Failed reality-television star Sarah Palin joined former reality-television star Donald Trump in Ames, Iowa, on Tuesday evening, not for a taping of Celebrity Apprentice or a casting for Dancing With the Stars, but to endorse him as the next president of the United States.
Dressed in a black overcoat and blue tie, the GOP frontrunner walked onstage at Iowa State University and gripped the lectern stamped with his name. “Wow, look at the press out there! They must think that a big event’s gonna happen today,” he said. “Wow! That’s a lot—it’s like the Academy Awards!”
He freestyled for 30 minutes, about his poll numbers and how Big League he wins, before welcoming a bedazzled Palin with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. He called her “a spectacular person” and said her endorsement was “very special to me.”
Trump stood off to her left and looked on as she spoke, his arms dangling awkwardly at his sides. He smirked.
“Heads are spinning,” Palin began. “This is gonna be so much fun!”
Searching for meaning in this spectacle is like trying to find enlightenment in the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese. And the jokes, well, they write themselves but they’re not very funny, which, in a sense, is the key to Trump’s success in the Republican primary—and, perhaps, life in general.
Trump persists because he defies parody. He, like Palin, is in on the joke that is his public persona. The difference is he’s better at telling it than any lowly scribe or comedian. And he tells it not with a device as obvious as self-deprecation but with subtlety in his every decision, minor or Yuge, in his official capacity as The Frontrunner for the Republican Presidential Nomination.
Which is where Palin comes in.
“No more pussyfooting around!” she shouted. “He’s going rogue left and right, man, that’s why he’s doing so well!”
Once governor of Alaska, Palin’s own road to caricature began when she joined Trump foe John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign as his running mate.
Her tinny-voiced performance as a vice-presidential candidate was, at turns, erratic and self-destructive. By Election Day, it was difficult to distinguish between the real Palin and the version of her performed by Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live.
For a time after McCain’s defeat, Palin enjoyed her status as an in-demand conservative star, too rogue to be tamed by the establishment elite. But her shtick, complete with props like Big Gulps and Dr. Seuss books, seemed to grow tired. TLC canceled her reality show, Sarah Palin’s Alaska, after just one season. Palin sightings on cable news occurred with less and less frequency. A CBS News poll from January 2015 found that 59 percent of Republicans didn’t want her to run for president in this election.
To borrow a phrase from The Donald, Palin is a loser—but a potentially useful one, like conspiracy-monger Alex Jones, who was welcomed into Trump’s orbit in December.
Trump associates with sideshows and freaks as if to run on hot coals before the American public and media, who are left covered in sludge and scratching their heads. Unlike almost every politician before him, he is never tainted by these associations. No failed governor or tinfoil hat-wearing radio host or white supremacist making robocalls on his behalf can reflect poorly on his character, perhaps because we suspect he has none.
Trump befriended Palin before his formal foray into Republican politics began. In 2011, they were photographed eating pizza together in New York City—with forks. In August, Palin interviewed Trump, by webcam, for the right-wing One America News Network. He told her he liked her and her family “so much.”
There is overlap among their lackeys, too. Trump political director Michael Glassner previously served as chief of staff to Palin’s political action committee, and Trump’s spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson, was endorsed by Palin in 2014 when she ran for Congress in Texas.
Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant who worked on the campaign until August, said Trump only stands to gain from Palin’s public embrace.
“She is popular with evangelicals who dominate the process,” he told me. “Also blots out sun for [Ted] Cruz.”
At the very least, Trump loses nothing after Tuesday’s Big Show. At most, he starves Cruz—his central rival—of much-needed media coverage with two weeks to spare until the Iowa caucus. Unlike his other threats, like Ben Carson, Cruz has proved impervious to Trump’s put-downs. Despite weeks of Trump questioning Cruz’s citizenship, Cruz has hardly moved an inch in the Iowa polls, where he was beating Trump as recently as two weeks ago. As of this writing, Trump stands just a percentage point above Cruz in the Real Clear Politics polling average in the state.
Aiding Trump’s cause is Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who, sparring with Cruz over ethanol, said Tuesday that he hopes the Texas senator is defeated.
As surreal as Tuesday’s performance felt at times, it was guided by a certain logic. Even Palin, who flailed her sequined arms in the air for the crowd, equal parts pep and menace in her voice, sounded a nuanced battle cry. “You ready for a commander and chief who will do their job and go kick ISIS ass?” she screamed at one point.
But then she explained her plight, and the plight of all Trump true believers.
“Trump’s candidacy: It has exposed not just that tragic ramifications of that betrayal of the transformation of our country, but too, he has exposed the complicity on both sides of the aisle that has enabled it, OK?” she said. “He’s been able to tear the veil off this idea of the system, how the system really works.”
In Trump, Palin sees a leader—one who won’t be pushed off to the corner like she was. “We need someone new who has the power and is in the position to bust up that establishment,” she said.
She complained that establishment Republicans are as much to blame as the Democrats, and in their effort to thwart Trump, they have maligned all of conservative America.
“Funny, haha—not funny,” she said, seemingly out of nowhere. “But now what they’re doing is whaling on Trump and his Trumpeters, ‘Well, they’re not conservative enough’—Oh my goodness gracious, what the heck would the establishment know about conservatism?”
She said she, Trump, and those like them were “right-winging, bitter-clinging, proud clingers of our guns, our god, and our religions, and our Constitution.”
“Doggone right we’re angry,” she said. “Justifiably so!”
She said Trump could be trusted because “he builds things, he builds big things, things that touch the sky, big infrastructure, things that put people to work.”
And when President Obama leaves office, she said, she hopes he heads back to Chicago. He’ll “be able to look up and there, over his head, he will be able to see that shining, towering Trump Tower. Yes, Barack, he built that and that says a lot! Iowa, you say a lot being here tonight supporting the right man who will allow you to Make America Great Again!”