Sarah Palin and the Politics of Victimization

I read Going Rogue on an airplane while jetting across the continent to visit the author’s church, Wasilla Bible Church. I remember pulling the book surreptitiously out of my satchel and opening the cover with some mixture of dread and resignation, figuring that I might someday be able to make a case that the hours spent reading the book should count as a credit toward Purgatory.

The autobiography was, as I suspected, pretty insubstantial, filled with morality-play vignettes from childhood and recitations of the author’s meteoric rise to national prominence. But it was not nearly as bad as I feared—kind of endearing, actually, like a cute little puppy tap-dancing frenetically on the kitchen floor, eager for attention. The puppy piddled in the corner more than once, taking cheap shots at political adversaries (including McCain campaign apparatchiks) and using the annoying, sophomoric reference to the Democratic Party as the “Democrat” Party. But Going Rogue was not unpleasant.

The second book in the Sarah Palin œuvre, however, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag, crosses the line from cute puppy bouncing on his back legs to mangy cur relentlessly humping a visitor’s leg.

By all accounts—and especially Palin’s own account—the former governor of Alaska is a busy person these days, appearing regularly on Fox News, starring in reality television, and hop-scotching the lower 48 by private jet to make political endorsements and reeling in a reported $75,000 per speech. And all the while sustaining a vigorous home life: several children (I’m afraid I’ve lost count), including a son with Down Syndrome, a grandson, and a husband.

But if Palin’s schedule is complicated, her cosmos is not at all complicated. The world of Sarah Palin can be divided neatly into good and bad. The latter category includes Hollywood, John Kerry, Michael Moore, “left-wing professors and journalists,” Nancy Pelosi, the Ninth Circuit Court, liberals, MSNBC, the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Times, Barack Obama, health care, and “all the lawyers and academics and schooled-up ‘experts’ in DC.”

The good side of the Palin polarity includes the following: Toby Keith, Newt Gingrich, Calvin Coolidge, Simon Cowell, Whittaker Chambers, Michele Bachmann, William Bennett, Laura Ingraham, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan. Actually, Reagan enjoys a far higher status than simply “good.” He’s something of a demigod in America by Heart, quoted so extensively and frequently that he probably merits billing as co-author.

Which raises a vexing question. Who really wrote America by Heart? The blogosphere has vibrated with talk about Jessica Gavora, whose name does not appear on the cover but whom Palin thanks for her “most important work on America by Heart.” This would not be the first time that a politician has collaborated with a ghostwriter, of course, so that’s not the point. But are we really supposed to believe that, amid her self-professed busy schedule, Sarah Palin spends her copious free time perusing Alexis de Tocqueville, J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur, Abigail Adams’ correspondence, Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis,” back issues of The Freeman from the 1940s, and Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery, all the while keeping abreast of Antonin Scalia’s dissenting opinions and the latest from University of Chicago economist Luigi Zingales? (The book tosses out these references with an air of insouciance, as in “I came across a wonderful book…”)

Perhaps Palin herself is, in fact, conversant with these sources, and, if so, more power to her. But we should probably remind ourselves that this is the same person who, during the 2008 presidential campaign, couldn’t name a single newspaper she read with any regularity.

Politically-Motivated Attacks”

Having failed to win election to the vice presidency in 2008 and having resigned as governor midway through her first term, Palin currently holds no political office. But, if America by Heart is any indication, there is no identity she embraces with more alacrity than that of victim. The book fairly bristles with resentment and self-pity about “the politically-motivated attacks that began the day I was announced as the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2008.”

Perhaps that, in the end, accounts for her popularity. We live in an age where victimization carries undeniable cachet. If you can somehow make the case that you’ve been treated unfairly or that your tribe (Republicans, “patriotic Americans,” the white citizens of Arizona, underappreciated veterans, the religious right) is somehow under attack, you’ve attained a certain status. So when Palin writes about “doing battle with the New York Times,” it resonates with many Americans who also see (or want to see) themselves engaged in an underdog, David versus Goliath battle against some adversary, however amorphous or ill-defined. Being a victim, after all, means that, whatever your plight or your circumstances, it’s not your fault.

The paradox, of course, is that even as Palin professes to fantasize about going “back to Wasilla and stop feeding the media beast,” she derives both fortune and fame from that “beast,” which includes the fawning downstream media. The appeal derives, in part at least, from her effectiveness at claiming the mantle of victimhood and assuring the adoring crowds that they, too, are victims. And the ultimate advantage of being a victim lies in the fact that, because of the outpouring of sympathy, no one holds you accountable.

It’s something that Sarah Palin—or Jessica Gavora, or someone—has elevated to an art form.