Dissecting the Palin Phenomenon

Sarah Palin’s four political strengths—the ability to channel resentment, amazing beauty, great performance skills, and real authenticity with the base—make her a shoo-in for the Republican nomination.
  • Transcript


Question: What explains Sarah Palin’s incredible popularity?

Andrew Sullivan:  Two things, or several things actually.  First of all, she’s an extremely good performer and being a telegenic performer able to deliver speeches well, and also tits and beauty, a very powerful combination.  There’s a reason why Fox News anchors all look like they’re basically from Hooters.  It’s because, you know, like Kenny in "South Park," you can’t take your eyes off it if you’re a straight guy.  And I think it’s also crazy to deny that fact, that that is part of her appeal. 

Not only is she hot as hell, apparently—although of course this is all bullshit—you can go hunting with her.  She was a sportscast – she announced sports.  I mean if you’re trying to find somebody to appeal to middle-aged white guys in rural America, would you rather have Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin.  I mean, just on a psychic level.  That’s important. 

Secondly, and again, people think I’m being trivial about that, but I think it’s real, I think it’s reality.  People respond to these things.  We have good-looking people in power.  We react to that.  The President is a very good-looking guy.  You don’t have ugly mugs like we used to have in the 19 Century.  You know, Kennedy onwards, you know, broke that mold—unless you can channel resentment.  And I think she is simply brilliant at channeling the resentment of people who feel the world has left them behind, and has actually left them behind in terms of economics, especially.  People who are struggling to survive and for whom there is really no future of greater prosperity given the globalized economy and those people who simply do not understand why the America that used to lift them up constantly has stopped doing so. 

And her ability without even really ever articulating what she would do about it except not do anything about it; except these slogans of low taxes and reining in spending when we never actually hear what spending she’d ever rein in.  That’s extraordinarily potent, especially in periods of economic distress. 

And thirdly, fundamentalist religion.  Which, since the collapse of ideology in the '80s, is the most powerful organizing tool for political and social movements.  That’s why Islamists are on the march, that’s why Israel is becoming essentially a religiously-based as opposed to a secular-based democracy and that’s why we see this rise of fundamentalism.  And Palin has one think in common... but of course, the Republican Party since Nixon has had resentment, that was its core reason since the '60s.  It’s always had telegenic people like Reagan, but both Nixon and Reagan, of course, were really serious people.  And Reagan was an intellectual.  I mean he was a serious person who thought quite deeply and for a long time about political ideas. 

But they never quite had a complete capitulation to fundamentalism as the... and pure identity politics of us-versus-them which you see in O’Donnell’s ad, "I am you."  Not "I’d like to do this to benefit us," or "These are my policies, support me because of this." But just, “I am you.”  This is identity politics that used to be on the left, this is Al Sharpton of the left. 

And then of course, you have this brilliant technique of avoiding—this is the fourth thing and the new thing—any serious press scrutiny.  So that you channel yourself through Facebook, or through Fox News, no mainstream reporters are ever allowed to ask you questions.  And when you do and you look like an idiot, as happened in the last campaign, it’s a plot by the liberal media to destroy you.  So the press can’t win.  The more you actually expose her, the more support she gets.  You put all that together with economic crisis and she’s the next President.  She’s certainly the next nominee.

Question: Do you really think she could be president?

Andrew Sullivan:  Well, who beats her?  Who has those... who has all those four things going for them: channeling resentment, amazing beauty, great performance skills, and real authenticity with the base?  Now I happen to believe that she's not authentic, that all this stuff is baloney, that she’s a phony, that she’s worse than many of the other people inasmuch as she is not one of them at all.  She’s just a great con artist.  And... but no one can quite say that.  And I think she’ll believe and say whatever she thinks will empower her.  She doesn’t actually have any real ideology except hatred of people that she thinks of are like me.

If you are on her enemies list, watch out!  And I so... God help me, if she gets real power, because I know that I’m probably a couple below Joe McGinnis, I’m right up there. Because I don’t buy for a second anything she is saying.  But I do buy, in a way that I think many other liberal elites, or whatever, I do buy her political power and have believed it from the get-go.  I know it when I see it.

Recorded on October 12, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller