The week before I got married on my family’s homestead in Alaska, we found out Sarah Palin had been picked to be Sen. John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate.
This was big news for Alaska. Nearly everyone we knew was thrilled, even people who weren’t huge Palin fans. At the time, Palin was a popular governor who’d made a name for herself fighting a corrupt good ol’ boys system that had prevailed for too long in state politics. She was a Republican, but seen as a moderate who was willing to work with Democrats and take on powerful special interests, including the oil companies that held sway in the state capitol. People liked her, even if they didn’t always agree with her politics.
That included my family, which, like a lot of families in a place as small as Alaska, had a personal connection to Palin. My brothers and I had all worked for Wasilla’s parks and recreation department at some point during Palin’s time as mayor (after she was named McCain’s VP pick, we all joked that in high school we’d “worked for her,” which technically we had), and later she and her family had attended my parents’ church. The Sarah Palin we all knew was more or less an ordinary Alaskan—an ambitious and accomplished woman, certainly, but also someone we identified with, who understood Alaskans’ unique way of life, and who for the most part seemed to reflect our conservative values and our desire for pragmatic and effective governance.
That was not the Sarah Palin the rest of the country would come to know, not because she went through a radical transformation—although she did play up her folksiness for a national audience—but because the corporate media, who saw in her a threat to the election of Barack Obama, decided to tear her apart, to destroy her politically, even if that meant destroying her personally.
What ensued was the greatest persecution of an American political figure in modern times. Palin, a mother of five who had recently given birth to a baby boy prenatally diagnosed with Downs Syndrome, became an object of hate for the media. Nothing has come close in its ugliness, its mendacity, its complete lack of restraint and, given Palin’s status as the second woman ever to appear on a major-party presidential ticket, the abject hypocrisy of a media establishment that purports to champion women’s rights and equality.
Prepare for Transparently Insincere Sympathy for Palin
I say all this as a prelude to what we are about to witness. In the coming months, a phalanx of mainstream media outlets and leftist women’s groups will be deployed to defend Sen. Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s vice-presidential pick, by labeling any and all criticism of her as sexist and possibly racist. (It remains unclear what we’re to make of Harris’s own charges against Biden of racism and sexism—and sexual assault—in the primaries earlier this year.)
Groups like Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and others recently sent a letter to news outlets that they’ll be monitoring coverage of Biden’s VP pick by “popping up rapid response teams tasked with tracking and calling out sexism and racism in real-time,” according to NBC News. Meanwhile, Biden’s campaign manager recently warned on an all-staff call that “sexism will motivate the ugliest attacks against” the VP pick, and that everyone on the campaign will be enlisted to defend her, reports the Washington Post.
Even before Biden announced Harris as his running mate on Tuesday, we’re told, she had already faced sexist attacks that play on negative stereotypes, like being “maligned online for a past relationship.” The Post story also quotes one Democratic opposition researcher who says we should expect “a flood of content playing on common sexist tropes: portraying her as crazy, untrustworthy, unqualified, dumb, or sexual—claiming she is angry, or extreme, or perhaps that she ‘slept her way to the top.’”
We’re going to hear a lot of that sort thing this election cycle. Because the double standard that’s about to be applied to Harris is so appallingly obvious even to corporate media, we’re also going to hear a lot of retroactive and transparently insincere sympathy for Palin. Here’s one of the first out of the gate:
In the process of reporting on ego, ambition and Donald Trump, I came across an interesting nugget: a sense of sympathy from Democrats and Obama alumni over how Sarah Palin was treated. https://t.co/ZXggOsp8R3
— Sam Stein (@samstein) August 10, 2020
Among the Democratic operatives quoted in the piece is, no surprise, NARAL president Ilyse Hogue, who said, “[Palin] and Trump are cut from the same cloth. But because she was an ambitious woman, particularly upstaging a man held in high regard, people were hateful towards her in a way they would never be hateful towards any man.”
A touching sentiment, but this is the same Ilyse Hogue who, in August 2008, wrote to her colleagues at MoveOn.org about “McCain’s dangerous choice” and proceeded to repeat a litany of distortions and outright lies about Palin that became commonplace in the course of the campaign—that she was a biblical literalist who opposed teaching evolution in schools, that she was a Buchananite, that she didn’t think humans contributed to climate change, among many other things, none of which were true.
But lies and distortions of Palin’s views were mild compared to what came next. At the outset of his 2009 book, “The Persecution of Sarah Palin,” Matthew Continetti runs down a partial list of the kind of crude insults routinely hurled at Palin during and after the election cycle:
She has been called a ‘freak show,’ a ‘joke,’ an ‘extreme liability,’ a ‘turncoat b*tch,’ an ‘insult,’ a ‘fire-breather,’ ‘xenophobic,’ a ‘sitcom of a vice-presidential choice,’ a ‘disaster movie,’ a ‘shallow’ person, ‘chirpy,’ a ‘provincial,’ a ‘disgrace to women’ who was ‘as fake as they come,’ a ‘nauseating,’ ‘cocky wacko,’ a ‘jack in the box,’ ‘Napoleon in bunny boots,’ ‘extreme,’ ‘radical,’ a ‘vessel,’ a ‘farce,’ ‘Bush in drag,’ ‘not very bright,’ ‘utterly unqualified,’ a ‘bimbo,’ ‘Danielle Quayle,’ the ‘new spokesperson for bellicosity and confrontation,’ a ‘fatal cancer,’ ‘like a really bad Disney movie,’ ‘laughable,’ an ‘odd combination of Chauncey Gardiner from Being There and Marge from Fargo,’ ‘dangerous,’ a ‘bully,’ the ‘biggest demagogue in America,’ the ‘Paleolithic Princess of Parsimonious Patriotism,’ the ‘anti-Wonder Woman,’ ‘judgmental’… ‘dictatorial’ with a ‘superior religious self-righteousness,’ a ‘racist’ who was ‘absurd,’ ‘scary,’ and a ‘token,’ a ‘bantamweight cheerleader,’ an ‘airhead,’ an ‘idiot,’ a ‘librarian in a porn film,’ a ‘Jesus freak,’ a ‘man with a vagina’… a ‘Drama Queen,’ a ‘Republican blow-up doll’ who ‘ideologically’ is ‘their hardcore pornographic centerfold spread,’ an ‘opportunistic anti-female,’ a ‘true Stepford candidate, a cyborg,’ a ‘quitter,’ and—this list is by no means exhaustive—a ‘bonbon.’
Even these slurs—which today would get an editor or columnist summarily canceled if they were uttered about Biden’s VP nominee—pale in the face of what Andrew Sullivan cooked up in his fevered (to say the least) imagination.
Sullivan, with the blessing of his editors at The Atlantic, descended to depths rarely seen in American political journalism: he helped hatch and then relentlessly pursued a sleazy conspiracy theory that Palin’s infant son with Downs Syndrome, Trig, was not her own, that he was really her teenage daughter’s, that the public presentation of Trig as Palin’s son was an elaborate political ruse, and that Sullivan could prove it by analyzing photos of a pregnant Palin and applying his apparently newfound expertise in obstetrics.
I’m not kidding. You can read a complete rundown of all this by Christopher Badeaux from back in 2009, but suffice to say that Sullivan couched what amounted to a sordid obsession with Palin’s fertility as “just asking questions”—and by just asking questions, I mean he repeatedly demanded that Palin’s doctors release medical records proving she gave birth to her son Trig.
By Destroying Palin, Corporate Media Sowed the Wind
You would think there would be professional consequences for this kind of insanity, but you’d be wrong. Sullivan remains a respected elder statesmen of the internet, a popular columnist and speaker who until recently enjoyed a perch at New York Magazine.
Never mind that he kept grinding away at “Trig Trutherism” for years after the 2008 election. Never mind that he has never recanted his disgusting and sexist attacks on Palin and her family. Never mind that long after the election, columnists at outlets like The New Yorker were shrugging off Sullivan’s gross quackery and acting as if Sarah and Trig Palin were still fair game. Never mind that these unrelenting attacks didn’t just ruin Palin’s political career, they ruined her life.
For Sullivan and the rest of the media, destroying Palin—and in the process throwing out all pretensions they ever cared about sexism—was a small price to pay, not just to ensure Obama’s election but to ward off future Palins. They failed, not just in warding off future Palins but in erasing Palin herself.
On Tuesday, Palin posted a congratulatory note to Harris on Instagram with some friendly advice about the hazards of running as a female VP nominee. Given what she went through in ’08, Palin’s note is remarkable for how friendly, upbeat, and understated it is. That she, of all people, would strike such a tone on this subject is a testament to her strong character and goodwill, and yet another indictment of the ignoble media establishment that persecuted her.
Because here’s the thing. The media didn’t just hate Palin because she was a conservative Republican woman. They hated her because she was attractive, charismatic, and the mother of a young family. They hated her because she was not a hypocrite, especially about abortion. They hated her because a lot of ordinary Americans liked her, despite her rustic affectations and awkward public presence. They hated her for much the same reasons McCain staffers like Nicolle Wallace, who later shamefully turned on Palin for pats on the head from the media, hated her: she was totally indifferent to the approval of the East Coast establishment, and she wasn’t afraid to laugh in its face and call out its vapidity and duplicity.
They could not know it at the time, but by destroying Palin they were sowing the wind. Many of the things the media hated about Palin they ended up getting tenfold in Donald Trump eight years later. In 2016, accusations of sexism against Trump fell flat, not just because Trump could point to the hypocrisy of Bill and Hillary Clinton on the subject, but because the Palin saga proved, to at least half the country, that Democrats and the media don’t care about sexism, even sexism of the worst kind, as long as it’s deployed in the service of their political agenda.
Now they come forward under the guise of calling out sexism in politics with a thinly-veiled attempt to preempt all legitimate criticism of Harris. It won’t work. Republicans and conservative media are not likely to treat Harris the way Palin was treated, but when Democrats and the media inevitably cry out that Trump is being sexist, that conservatives are being unfair, and that in retrospect they regret how they treated Palin, no one will be able to hear them above the whirlwind.