Sarah Palin may have rallied the red-staters, but she’s taken over the minds of blue-staters.
Everywhere I turn in New York, she’s governing people’s conversations. A writer told me she obsessively watches the Katie Couric interviews and Saturday Night Live parodies. She finds herself trying to do the Palin accent in the shower.
A violinist woke up screaming, “But I hate Sarah Palin!” She had been bitten on the face by mosquitoes as she slept, and in her dream the itch had become Republican indoctrination.
It’s not just the people I know. Liberals everywhere are bombarding each other’s inboxes with clips of Palin being interviewed and impersonated, shooting rifles and playing flute in a beauty contest.
There’s the attorney and mother of three who wrote to Salon, “I am constantly distracted from my work by my need to continually update myself on the latest … ridicule of her. In my hatred for her, I have begun to hate myself.”
More than 70 million people watched the vice-presidential debate, 50 percent more than watched each presidential debate. The Tina Fey parody of Palin interviewed by Katie Couric got more than 10 million clicks on the Internet.
What is it about Sarah Palin that is simultaneously so disturbing and mesmerizing?
If you ask people why they’re so preoccupied with her, you get some version of, “she’s horrible.” But what does that mean?
It’s not that she’s an idiot. Bush is an idiot, and we flip off the TV when he comes on.
It’s not that she’s evil. Cheney is evil, and we turn away.
It’s not that she’s the red-state “Other.” Huckabee’s the Other, and we don’t send each other clips of his sweaty-lipped interviews.
I have racked my brain to try to boil the enigma down to one quality that makes Palin so disturbing to blue-staters, and I couldn’t. Character is an intricate thing, but as a starting point I made a list of nine factors that make Palin unsettling, with each being a sine qua non of that experience. That is, if you took one of them away, blue-staters would find some relief. For example, she would be pretty disturbing if she were simply right-wing and empty, but this level of obsession requires something more.
1. Mendacity. If she were a straight-shooter, instead of showing the signs of being a pathological bullshitter, her demeanor and politics would not be so upsetting. Thought experiment: “You know what, Katie, I just haven’t had time recently to keep up with the news like I should.” Vaguely disturbing but not shocking. Most politicians lie, but not compulsively. Hillary said, “Fake it till you make it,” and Palin is certainly trying.
2. Insularity. It’s not that she comes from a red state. So did Ross Perot, and people found his folksy expressions endearing. It’s that she has shown herself to be utterly oblivious to other parts of the world and the politics of her own nation.
3. Superficiality. It’s not just that she’s nervous during interviews or on national television. She was just as empty in her state debates.
4. Over self-estimation. A cardinal sin for blue-staters, who value intelligence and education. That doesn’t mean blue-staters are smart, but since they value intelligence they usually know their place in the hierarchy. They know that when they’re being stupid, it’s time to shut up. This woman keeps barreling on, shamelessly. She sees herself as tough and pretty, and she values those traits more than intelligence.
5. Right-wing. If Obama had picked some guy off the street to be his running mate, but the guy was liberal, we might laugh at his roughness but would not feel the same fear.
6. Suddenness. She came out of nowhere. In year three of the Palin presidency, we will no longer be sending each other clips, and Tina Fey will long have given up on doing her.
7. Believer. She has the same possessed aura as my old boss at a Christian company in Alabama who used to sing “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night at eight in the morning while employees were made to watch, holding hands. There is something mesmerizing about this glow. You want to believe like she does, and that freaks you out.
8. Feminine. As opposed to the epicene Hillary. I should add attractive and motherly, too, as subfactors. Several people have told me they see traces of their mothers in Palin, when their mothers are on shaky ground but still want to make their point and come across as strong. This bothers them because they want to move beyond their mothers.
9. Power. And of course none of this would matter if she weren’t so close to becoming our president. If she were our bartender in Wasilla, we’d find her a hoot.
There are several of these that combine to make a soup of eeriness. The believer and mother qualities, for example, are things that draw us to her, while simultaneously we are repelled by traits such as insularity and emptiness, and we’re even more disgusted than if we hadn’t been drawn to her at all.
I considered adding meanness to make it an even ten. But while I think that’s an important factor behind the loathing of Sarah Palin, my guess is that it’s not crucial. Even without her sneering attacks, she would be firmly under the skin of almost all blue-staters. Just look at the Palin impersonations that have resonated so deeply with people (not just Fey’s, but the other very popular ones on Youtube). None of them uses her meanness. The other qualities are enough.
On the night of the VP debates, New York had a carnival atmosphere. Every bar in town was hosting a debate party, it seemed, and people were skipping down the sidewalk to the show.
Walking to a Greenwich Village bar, I felt a weird mix of anticipation and queasiness, as if I was if going to the village square to watch a flogging. It was hard to believe our political discourse had fallen so low.
Others told me they felt the same thing. For a ballet dancer, it was like how she felt as a girl going to watch her friends pop their zits. A little excited, a little disgusted.
Of course we got exactly the unmasking we wanted, only the people kept chanting that the empress had clothes. The first Ohio undecided voter I saw interviewed called Palin “real.” New York Times columnist David Brooks would later call Palin “smart.”
We thought we were going to witness a national zit-popping that night. Biden was going to administer the lance that would finally let flow all our country’s nasty sebaceous fluid. Except it didn’t pop.
No, on closer inspection it wasn’t a zit at all. It wasn’t even a boil that could be lanced. It was a melanoma. It was the outer-most marking of a deeply ailing nation. There was three weeks left to carve it off, but even that would be no cure for the malignancy.
BRENDAN COONEY is an anthropologist living in New York City. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org