Sarah Palin’s feel-bad politics: The dark allure of right-wing nihilism, self-pity and curdled nostalgia for a once-"great" America

The American right's rococo, self-devouring period reached its apex with Sarah Palin's deranged rant

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 22, 2016 9:15PM (EST)

Sarah Palin   (Jeffrey Malet /
Sarah Palin (Jeffrey Malet /

“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” sang Simon & Garfunkel in February of 1968, a year of innocence and chaos. “Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” If that line is difficult to parse several generations later — as in, who the hell is Joe DiMaggio? — it confused people back then too. Songwriter Paul Simon was tweaking the nostalgic yearning for a vanished America found among people slightly older than himself, but at least as he explained it 30 years after the fact, the song also shares in that sadness. In a New York Times Op-Ed after DiMaggio’s death in 1999, Simon wrote that in an era of political discord (meaning the Bill Clinton presidency and the Lewinsky scandal), “we grieve for Joe DiMaggio and mourn the loss of his grace and dignity, his fierce sense of privacy, his fidelity to the memory of his wife and the power of his silence.”

That yearning for an imaginary or idealized past is found throughout American culture and American politics. It showed up this week, with Whitmanesque poetic fervor, in the widely celebrated speech delivered by Sarah Palin in Ames, Iowa, where she endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. (I owe the Whitman reference to my Salon colleague Amanda Marcotte, who may have written the best of all the Palin exegeses thus far.) If Palin’s glorious paean to the “right-wingin’, bitter-clingin’, proud clingers of our guns, our God and our religions and our Constitution” was a gift to legions of late-night comedy hosts, it was also an enlistment in a lengthy American rhetorical tradition. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” as the most famous ending in American literature puts it.

Quite likely Sarah Palin was assigned to read that book, at some point in her peripatetic college career. If she never got around to it she is not alone, but she received the gist of Nick Carraway’s American epiphany because no American can entirely avoid it. Similarly, it does not seem likely that Palin has any clear idea who Joe DiMaggio was, or why he played an important symbolic role in a folk-rock hit released just before the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. DiMaggio was born in California and played baseball in New York City, two places that from Palin’s point of view seem only marginally American. She might be perplexed to learn that the parents of this supposed American hero were immigrants who spoke little English and were classified as “enemy aliens” — potential terrorists, as we might say today — during World War II. (They were prohibited from traveling more than five miles from home, and Giuseppe DiMaggio’s fishing boat was confiscated by the government.)

All Palin would need to know about Simon & Garfunkel is that another of the duo’s ‘60s hits, “America,” showed up in a Bernie Sanders campaign ad this week. (Which may tell us more than we wanted to know about the Bern’s degree of pop-culture savvy.) It’s not a tribute to right-wingin’, bitter-clingin’ America, not a celebration of the “Reaganesque power that comes from strength.” How dare those hippies, in fact, use that proper noun? It’s not theirs! But the ache and loss expressed in Simon’s “Mrs. Robinson,” and in “America” too, is closely akin to the spirit Palin was trying to conjure in her torrent of psychotronic free association on Wednesday.

Except that it’s all gone sour: The paradoxical longing for what cannot be recaptured, expressed so beautifully by Simon and by Scott Fitzgerald (and before them by Marcel Proust, for that matter) has turned from sadness to bitterness and anger. As Marcotte argues, there is an almost literary artfulness at work within Palin’s apparently unhinged rambling, especially in the way she evades the traditional responsibility of a political speech (that is, to make some sort of argument and offer points to support it) and goes for pure emotion. But the only emotions available, it seems, are those of uncontained negativity: “Anger is turned into hate is turned into more anger, until it spins off, completely unmoored from any considerations like ‘why’ or ‘how.’”

Instead of the dignity and silence of Joe DiMaggio, or the stoicism of John Wayne, we get only endless complaining and empty, childish, unfulfillable promises — the boastful bloviation of Trump and the “post-argument” imagistic slam poetry of Palin. The American right has reached a rococo, self-devouring period, almost an ironic period. It has become exactly what it has long accused the left of being, not entirely without justification: a bunch of whiners and perennial victims who never shut up about how much they have suffered at the hands of evil but nebulous enemies.

Much as the contemporary Republican Party claims to venerate Ronald Reagan, this represents a dramatic turnabout from the era of Reagan’s ascension, which was built on invariably sunny and upbeat political rhetoric and dedicated to at least the appearance of inclusivity. (Of course Reagan’s policies, which I hated so much at the time, look almost moderate today as well.) Well, it ain’t morning in America anymore, folks. It’s the dark night of the soul; it’s fear and trembling and sickness unto death. Those GOP candidates who began the 2016 campaign with some semblance of an optimistic message — Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee and about half of the software package that comprises Jeb Bush — have gotten swamped beneath the unrelenting meanness and hostility of Trump and Ted Cruz.

I was going to say that the Palin-Trump contingent does not blame Society or the Establishment or Racism for their ills and afflictions, after the fashion of a stereotypical liberal. But in fact they do exactly that, with some minor differences in nomenclature. Of course it’s disgraceful that in the immediate aftermath of her Trump speech Palin tried to spin the news about her son Track’s arrest on domestic violence charges into an attack on President Obama. But we should be aware of the potential hypocrisy in our response: If I were to suggest that Track Palin may have suffered psychological damage in an unnecessary and destructive war, and that we should not withhold our compassion from his family just because his mom is a right-wing icon, many people in the Salon readership would nod respectfully. Sarah’s argument skips over all of that and goes for a literal bogeyman: Track had a difficult homecoming from Iraq because he had a commander-in-chief who wasn’t quite American enough, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

Amid the pathological context of American politics in 2016, it’s not surprising to learn that middle-aged white people are dying at a disproportionate and alarming rate in our country, and largely of preventable causes like lung cancer or heart disease or suicide. They hate so many things, including themselves, that it’s difficult to go on living. Thanks, Obama! The Palin-Trump demographic feels bad about itself and about America pretty much all the time, and its so-called political movement amounts to little more than a celebration of feeling bad, a collective agreement that once upon a time things were great and now they’re irredeemably screwed up.

From the beginning of the Trump campaign, I have suspected that his supporters were not actually dumb enough to believe that he or any other president could really build an impregnable wall along the Mexican border, or bar all Muslims from entering the country. Those are nihilistic fantasies emerging from the depths of the white American Id, a desire to inflict the pain of alcoholism and obesity and hypertension, along with the paradoxical anguish of a sense of entitlement coupled with relentless downward mobility, on as much of the outside world as possible.

On a larger scale, it’s also possible that the right-wing, pseudo-populist rejection of science and reason and logic is less a matter of not believing that industrial development is destroying the planet, or that unfettered capitalism and the gruesome American diet are literally killing us, than of not caring. It’s a dangerous and in many ways heartbreaking dilemma, and in the end I don’t want to be snarky about it. Many people in our country responded to a promise of permanent prosperity in a great land that was loved and envied around the world. Instead, things kept getting worse and their fellow citizens inexplicably elected a Muslim usurper not once but twice, and the only part of the promise that was kept was the cheap 30-pack at the mini-mart and the wings at TGI Fridays. The squirmish with the American Id has been lost; all that’s left is the politics of feeling bad, the nearness of death, the promise that #NoLivesMatter.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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