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.
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 Breitbart.com, 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.”