people happy to believe Smollett’s story. There appeared many attached to Clinton’s idea that a goodly segment of Americans occupy that basket of deplorables.
There were, and there are, too many somehow under the impression violent racists and homophobes are something of the norm in this country, not outliers. The Post “analysis” had the numbers to definite the reality, but didn’t crunch them:
“According to a recent FBI report, there was a 17 percent increase in hate crimes in 2017 — the third consecutive year such crimes increased. That year, there were 7,175 hate crimes reported by federal law enforcement agencies. Nearly a third targeted black Americans; 16 percent were aimed at people based on their sexual orientation,” the newspaper reported.
Even one assault on someone because of their race or sexual orientation is horrible, but let’s break this down. A third of 7,175 is about 2,392 attacks on an U.S. population of about75 million people.
Thus, if you are black American, there is a 1 in 31,346 chance you will become a victim of a racist attack in any given year. Zero would be much better, and these, of course, are annual odds.
If you divide them by the average lifespan of 78.6, the odds drop to something like 1 in 399 for a lifetime risk, which sounds bad until you compare it to all the bad things that happen every day.
If you are a black American, you are three and half times times more likely to be killed in a car crash than to be assaulted in a hate crime, and you are four times more likely to kill yourself than to be assaulted by someone of a different race.
If you are gay, the chances that you will be assaulted because of your sexual orientation are even smaller, about half the chance you will be attacked for the color of your skin.
If you are person of color, the odds of your being a victim of a hate crime are about three times greater than those for a heterosexual, American white, but the overall odds remain low.
Your odds of dying from heart disease are 1 in 7. Do you worry about it? Do you eat right and exercise daily to improve your odds? Or have you decided it doesn’t matter because you’ve been led to believe America is a country full of crazy, dangerous, racist honkies more dangerous than any disease?
That is not the case. America is a country where those people are rare.
We might still have an over abundance of racists. Racism of all sorts from all directions is all over in this country. And we might have a lot of people unhappy, uncomfortable or religiously opposed to any sexual orientation other than that specifically designed by biology for procreation.
But this is not Chechnya where the government just last month killed two people while persecuting dozens of homosexuals, according to the Guardian. This is not Iran where British officials believe 4,000 to 6,000 gays and lesbians have been executed since the 1979 revolution for the crime of being homosexuals, according to the Telegraph.
Racist and homophobic attacks in this country are uncommon. That a TV star would become the victim of such an attack would go beyond uncommon into the realm of rare.
That, of course, immediately makes it news. It should also so make it news the media should handle carefully and especially so when the circumstances surrounding the attack are downright bizarre.
Did media do that? Hell no. There were “news” stories claiming the attack had been “confirmed” by the Chicago Police Department because police listened to Smollett’s story and wrote it down in their report.
Yes, there were rare reporters who showed some courage. Rafer Weigel at WFLD in Chicago stood out. The CPD investigation had barely begun before he was warning it “might be best to tone down the outrage on the #JussieSmollett story until more evidence comes in to suggest it actually happened.”
Almost no other media seemed to be listening to that advice, however. They had their story, and they were running with it. Why?
Well, some in the media agree with Clinton that a sizeable number of Americans belong in that basket of deplorables, and it shapes the way they cover the news. And other reporters are well, maybe scared isn’t the right word to describe their fear of pushing for a more objective treatment of the news, but then again maybe it is.
That reporter friend again: ‘Try going on social media and questioning this account. You’ll get branded every name in the book. You’ll be a Nazi….If you’re skeptical in any way of this obviously bullshit story, you’re immediately branded a racist.
“Believe all victims.”
This wasn’t true everywhere, of course. There were conservative outlets – National Review and, of course, Breitbart – challenging the story Smollett told fairly early on, as well as some black media. Joe Budden at HipHopDx was seriously not buying the Smollett tale.
But the mainstream media was acting an awfully lot like it had become the liberal media it was once accused of being.
In the wake of the Covington Catholic School fiasco on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where an innocent teenager was smeared for wearing a MAGA hat, you could almost believe some in the mainstream wanted it to turn out that Smollett had been attacked by somebody associated with MAGA, wanted evidence to support the claim that Make America Great Again is a racist statement, wanted proof for everyone that the anti-MAGA forces are on the right side of the nation’s huge political divide.
On this one, it was almost like there was a liberal politician-media feedback loop to hype the story. The media jumped to conclusions. The politicians fired off angry Tweets based on those conclusions. The media reported on the Tweets. And hysteria erupted.
Who taught everyone to play a stupid, nationally destructive game like this?
Yup, you got it. Our Sarah Palin.
She had no hope of becoming president, but she had a pretty good chance of blowing up politics and journalism as they existed before she arrived on the stage. And with the help of Trump, she did.
Correction: An earlier version of this story miscalculated the odds of being the victim of a hate crime in the U.S.