Commentary

Star-Spangled Speaking: Sarah Palin, Unplugged

An endorsement is a form of ad, of course. And no endorsement in the history of political discourse has been as mind-blowing as the one that Sarah Palin offered up for Trump on Tuesday.

Dazzlingly erratic, it seemed to throw off the entire time/space continuum.

I’m not sure what sort of deal (or “dill,” as Palin  pronounces it ) Trump cut in order to get the former Alaska Governor’s seal of approval — and he hopes, evangelical following — for his presidential run in a huge field of more conservative Republicans.

But in so doing, I doubt he expected to be swallowed up on that stage in Ames, Iowa, with a sometime-politician who morphed, right in front of our eyes, into a bizarre female version of the top-hatted, cane-toting cartoon character Michigan J. Frog, crossed with Phyllis Diller and a bit of Elvis.

Just as Trump’s measured and even poetic response to Ted Cruz’s attack on him for having “New York values” elevated the Donald to some sort of statesman-like status in the last debate, Palin’s narcotic, narcissistic tizzy of an offering seemed to right-size the Trump ego down to something fairly ordinary.

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Palin ran up to the podium like the young Dan Quayle when he first bounded out of the gates to be George H.W. Bush’s vice president and was not yet house-broken.

It made for very weird gender-combo theater. After an awkward attempt at an air kiss, Trump was reduced to standing on the sidelines, occasionally miming “You’re fired” and pointing his signature-“Apprentice” index finger into the crowd.

As Palin, his fellow politician/reality star, got more into her rapper/ holy roller/spoken-word-poet/vaudeville act, it looked like Trump wanted to aim that billion-dollar pointer right at his own head.

Where to begin with analyzing the overall dissonance?

How about with the subtext of Trump’s famously off-key put-down of war hero John McCain, Palin’s 2008 presidential running mate? In the early days of making statements that would have discredited other pols, but only made him more of a winner, Trump said: “I happen to like people who weren’t captured.”

This time, his would-be running mate spent considerable time talking about the heroic sailors captured in Iran. She used their heroics as a way of putting down and feminizing Obama. She spoke about how our “pussy-footing” President — who in reality got them released overnight — “bent over” and “led from behind.” (A day later, she would blame Obama for her son’s post-war PTSD, but that’s a whole 'nuther can of worms.)

At the initial endorsement, Palin used everything to put down Obama’s dainty, tea-offering, “community organizer” background, even referring to things he said in 2008, in what was supposed to be an off-the-record talk to donors, about voters who “cling to their religion and guns.”

In response, her language was cruising for a bruising, bursting with faux macho bravado and references to male violence and/or prison movies.

I wasn’t the only one to see this. Rhonda Garelick, a professor of comparative literature at Princeton, agreed, adding that some parts of the speech, with its “multiple listing of things with internal rhyme, and inner repetition of the hard g” reminded her of a “particular kind of gangster rap, given its insistence on a fetishized masculinity underscored with homophobia.”

That’s exactly it. Palin elevated a certain kind of macho masculinity, while issuing all sorts of dog-whistle homophobic comments.

Now on to that spangly jacket, which she proudly shimmered in while talking about Democrats who wear “political correctness like suicide vests.” (Mentioning a suicide vest is strange under any conditions, but was particularly unfortunate given her son’s arrest for domestic violence and reported behavior just the day before.)

Had she worn that jacket back while running for vice president in 2008, Palin would have been “off the reservation.” Robin Givhan, the fashion writer from TheWashington Post, wrote that Palin was dressed as “someone who has come to steal the spotlight rather than share it.”

The black cardigan with stalactite-like shimmery fringe was fashionable and not cheap — it was made by the designer label Milly. But anyone with any experience on camera would know it was hardly appropriate for that moment behind the podium, and that it would not photograph well.

It reminded me of a curtain on a vaudeville stage. And for Garelick, it also suggested “what was behind the curtain: burlesque-style strippers, like Gypsy Rose Lee, there to ‘take it off.’ ”

Indeed, there’s been talk about how even liberal old white guys secretly think Palin is “hot.” Again, reducing women in politics to a sum of body parts is not good for the republic, or either party.

And maybe it has nothing to do with gender, or the Mars/Venus act, but Palin’s language, with all of its show-offy ungrammatical syntax and non-words, is the exact opposite of Trump’s, with his child-like sentences that reduce everything to black and white, good or bad.

Michele Somerville, a Brooklyn-based writing teacher, who has worked with a gamut of students — from kids as young as five to seniors — explained the difference between Trump and Palin’s language. "He over-boils things down,” she said. “He takes the sound bite and makes it the whole thing.”

A perfect example: that gaffe at Liberty University about the passage from what he called “Two Corinthians.” Sensing something was off after he read it, he asked the crowd: “That’s the whole ball game, right?”

“ ‘That’s the whole ball game,’ is very telling,” Somerville said. “The Bible is not a ball game,” so the quote shows that Trump tends to see everything as a “contest,” measured in points, like a sporting event.

Somerville posited that Palin’s speech is just the opposite: “She’s embroidering, making it fancy, putting a push-up bra on the language.”

Somerville said that her elementary-school students ask if they should use “vocabulary words” when they want to seem sophisticated, and that’s what Palin does. “If you don’t know what you’re talking about, do what Trump does, and reduce it all to the same bland superlatives. Or do what Palin does: dazzle with syllables.”

According to Somerville, “Language is a clue to psychological development. They are both versions of the same problem, coming from a fifth-grade level, and not being able to put the truth into comfortable modes of expression.”

Whatever. True to form in this out-of-body experience of an election, the Palin endorsement so far seems to be working for Trump.

Can I get a hallelujah?

29 comments about "Star-Spangled Speaking: Sarah Palin, Unplugged".
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  1. Edward Shain from EMS Associates, January 21, 2016 at 6:13 p.m.

    Reducing Sarah Palin to her constituent body parts seems like not such a bad idea. Any other part of her is considerably better than her brain.

  2. Edward Lippman from Hosel Rocket Productions, January 21, 2016 at 6:21 p.m.

    Trump is quite fond of calling those that don't agree with him "losers". How about saving that term for someone that actually fits the profile? Marching out the "1/2 term" governor and "spectacularly failed" vice-presidential candidate would seem to fit the bill.

  3. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, January 21, 2016 at 6:30 p.m.

    Standing on that stage, he was the high school rich kid, and she the (low-) class tease. Maybe he'll ask her to the prom?

  4. Don Perman from self, January 21, 2016 at 6:38 p.m.

    Another first-rate and funny take on our amazingly bizarre campaign scene.  A lot here to think about...and be scared by.

  5. George Parker from Parker Consultants, January 21, 2016 at 7:09 p.m.

    As I say on "AdScam" the only form of PSTD idiot son Track suffers from is "Palin Talks Shit Definately."

  6. George Parker from Parker Consultants, January 21, 2016 at 7:10 p.m.

    Oooops... Got a case of Palin mouth there... Should be PTSD.

  7. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, January 21, 2016 at 8:39 p.m.

    I think Donald gave very little to get her endorsement. She's the only one benefitting as it puts her back in that much-craved spotlight. It is grotesque and people should be horrified. But.

  8. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 21, 2016 at 10:28 p.m.

    Your are a sizzling verbosity. See ya on the flip side Barbara.

  9. Stephen Ward from Me, January 21, 2016 at 11:30 p.m.

    It was interesting to see Trump palin into insignificence (see what I did there?), even just for a few minutes.  The fact that it was done by a bat-shit crazy banshee made it all the more refreshing.

  10. Carri Bugbee from Big Deal Digital, January 21, 2016 at 11:41 p.m.


    You’ve been kinder to Palin than you need to be, Barbara. Her jigsaw puzzle speech patterns and over-the-top accusations peppered with her signature would-be zingers thrown in randomly (with no thought of logic or continuity) made her seem positively unhinged. Watching her performance with the sound off is just as bizarre. I’ve never seen a political actor wear anything so inappropriate and distracting before.


    Many have joked that perhaps her real purpose on that stage was to make the Trumpster seem calm and reasonable by comparison. If so, the event was a success.


  11. Eva Dillon from Self, January 22, 2016 at 6:33 a.m.

    if nothing else (seriously, nothing), Palin's return to the spotlight entertains us with cheap amusement, garnished with Barbara's delicious cherry on top: Michigan J. Frog/Phyllis Diller/Elvis indeed.  Halleluja!

  12. Ruth Thomas from Second helping, January 22, 2016 at 7:25 a.m.

    I'm speechless....BEST ARTICLE EVER....every insight ...PERFECTION!!!!!!!

  13. Karl Greenberg from MediaPost, January 22, 2016 at 9:23 a.m.

    for poesy alone can tell her dreams, with the fine spell of words, alone can save imagination from the sable charm and dumnb enchantement. 

  14. Steve Ellwanger from Marketing Daily, January 22, 2016 at 9:50 a.m.

    Romans got bread and circuses to distract them. Don't know about the bread but we sure do get circuses.

  15. Melanie Howard from self employed, January 22, 2016 at 10:59 a.m.

    I also found her speaking cadences similar to rap, although it is more likely she was going for a churchy call-and-response vibe, still an odd fit for their older, whiter, righter Iowa audience. The entire spectacle, from spangles to sex metaphors was fascinating - like watching a flaming car wreck. But we must keep in mind that accident videos get a lot of likes. Great column, very insightful.

  16. Mike Kilroy from Global Results Communications, January 22, 2016 at 12:01 p.m.

    I thought Palin came across like a cave woman unfrozen and released from the Alaskan permafrost.  Or something like that...

  17. Victoria Rowan from Ideasmyth.com, January 22, 2016 at 1 p.m.

    Barbara: you have outdone yourself this time. Your gave Palin the star-spangled spanking she deserves. If only that smarting made her smarter! *Sigh*

  18. Robert Rosenthal from Rosenthal Heavy Industries, January 22, 2016 at 1:11 p.m.

    Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.
    Great work, Barbara.

  19. Laura Popper from Laurapoppermdpc, January 22, 2016 at 1:41 p.m.

    Great Piece. Particularly like Michele Somerville's comment: "Putting a push up bra on the language." Palin reminds me of the world salad often spoken by stroke victimes.

  20. Jane Farrell from Freelance, January 22, 2016 at 5:01 p.m.

    Excellent article. Like Trump, she is fixated on those who have criticized her. She comes across as a little demented. I can't believe Trump takes her seriously.

  21. Patrick Scullin from Ames Scullin O'Haire, inc., January 22, 2016 at 5:06 p.m.

    To quote a man who loved bubbles, "Wunnerful, wunnerful." Thanks, Barb.

  22. Mike Bloxham from Magid, January 22, 2016 at 5:39 p.m.

    If General Casting was watching her next appearance will be in a Vince Vaughn movie where she'll play / be the drunken Aunt that no-one wanted to invite to her neice's wedding - but they didn't have the courage or judgement not to.  Everyone is praying she will stay silent.  But of course she won't.  She'll stand uninvited to give what she thinks is a moving, funny and eloquent speech that confuses and embarrasses all before she eventually slumps back into her chair, later to be found pressed up against an inebriated and unwitting groomsman who is learning the true meaning of fear.  Typecast maybe - but by God she'd be believable!  (And let's face it we've seen Palin the politician, the pundit and the reality star - surely actress can't be far off)

  23. chuck husak from august, lang & husak, January 22, 2016 at 7:54 p.m.

    Sarah Palin is to politics what Raymond Burr was to break dancing.  I can't look...I can't look away...

  24. LS Silverman from None, January 23, 2016 at 12:23 a.m.

    Brava. I just wish Somerville hadn't felt the need to refer to a push-up bra in a way that sounded judgmental to me. I understand the point she was making. If we're going to criticize others for reducing women to body parts, perhaps she could have made the point while leaving foundation garments out of it. This kind of language is so deeply ingrained it can be hard to see. 

  25. Jayne De Sesa from Freelance replied, January 23, 2016 at 10:54 a.m.

    LOL

  26. Jim English from The Met Museum, January 23, 2016 at 10:06 p.m.

    Thanks Barbara. As you described Sarah Palin giving a speech during her 2008 vice presidential run, "She presented herself as the queen of Emersonian self-reliance, as if her family could live through the apocalypse on her handmade generator. "

  27. Dyann Espinosa from IntraStasis, January 24, 2016 at 10:09 p.m.

    As a woman, I'm especially disheartened by the spectacle that Sarah Palin makes of herself. And bewildered by her actions and her speech. Having a variety of professionals comment and explain what the characteristics of Palin's speech patterns meant was very helpful in putting her scrambled torrent of confusing language and odd permutations of homilies into some kind of perspective. But I still dread each time she comes out of the gate--she's no thoroughbred, she's more like Francis the Talking Mule (apologies to Francis).

  28. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, January 27, 2016 at 9:20 a.m.

    Palin as debate moderator in a Trump competitive debate versus the Fox-Kelly one might get good ratings, though.

  29. Alan Wasserstrom from None, January 28, 2016 at 10:43 a.m.

    Very insightful look at what the world has universally termed narcissists.I certainly agree with your imagery of Palin and the pained expression on Donald's face as the speech drifted into lunacy. The star spangled top and the feminazation of Obama are right on target. What I see are narcissiste for sure but also what the legal community calls 'con men' aka sociopaths. As you artfully pointed out con artists work because it is all about them,Trump and Palin.

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