Lexicon Valley

Palin’s Rhetoric Is an Enchanted, Perplexing Fever Dream and We Love It

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at Hansen Agriculture Student Learning Center at Iowa State University on Jan. 19, 2016, in Ames, Iowa.

Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

Like a radiant molten meteor that narrowly missed us in 2008 but fell into Earth’s orbit and is, perhaps, scheduled to skim the outer layers of our atmosphere every four years, Sarah Palin has returned.

By now you have read or listened to her delirious, rambling, balls-to-the-wall endorsement of Donald J. Trump, which Slate’s Josh Voorhees compared to post-apocalyptic slam poetry. You have marveled at the gloriously mixed metaphors (“He’s got the guts to wear the issues that need to be spoken about and debated on his sleeve”), botched slogans (“We’re talking about no more Reaganesque power that comes from strength,” a bastardization of Reagan’s “peace through strength” motto), vivid coinages (“squirmishes”), acronyms nobody asked for (ABC: “anybody but Clinton” and OPM: “other people’s money”), strange condemnations of classical architecture (“Exactly one year from tomorrow, former President Barack Obama. He packs up the teleprompters and the selfie-sticks, and the Greek columns, and all that hopey, changey stuff and he heads on back to Chicago), and, best of all, the giddy flights of association, looping from rockin’ rollers to holy rollers to you with the hands that rock the cradle, all those Seussian internal rhymes and alliterations dancing in concert to tie up incoherence in an unassailable sonic bow.

“Right wingin’, bitter clingin’, proud clingers of our guns, our god, and our religions, and our Constitution.”

A brilliant, Hamilton-esque freestyle.

“He, as he builds things, he builds big things, things that touch the sky, big infrastructure that puts other people to work.”

Gertrude Stein would be proud.

“Trump’s candidacy, it has exposed not just that tragic ramifications of that betrayal of the transformation of our country  …”

Much syllables, many rhetoric.

“… but too, he has exposed the complicity on both sides of the aisle that has enabled it, OK?”

Christ, we missed you, Palin.

It is worth noting—amid all the weird sexual imagery (Obama will stand in the shadow of “that shining, towering Trump tower”) and the inclusive voice-collaging reminiscent of poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera (“Thank you, enemy,” the president, as ventriloquized by Palin, tells Iran) and the tweaking of catchphrases (Republicans must “drill, baby, drill down, and hold these folks accountable” before the “capitulator-in-chief” “ducks and hides” again)—that Palin’s rhetorical strategy is pretty different from Trump’s. While both speakers are braggadocios, he favors brutal, direct expression, salted with the occasional vague intensifier: terrific, huge, very. She makes word salad. His meaning is simplified, unmistakable. He repeats monosyllabic phrases for emphasis: “When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us. I beat China all the time. All the time.” She embarks on rhapsodies of nonsense that inflame our political passions while stupefying our brain cells. “They stomp on our neck, and then they tell us, ‘Just chill, OK, just relax.’ Well, look, we are mad, and we’ve been had.”

What? Who is they? When did this conversation happen? Like a surrealist poet, Palin asks us to suspend everyday rationality in order to follow her dream logic. We are mad/ We’ve been had/ This is bad/ Meet my dad. The stream of consciousness device has something in common with “clanging,” a verbal symptom of schizophrenia in which the patient compulsively rhymes words that bear no logical connection to one another. But in Palin’s case, associative wordplay has the postmodern function of creating an imaginative space in which normal lexical/physical/epistemological rules don’t apply. Yeah, maybe his largess kind of, I don’t know, some would say gets in the way of that quiet generosity and, uh, his compassion. Palin—who conjures in her listeners such a state of bewilderment that they grow susceptible, as if hypnotized—is less an orator than a conductor of orchestral music, of enchanted, fevered, perplexing passages that paint moods we’ve never felt and realms we’ve never seen. I am so glad she’s back.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the GOP primary.