Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s meandering, roughly 20-minute pitch to Wisconsin Republicans on behalf of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign will likely not go down as one of the 2016 election cycle’s most indelible moments, but it did speak volumes about the political evolution of the 2008 GOP nominee for vice president.
As Palin took to the stage at the Milwaukee County Republican party dinner, on April Fool’s Day no less, she was greeted with tepid, polite applause — a far cry from the raucous crowds that cheered her on during events in her heyday. She was faced with an uphill battle in Wisconsin, as a series of brutal headlines have sidetracked the Trump campaign and perhaps irrevocably hamstrung the GOP front-runner as he enters tomorrow’s primary there.
Curiously, Palin is the political figure to whom Trump is arguably most often compared. They each rose to prominence in part because they did not fit the mold (or vocal styling) of traditional politicians. They’re both extremely polarizing. They both have a reality TV quality to their personas both on and off the stump. They both have been ridiculed (and defended) for not having an easy facility with facts. And their rhetoric, for better or worse, has been known to gin up enthusiasm among disaffected, less educated conservatives.
Palin’s speech on Friday felt like a Trump speech. Although it was pre-written, it was full of non sequiturs and stream of consciousness, with some unintentionally compelling bits of substance now and then. Here are the highlights.
A plea for a Packer great — Palin began her speech by pandering to the Wisconsin crowd about 80-year-old Green Bay Packers legend Jerry Kramer. Apparently, Palin’s father played high school football alongside Kramer, who then went on to win five championships in the pre-Super Bowl era NFL. Palin argued that the remaining GOP candidates should have to take a “unity pledge” to “do whatever it takes” to get Jerry Kramer inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. Presidents have no real power in this regard, because if they did, President Obama arguably would have made the case for Chicago Bears icon William “Refrigerator” Perry by now.
Wisconsin had it the worst — Ironically, the former governor — whose home state of Alaska has the highest unemployment rate in the country right now — declared that Wisconsin’s middle class has been “harmed probably more than any other state in the union.” It’s true that, like many states, Wisconsin was decimated by the recession, but currently they have an unemployment rate of 4.6 percent, which puts it at number 22 in the country — not amazing, but not the end of days either.
Climb on board “the Trump train” — According to Palin, the mythical Republican establishment “don’t see the GOP so much as an expression of the people’s will but more as an ATM for their own wallets.” She suggested that “they don’t know what to do” about the “Trump train,” a phenomenon comprised of “GOP participants who are really just fed up with politics as usual” and who are inspired by the “shifting and sifting and exposing of this rapid fight for them to hang onto any kind of relevancy, and to hang onto their gravy train.” Ultimately, she believes that this intra-party feud will lead to a “cleansing of the body politic” that will “heal our nation.” Did you get all that?
“A disaster for we the people” — Palin lamented the fact that the U.S. has accepted more immigrants than any other nation, faulting it with stifling wages and contributing to joblessness. According to her, “corporate shills” funding super PACs “love open borders,” which she called a “disaster for we the people.” Palin argued that Trump (while repeating her endorsement line that “he builds big things’) has forced other 2016 candidates to admit their role in “perpetuating the problem of the immigration issues that we’re facing,” albeit without naming any names or specifics. “He beat the media on that issue,” Palin insisted.
Those seductive “gift baskets” — In Palin’s world view, there are American politicians who actively encouraged illegal immigration. She alluded to unnamed figures who are “inducing and seducing” undocumented workers with “gift baskets.” What are in these theoretical gift baskets, you may ask. “Teddy bears and soccer balls,” said Palin to uncomfortable silence from the Wisconsin crowd. “Actions scream so much louder than a politician’s words,” Palin argued, but it was hard to shake the reverberation of her gift basket tangent at the time.
Trump is “hot” over this — When it comes to trade, Palin sees the “greatest betrayal” of conservative principles. She outlined blows to American manufacturing and outsourcing but only linked them to Clinton-era policies like NAFTA, totally sidestepping the fact that Republican administrations have supported trade deals for decades, too. She also insisted that our trade treaties go unenforced and are “a joke ‘round the globe” — which would seem to contradict her assertion that they have been successful in depleting the American workforce. Either way, Palin said Trump is the only one “hot” over this issue “because he’s the only one who understands the art of the deal.” By the way, Palin pronounced “deal” like “dill,” reinforcing Tina Fey’s impression of her.
“What the heck!” — This is the expression Palin claims foreign countries and companies that “cheat” the U.S. employ when they game the system. Meanwhile, she castigated lawmakers for creating a “people depending on government.” It was during this portion of the speech where Palin’s rhyming and alliteration reached a fever pitch, advocating for those who want to “strive, and to thrive and really be alive,” but can’t because of an entrenched policy of “trade surrender.” During her trade remarks, Palin never mentioned Sen. Ted Cruz by name but alluded to a candidate who helped pass TPP and opposed a crackdown on currency manipulation that would have led to higher taxes on “Chinese trinkets and goods.”
#NeverReagan? — No speech aimed at the GOP base these days would be complete without a healthy dose of Ronald Reagan worship, but Palin broke with tradition by deliberately attempting to link her candidate to the former president. First, she praised Reagan’s intervention on behalf of the Wisconsin-based Harley Davidson motorcycle company in the 1980s before suggesting that if the Gipper were vying for office today the “establishment” would create a #NeverReagan hashtag akin to the #NeverTrump slogan currently being circulated in some conservative circles. In her mind, Trump is the one candidate who sees that “we’re the only country that doesn’t defend its own economic interests.” Of course, there are many on the left who believe that’s all America does, but that’s another conversation.
War on Islam — In perhaps a telling choice of words, Palin went further than even the most hawkish conservatives by railing against Islam, while leaving the qualifier “radical” out of her speech entirely not once, but twice. After saying that “our freedom” should be the GOP’s top priority, Palin referenced what she called “that unwavering and horrid Islamic belief that we peace-loving, generous Americans, that we are the infidels and that we must die” and later she called for a military build-up to “stop the Islamic threat.” This actually isn’t too big a departure from Trump’s own rhetoric: He infamously said “Islam hates us,” earlier last month.
Who you callin’ a radical? — Trump’s positions are “not radically anti-GOP platform” at all, according to Palin. She called out the “sanctimonious ones” who have criticized the GOP front-runner’s tone for “steering us into rocky shoals” and even laid blame for the deaths of American soldiers and trillions of national debt at, ostensibly, her own party’s feet. She once again championed Trump’s strict immigration policy as a common-sense approach that would stop “evil recruits setting up shop here” and would be part of a “long-term strategy to contain evil.”
Resurrecting an oldie but not-so-goodie — In the midst of her remarks, Palin brought back an old, infamous saying: “We won’t retreat, we’ll reload.” That rhetoric was widely criticized in the aftermath of the shooting of former Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. In 2010, Palin featured Congressional districts, including Giffords, with cross-hair targets on them on a map for a campaign website, and some argued that her use of gun iconography gave tacit approval to acts of violence. In 2011, Palin offended Jewish groups by comparing media criticism of her map to “blood libel.”
Scoring points with a Benghazi reference — In the one moment of her speech that drew applause from the Milwaukee crowd, Palin referenced Hillary Clinton’s “what difference does it make” remark during Congressional testimony on Benghazi in 2012. Without name-checking Clinton herself, Palin called the handling of the terrorist attack “that embodiment of what is so, so wrong, of what we’re really up against Republicans.” Apparently, red meat attacks on Clinton will always play with these crowds.
Party crasher — After delivering an anti-politicians quote from the late Gen. George S. Patton and imploring the attendees to “be civil, then vote,” Palin thanked the audience for “allowing me to kind of crash your fish fry” and for believing in what she called “the planks” of the Republican platform that “will build this great nation again.” And with that her speech, which MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” panel suggested had the earmarks of a drug hallucination, was finished.