Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including, “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The results are in: Democrat Mary Peltola has defeated former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin in their House race, a loss that could mark the end of Palin’s political career. The fact that a Democrat won in Alaska, a state that has gone Republican in every presidential election since President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide 1964 defeat against Sen. Barry Goldwater won’t sit well with GOP party elders.
But Palin’s political legacy will endure. The former Alaska governor was a pivotal figure in mainstreaming a new style of Republican politics that ignored traditional guardrails. Her brand of conservative populism weaponized social and cultural outrage and mobilized working class Americans.
Palin, in short, mastered Trumpism long before Donald Trump ever set foot in the White House.
The then-Alaska governor’s few months as Sen. John McCain’s presidential running mate in 2008 was time enough to create a template that has been used ever since in conservative campaign politics. In creating the current playbook, Palin borrowed liberally from the smashmouth partisanship employed by former Speaker Newt Gingrich. But she took his combative, corrosive approach to a whole new level.
Many establishment Republicans initially were excited about Palin. They hoped a dynamic female governor would energize McCain’s flagging campaign. During her convention speech, Palin, formerly mayor of the Alaska town of Wasilla, took a swipe at her Democratic opponents Barack Obama and Joe Biden for what she portrayed as an elitist tendency to “look down” on blue collar Americans.
“I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities,” Palin said, lobbing an insult at Obama, who, before becoming a US senator representing Illinois, worked in grassroots activism.
Her no-holds-barred campaign was a master class for younger Republicans in how to “go there” without ever retracting a thing. She started to attract a new kind of presence at campaign rallies, where people held up signs questioning Obama’s ethnic background, accusing him of being a terrorist on signs that employed racist imagery.
During the campaign, Palin enjoyed some time as her party’s most electrifying figure, overshadowing McCain. But things quickly turned. During a series of interviews, she revealed herself to be stunningly uninformed on crucial issues. She was lampooned mercilessly for her assertion that it was possible to see Russia from Alaska. Television viewers were taken aback by her inability to name even a single newspaper or magazine that she read with regularity.
As comedians mocked her – Saturday Night Live featured Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin, sometimes spoofing her using transcripts from actual interviews – Palin lashed out against what she called a “lamestream media” that was out of touch with real voters and biased against the right.
Even as she was enduring incoming criticism, Palin – like any good acolyte of Newt Gingrich – understood that it was effective politics to make the most blistering charges possible, even if the accusations veered from the truth.
The temperature on the campaign trail became so heated that at one notable moment, McCain felt the need to fact-check a supporter who expressed suspicion that Obama was “an Arab.” The Arizona senator corrected her, saying that his Democratic opponent was “a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”
McCain would later regret what his campaign had turned into. The Arizona lawmaker, who returned to the Senate after his loss to Obama, died a decade later, in 2018, his centrist politics rejected by his party. But in the years since their defeat, Palin has remained on the national stage, a star player in conservative media and reality television, which has helped preserve her voice in right-wing politics.
Indeed, Palin has perfected the art of disseminating baseless information taken from social media, circumventing mainstream outlets that maintained tighter editorial standards. She once famously accused President Obama of creating “death panels” through his Affordable Care Act, the health care bill which was his signature domestic policy achievement.
According to Steve Schmidt, who at the time was a prominent Republican campaign adviser for President George W. Bush, “She would say things that are simply not true, or things that were picked up from the internet. And this obliteration of fact from fiction, of truth from lie, has become now endemic in American politics.”
Palin was a key figure when the Tea Party took hold in 2010, delivering keynote rallies and endorsing candidates to give the new renegades legitimacy. She was one of the first Republicans of national standing who railed against the Republican establishment for ignoring the new generation of conservatives. “The bigwigs in the machine,” she warned, “they’re driving me crazy because they’re too chicken to support the Tea Party candidates. The ideas of the Tea Party movement are the American ideals that will put us back to work.”
And she was a big supporter of the Birther movement, praising Trump for elevating the spurious questioning of the legitimacy of the nation’s first Black president. When Trump – the biggest Birther of all – decided to run for president, Palin was early to endorse.
As Mary Trump, the niece from whom Trump is estranged, argued, Palin’s turn in the limelight helped to “soften the ground” for politicians who were “more openly extreme like Donald.”
Palin unleashed some extraordinarily toxic elements into the body politic, and they never disappeared. The Tea Party carried them forward on Capitol Hill and Donald Trump brought them to the world stage with his presidency.
Only time can tell how long the staying power of the toxic changes wrought by Palin will be. But there is no putting the genie back in the bottle.