Archive for January, 2016

The Return of Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin

With the reappearance of Sarah Palin on the political scene, it seemed inevitable that Tina Fey would also return to reprise her impersonation of the former Alaska governor and Vice Presidential candidate on Saturday Night Live. And sure enough, SNL devoted its cold open–the most privileged slot of the show–to a parody of Palin’s Donald Trump endorsement. And the sketch did not disappoint. Fey captured Palin’s rambling syntax, mocked her use of alliteration and rhyming and her simplistic framing of world issues.

In Political TV, I made the argument that most of SNL’s presidential impersonations have only limited satirical effect. In most cases, these imitations simply exaggerate a personality trait–Gerald Ford’s clumsiness, Bill Clinton’s appetites, George W. Bush’s folksiness–without speaking to the political implications associated with them. The exception, to my mind, has been Fey’s imitation of Palin, which helped to tease out the political cynicism that brought her into prominence and how that allowed someone who was clearly unprepared for national office to appear as a VP candidate. This observation became especially acute when Fey’s Palin appeared in sketches alongside of Hillary Clinton, as played by Amy Poehler. While Kate McKinnon has played Clinton as fragile and out-of-touch, Poehler brought a layer of sympathy to her portrayal of Clinton, depicting her as an accomplished whose candidacy was trivialized by Palin’s ascendancy. Together, Fey and Poehler brought a subtly feminist critique to the show.

Fey’s reappearance tends to go for straightforward mockery, and her impression of Palin here almost feels like a “greatest hits” performance, capturing Palin’s glib speaking style. But what struck me about this sketch is how it frames our encounter with Palin through the eyes of Donald Trump (as played by Darrell Hammond). In many ways, it invites us to sympathize with Trump and to see him as being in on the joke (that Palin is crazy). I’m searching for a way in which the sketch might be critical of Trump, but as Hammond plays him, Trump seems to be a goofy guy who’s bemused by Palin’s theatrics. In that sense, it almost works against the 2008 sketches and the feminist critique they articulated.

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Palin Parodies

In my previous post, I discussed Sarah Palin’s use of “affective politics” in her endorsement of Republican candidate Donald Trump. Rather than present a coherent argument, Palin instead offers a series of riffs that express a populist conservative narrative about America’s identity, one that is characterized by hard-working families falling behind because of a Washington “establishment,” a potentially-tough military than has been prevented from exerting its influence by an emasculating Barack Obama, and a coalition of family-values voters whose views have been marginalized by a dominant political correctness that banishes unwanted viewpoints. Trump’s campaign narrative is a restoration narrative (“Make America Great Again!”), and Palin’s rural hockey mom branding fits neatly into that, and I argue, makes her endorsement much more powerful than many liberal opponents would acknowledge.

Because her speech did not conform to the normative standards of political speech (much less the conventions of grammar and syntax), it was ripe for parody by both late-night comedians and by snarky remix artists. As many of my readers will know, there has been tons of scholarship on the effects of political parody (and I’ve contributed my share of it), including articles focusing specifically on Palin parodies, and as this research suggests, the effects are somewhat inconclusive. Certainly liberals and progressives can enjoy seeing Palin get mocked (I certainly do), but I would argue that many of these parodies actually help to reinforce populist-conservative perceptions of the “lamestream media.”

Notably, most of these parodies fall into relatively similar critiques, focusing on Palin’s syntax and her (lack of) political knowledge. Stephen Colbert’s parody takes this approach, with Colbert–now freed from his role as a faux-conservative pundit–describing her speech as a “reunion tour” in which Palin “plays all the hits.”

Colbert later went into an extended sequence in which he imitated Palin endorsing other political candidates, babbling seemingly disconnected (and often irrelevant) catchphrases in something approaching Palin-ese, but not before pausing to “taze the part of my brain that understands sentence structure.” It’s a clever bit, one that is all the more enjoyable given Colbert’s undeniable excitement about having Palin back in the public eye.

Like Colbert, Trevor Noah, as host of The Daily Show, also happily “endorses” Palin’s return to the public eye and all of the new comedy material it will generate. And like Colbert, Noah mocks Palin’s seemingly incoherent ramblings. Reacting to one of comments, Noah laughs, “What? That is amazing. It’s like the only thing that Palin hates more than Obama is punctuation.”

Finally, one of the most widely circulated remixes has been the “Sarah Palin & Donald Trump–Country EDM Remix,” which mixes key phrases from Palin’s speech with an electronic country beat punctuated by the line “hee haw” (taken from the old country variety show). It’s a fun and goofy take that isolates some of Palin’s funnier lines, but again, is unlikely to do much other than provide catharsis for those of us who are disturbed to see Trumpism becoming an increasingly dominant force in American politics. Still, it’s a lot of fun:

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Right Wingin’, Bitter Clingin’: Sarah Palin Endorses Trump

On Wednesday, former Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, endorsed Donald Trump for President in a speech in Ames, Iowa, home of the Iowa caucuses. From one perspective, her speech appeared to be an incoherent collection of conservative catch-phrases, seemingly jumping from topic to topic without any overarching message. Palin’s rambling comments immediately incited snarky responses from all of the usual suspects–The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert, and the increasingly partisan New York Daily News–much of it quite funny.

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But as Amanda Marcotte points out, in one of the strongest analyses of the speech I’ve encountered, Palin was neither “drunk” nor “stupid.” Instead, Palin is appealing to what might be called the “affective politics” of contemporary conservative populism. She is speaking to the felt sense of bitterness that Trump’s supporters have about their economic standing, the perception that the Washington establishment–in cooperation with the mainstream media and other powerful institutions–has left them behind. Note that from the very beginning of the speech, Palin refers to hard-working families who are losing ground economically while seeing their religious values assaulted (her reference to “holy rollin'”) in a shift toward political correctness–one of the chief villains in Trump’s political narrative. In much the same way that politicians allude to or echo past political speeches, Palin rhythmically (I hesitate to say “poetically”) frames her audience as “right wingin’, bitter clingin’, proud clingers of our guns, our God, and our religions,” a reference to an oft-cited 2008 interview in which Obama attempted to diagnose why midwestern voters were reluctant to embrace him.

While liberals and many others in the mainstream media were quick to dismiss the speech, some activist conservative outlets, including, described the speech as “fiery.” It’s difficult to tell how much endorsements matter. Most endorsements likely do little to directly change people’s opinions. But Palin remains a conservative star, and her political brand is one that serves to reinforce Trump’s. It also served to keep Trump–and Palin–in the headlines for several days, keeping cable news outlets focused primarily on him rather than his closest rival, Ted Cruz. Palin’s speech is also a powerful expression of the sense of disenfranchisement felt by many of Trump’s supporters who see their image of America being supplanted by something else and who dream of restoring this idealized image in order to “make America great again.”


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Clinton’s Big Moment

Unlike the Republican debates, which have been driven by a bizarre hybrid of dire, almost apocalyptic rhetoric and belligerent personal attacks, Democratic debates have been quieter and far more substantive. As Josh Marshall describes it, Republican debates are “high drama,” even while being “toxic” as a contribution to our wider civic and political dialogues. As a result, it’s often more difficult to pull out singular dramatic moments that stand out like the exchange between Trump and Cruz about New York values. That being said, all debates are political spectacle in some form, providing viewers (and voters) with a mise-en-scene of what democracy should look like. And both political parties, their candidates, and the networks that produce these debates collectively work together to create an image of what politics should look like. Debates also provide a highly visible stage for taking political stands that might otherwise receive little attention.

And this is why I believe Clinton’s closing remarks–which she used to highlight the horrifying toxic water crisis in Flint, Michigan–was so important. Rather than using that moment to make a case for her candidacy, Clinton directly addressed the crisis (which had not been raised by the moderators), stating emphatically:

I think every single American should be outraged. We’ve had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways, and majority African American has been drinking and bathing in lead contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care. He had requests for help that he basically stonewalled. I’ll tell you what: If the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would have been action.


Clinton’s comments directly address issues of race and social class that often go ignored in political debates, while also highlighting the importance of infrastructure and good government. And to a great extent, the comments essentially forced Sanders to use his time essentially agreeing with her position. Her comments also immediately provoked a response from Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who tweeted the following:

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Snyder’s defensive tweet immediately drew criticism across the social media landscape, showing again how his failure to react to requests from Flint for help were so destructive. I’m trying to resist using this blog to engage in speculation about the horse race, but I believe Clinton’s Flint comments could prove to be a pivotal moment in the Democratic primary.

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Bringing Back the Blog

It’s 2016, but I’m hoping to starting blogging again, especially with the current election season presenting us with an utterly insane political spectacle. Specifically, the Republican primary has been dominated by the rise of Donald Trump and the emergence of what many media critics have begun to call “Trumpism,” a particularly bellicose form of populism (Norm Ornstein’s diagnoses of the causes of Trumpism is perhaps the best writing I’ve seen on the topic). I’m not quite sure yet how I’d like to add to the conversation, but one contribution I’d like to make is to try to document some of the more significant “moments” of political media over the course of the next eleven months. While elections matter a great deal in determining the future direction of our country (and the world), the narratives that frame them also matter a great deal as well. They can serve to reflect the ways in which “we” perceive ourselves as a country.

With that in mind, I’m going to spend the next few months compiling and hopefully commenting on some of these key moments. One of the most widely discussed moments involves the recent Republican debate that aired on the Fox Business Channel. While the number of debates may seem excessive–and may, in some ways, reinforce political fragmentation–they can reveal quite a bit about candidates–not just their beliefs but also their temperaments, their ability to craft narratives about themselves. And that’s why I think that this exchange from Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, in which Cruz accuses Trump of having “New York values” is so important.

Cruz here is making an attempt at a form of “dog-whistle” politics: he’s using New York as code for everything that’s ostensibly wrong with America, at least from the perspective of the evangelical, rural, and presumably white voters that make up his base (and much of the Republican base). But Trump turns this on its head, in a response that evokes the heroic efforts of first responders during the September 11 attacks. For perhaps the best analysis of this exchange, see Josh Marshall’s insightful discussion of it.


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