The Grifter Archipelago;
or, Why the Tea Party
"Mr Chairman, delegates, and fellow citizens ."
The roar of the crowd is deafening Arms flailing spastically as the crowd pushes and shoves in violent excitement, I manage to scribble in my notebook: Place going absolutely apeshit?
It's September 3, 2008 I'm at the Xcel Center in St Paul, Minnesota, listening to the acceptance speech by the new Republican vice- presidential nominee, Sarah Palin The speech is the emotional climax of the entire 2008 presidential campaign, a campaign marked by bouts of rage and incoherent tribalism on both sides of the aisle After eighteen long months covering this dreary business, the whole campaign appears in my mind's eye as one long, protracted scratch-fight over Internet-fueled nonsense.
Like most reporters, I've had to expend all the energy I have just keeping track of who compared whom to Bob Dole, whose minister got caught griping about America on tape, who sent a picture of whom in African ceremonial garb to Matt Drudge and because of this I've made it all the way to this historic Palin speech tonight not having the faintest idea that within two weeks from this evening, the American economy will implode in the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression.
Like most Americans, I don't know a damn thing about high finance The rumblings of financial doom have been sounding for months now-the first half of 2008 had already seen the death of Bear Stearns, one of America's top five investment banks, and a second, Lehman Brothers, had lost 73 percent of its value in the first six months of the year and was less than two weeks away from a bankruptcy that would trigger the worldwide crisis Within the same two-week time frame, a third top- five investment bank, Merrill Lynch, would sink to the bottom alongside Lehman Brothers thanks to a hole blown in its side by years of reckless gambling debts; Merrill would be swallowed up in a shady state-aided backroom shotgun wedding to Bank of America that would never become anything like a major issue in this presidential race The root cause of all of these disasters was the unraveling of a massive Ponzi scheme centered around the American real estate market, a huge bubble of investment fraud that floated the American economy for the better part of a decade Take it as a powerful indictment of American journalism that I'm far from alone in this among the campaign press corps charged with covering the 2008 election None of us understands this shit We're all way too busy watching to make sure X candidate keeps his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, and Y candidate goes to church as often as he says he does, and so on.
Just looking at Palin up on the podium doesn't impress me She looks like a chief flight attendant on a Piedmont flight from Winston-Salem to Cleveland, with only the bag of almonds and the polyester kerchief missing from the picture With the Junior Anti-Sex League rimless glasses and a half updo with a Bumpit she comes across like she's wearing a cheap Halloween getup McCain's vice-presidential search party bought in a bag at Walgreens after midnight-?four-piece costume, Pissed-Off White Suburban Female, $19.99 plus tax.
Just going by the crude sportswriter-think that can get any campaign journalist through a whole presidential race from start to finish if he feels like winging it, my initial conclusion here is that John McCain is desperate and he's taking one last heave at the end zone by serving up this overmatched electoral gimmick in a ploy for . . . what? Women? Extra-horny older married men? Frequent Piedmont fliers?
I'm not sure what the endgame is here, but just going by the
McCain campaign's hilariously maladroit strategic performance so far, it can't be very sophisticated So I figure I'll catch a little of this cookie-cutter political stump act, snatch a few quotes for my magazine piece, then boogie to the exits and grab a cheesesteak on the way back to the hotel But will my car still be there when I get out? That's where my head is at, as Sarah Palin begins her speech.
Then I start listening.
She starts off reading her credentials She's got the kid and nephew in uniform-check Troop of milk-fed patriotic kiddies with Hallmark Channel names (a Bristol, a Willow, and a Piper, a rare Martin Mull-
caliber whiteness trifecta)-check Mute macho husband on a snow machine- check This is all standard-issue campaign decoration so far, but then she starts in with this thing about Harry Truman:
My parents are here tonight, and I am so proud to be the daughter of Chuck and Sally Heath Long ago, a young farmer and haberdasher from Missouri followed an unlikely path to the vice presidency.
A writer observed: "We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity." I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman.
I grew up with those people.
They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars.
They love their country, in good times and bad, and they're always proud of America I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town.
I'm on the floor for the speech-stuck in the middle of a bunch of delegates from, I believe, Colorado-and at the line "They are the ones who do some of the hardest work," the section explodes in cheers.
I look back up at Palin and she has a bit of a confident grin on her face now Not quite a smirk, that would be unfair to say, but she's oozing confidence after delivering these loaded lines From now through the end of her speech there will be a definite edge to her voice, an edge that also fills the air of this building.
Before I have any chance of noticing it she's moved beyond the speaking part of the program and is suddenly, effortlessly, deep into the signaling process, a place most politicians only reach with great effort, and clumsily, if at all But Palin is the opposite of clumsy: she's in the dog-whistle portion of the speech and doing triple lutzes and backflips.
She starts talking about her experience as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska:
I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a "community organizer," except that you have actual responsibilities I might add that in small towns, we don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren't listening.
We tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco.
The TV talking heads here will surely focus on the insult to Barack Obama and will miss the far more important part of this speech-the fact that Palin has moved from talking about small-town folks as They a few seconds ago to We now-We don't know what to make of this, We prefer this It doesn't take a whole lot of thought to figure out who this We is Certainly, to those listening, if you're part of this We, you know If you're not part of it, as I'm not, you know even more.
Sarah Palin's We is a very unusual character to make an appearance in a national presidential campaign, where candidates almost to the last tend to scrupulously avoid any hint that they are not talking to all Americans Inclusiveness, telegenic warmth, and inoffensiveness are the usual currency of national-campaign candidates Say as little as possible, hope some of the undecideds like your teeth better than the other guy's-that's usually the way this business works.
But Palin, boldly, has tossed all that aside: she is making an impassioned bunker speech to a highly self-aware We that defines itself by the enemies surrounding it, enemies Palin is by now haughtily rattling off one by one in this increasingly brazen and inspired address.
She's already gone after the "experts" and "pollsters and pundits" who dismissed McCain, the "community organizer" Obama, even the city of San Francisco (We are more likely to live in Scranton), but the more important bit came with the line about how people in small towns are the ones who "do some of the hardest work." The cheer at that line was one of recognition, because what Palin is clearly talking about there are the people this crowd thinks don't do "the hardest work," don't fight our wars, don't love our country.
And We know who They are.
What Palin is doing is nothing new It's a virtual copy of Dick Nixon's "forgotten Americans" gambit targeting the so-called silent
majority-the poor and middle-class suburban (and especially southern) whites who had stayed on the sidelines during the sixties culture wars That strategy won Nixon the election against Humphrey by stealing the South away from the Democrats and has been the cornerstone of Republican electoral planning ever since.
The strategy of stoking exurban white resentment against encroaching immigration, against the disappearance of old values, against pop- culture glitz, against government power, it all worked so well for the Republicans over the years that even Hillary Clinton borrowed it in her primary race against Obama.
Now Palin's We in St Paul is, in substance, no different from anything that half a dozen politicians before her have come up with But neither Nixon nor Hillary nor even Ronald Reagan-whose natural goofball cheerfulness blunted his ability to whip up divisive mobs-had ever executed this message with the political skill and magnetism of this suddenly metamorphosed Piedmont flight attendant at the Xcel Center lectern.
Being in the building with Palin that night is a transformative and oddly unsettling experience It's a little like having live cave-level access for the ripping-the-heart-out-with-the-bare-hands scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom A scary-as-hell situation: thousands of pudgy Midwestern conservatives worshipping at the Altar of the Economic Producer, led by a charismatic arch-priestess letting lose a grade-A war cry The clear subtext of Palin's speech is this: other politicians only talk about fighting these assholes, I actually will.
Palin is talking to voters whose country is despised internationally, no longer an industrial manufacturing power, fast becoming an economic vassal to the Chinese and the Saudis, and just a week away from an almost-total financial collapse Nobody here is likely to genuinely believe a speech that promises better things.
But cultural civil war, you have that no matter how fucking broke you are And if you want that, I, Sarah Palin, can give it to you It's a powerful, galvanizing speech, but the strange thing about it is its seeming lack of electoral calculation It's a transparent attempt to mass-
market militancy and frustration, consolidate the group identity of an aggrieved demographic, and work that crowd up into a lather This represents a further degrading of the already degraded electoral process Now, not only are the long-term results of elections irrelevant, but for a new set of players like Palin, the outcome of the election itself is irrelevant This speech wasn't designed to win a general election, it was designed to introduce a new celebrity, a make- believe servant of the people so phony that later in her new career she will not even bother to hold an elective office.
The speech was a tremendous success On my way out of the building I'm stuck behind a pair of delegates who are joyously rehashing Palin's money quotes:
BUTT-HEAD: You know what they say the difference is between a hockey mom and a pit bull?
BUTT-HEAD: No, I mean, you remember?
BEAVIS: Oh, yeah!
BUTT-HEAD: She's like, "Lipstick!"
BEAVIS: Yeah, lipstick! (both explode in laughter)
I reach out and tap one of them on the shoulder.
"Hey," I say "Can I ask you two what you think Sarah Palin will actually accomplish, if she gets elected?"
Beavis stares at me "I think she's gonna take America back,"
Getting this kind of answer on campaign jaunts is like asking someone why they like Pepsi and having them answer, "Because I believe it's the choice of a new generation."
"Yeah, okay," I say "But what actual policies do you want her to enact, or what laws do you think she's going to pass?"
They both frown and glance down at my press pass, and I realize instantly the game is up I'm not part of the We Butt-Head steps forward in a defensive posture, shielding his buddy from the liberal- media Ausländer.
"Wait a minute," he says "Who do you work for, exactly?"
The big difference between America and the third world: in America, our leaders put on a hell of a show for us voters, while in the third world, the bulk of the population gets squat In the third world, most people know where they stand and don't have any illusions about it.
Maybe they get a parade every now and then, get to wave at shock troops carrying order colors in an eyes-right salute Or maybe, if they're lucky, the leader will spring for a piece of mainstream entertainment-he'll host a heavyweight title fight at the local Palace of Beheading Something that puts the country on the map, cheers the national mood, distracts folks from their status as barefoot scrapers of the bottom of the international capitalist barrel.
But mostly your third-world schmuck gets the shaft He gets to live in dusty, unpaved dumps, eat expired food, scratch and claw his way to an old enough age to reproduce, and then die unnecessarily of industrial accidents, malnutrition, or some long-forgotten disease of antiquity Meanwhile, drawing upon the collective whole-life economic output of this worthy fellow and 47 million of his fellow citizens, the leader and about eighteen of his luckiest friends get to live in villas in Ibiza or the south of France, with enough money for a couple of impressive-looking ocean cruisers and a couple dozen sports cars.
We get more than that in America We get a beautifully choreographed eighteen-month entertainment put on once every four years, a beast called the presidential election that engrosses the population to the point of obsession This ongoing drama allows everyone to subsume their hopes and dreams for the future into one all-out, all-or-nothing battle for the White House, a big alabaster symbol of power we see on television a lot Who wins and who loses this contest is a matter of utmost importance to a hell of a lot of people in this country.
But why it's so important to them is one of the great unexplored mysteries of our time It's a mystery rooted in the central, horrifying truth about our national politics.
Which is this: none of it really matters to us The presidential election is a drama that we Americans have learned to wholly consume as entertainment, divorced completely from any expectations about concrete changes in our own lives For the vast majority of people who follow national elections in this country, the payoff they're looking for when they campaign for this or that political figure is that warm and fuzzy feeling you get when the home team wins the big game Or, more importantly, when a hated rival loses Their stake in the electoral game isn't a citizen's interest, but a rooting interest.
Voters who throw their emotional weight into elections they know deep down inside won't produce real change in their lives are also indulging in a find of fantasy That's why voters still dream of politicians whose primary goal is to effectively govern and maintain a thriving first world society with great international ambitions What voters don't realize, or don't want to realize, is that that dream was abandoned long ago by his country's leaders, who know the more prosaic reality and are looking beyond the fantasy, into the future, at an America plummeted into third world status.
From the Hardcover edition.