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So far as I can tell, Sarah Palin has four core beliefs:
1. Things go better with God.
2. Yay, Alaska!
3. Let’s drill that sucker.
4. Curse you, political establishment.
Palinisms occur when Palin expresses one of these views in her idiosyncratically involuted syntax (“It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia”); when she expresses two or more of them in combination (“God’s will has to be done, in unifying people and companies to get that gas line built, so pray for that”); or when she says anything at all in her imitable my sentence went on the Tilt-a-Whirl and got nauseous way (“And I think more of a concern has been not within the campaign, the mistakes that were made, not being able to react to the circumstances that those mistakes created in a real positive and professional and helpful way for John McCain”).
But the best Palinisms of all result when the huntress encounters something she wasn’t hunting for—that is, when Sarah Palin comes into contact with most anything to do with domestic, foreign, or economic policy. It is this situation that generates those priceless let me tap-dance and, also, sing for you a little song while you think of a different question moments. One such was the juncture in her mind-boggling 2008 interview when Katie Couric asked Palin to name a Supreme Court decision she disagreed with, other than Roe v. Wade. Surrounded by hostile forces, out of cartridges for her Remington, she bravely held her ground and kept pulling the trigger, to no effect:
Palin: Well, let’s see. There’s—of course in the great history of America there have been rulings that there’s never going to be absolute consensus by every American, and there are those issues, again, like Roe v. Wade, where I believe are best held on a state level and addressed there. So, you know, going through the history of America, there would be others. But, um.Couric: Can you think of any?Palin: Well, I would think of any again that could best be dealt with on a more local level maybe I would take issue with. But, um, you know as a mayor and then as a governor and even as a vice president, if I am so privileged to serve, I would be in a position of changing those things, but in supporting the law of the land as it reads today.
Tina Fey’s caricature of Palin as an unprepared high-school student trying to bluff her way through an oral exam by mugging and flirting hit its mark not merely because of the genius of the mimicry, but because of its fundamentally accurate diagnosis of Palin as bullshit artist. Palin’s exuberant incoherence testifies to an unusually wide gulf between confidence and ability. She is proud of what she doesn’t know and contemptuous of those “experts” and “elitists” who are too knowledgeable to be trusted. This curious self-regard echoes through her book, Going Rogue, described by the critic Jonathan Raban as “a four-hundred-page paean to virtuous ignorance.”
The issue is not that Palin, thrust upon the national stage with little warning, still doesn’t know all the details. That’s understandable. The issue is that she rarely appears to have the slightest grasp of what she’s talking about even when she’s supposed to know what she’s talking about. For instance, in one of the 2008 campaign’s most surreal examples of rhetorical excess, John McCain said Palin “knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America.” A few days later, she offered a sample of her expertise in a town hall meeting: “Oil and coal? Of course, it’s a fungible commodity and they don’t flag, you know, the molecules, where it’s going and where it’s not. … So, I believe that what Congress is going to do, also, is not to allow the export bans to such a degree that it’s Americans that get stuck to holding the bag without the energy source that is produced here, pumped here.”
Bushisms, which I collected for many years, often hinged on a single grammatical or factual error. Palinisms, by contrast, consist of a unitary stream of patriotic, populist blather. It’s like Fox News without the punctuation. It is so devoid of content that it hardly deserves the adjective “truthy.” Let’s call it “roguey.” Palinisms do not have to contain actual evidence of rogue thinking, though; they just have to capture the rogue spirit. It’s “Yes, we can, in spite of Them.”
The non-Sarah Dittoheads among us have to decide whether to regard this babble—favoring creation science, aerial wolf-shooting, and freedom of the press, so long as the press is “accurate”—as scary or funny. During the 2008 campaign, when there was a real chance that Palin could become the automatic successor to an impulsive, elderly cancer survivor, I found it more scary than funny. After McCain lost, and after Palin terminated her governorship in the effusion of furious gibberish known as her resignation speech, I have found it mostly funny. To be alarmed by Palin today presumes a Republican Party suicidal enough to want her to do more than run its weekend paintball games.
So the spirit of Palinisms is something to be enjoyed. And we can be sure it’s a gift that will keep on giving, for, as she says in her book, “God doesn’t drive parked cars.” Be warned: The one driving her pickup onto the Fox airwaves and into the Twittersphere is hungry for red meat, hard to reason with, and in a big hurry to get going.
This is adapted from the introduction to Palinisms: The Accidental Wit & Wisdom of Sarah Palin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). © Jacob Weisberg 2010.