Sarah Palin's endorsement of Donald Trump on Tuesday was certainly rambling. But it wasn't incoherent.
Woven through the cheerleading for blue-collar "real America" and the vaguely racist asides about foreign policy was a crystal-clear message about the Republican Party: It has ignored the genuine concerns of true conservatives for too long, and a complete outsider like Trump is the only person conservatives can trust to take them seriously.
She's not wrong.
Trump's success really has been, in large part, due to his willingness to appeal directly to the concerns many Americans have about globalization and demographic change, while establishment politicians are only willing to refer to them obliquely.
Palin expresses this as some sort of conspiracy involving Democrats, Republicans, and business interests who put their heads together to figure out how to undermine border security. The truth is clearly more complicated, but it's reasonable for Palin and others who are anxious about immigration to feel that their opinions have been suppressed — and it's hardly surprising that they're mad as hell about it.
Palin is better than Trump at explaining Trump's anti-globalization populism
It's easy to treat the Palin endorsement as political theater — something to laugh at or shrug off — because Palin herself has spent more of the past several years as more an entertainer than a politician. But it wasn't too long ago that another self-styled entertainer and reality TV star gave a campaign speech that politics junkies watched mostly for entertainment, and that candidate has spent the overwhelming majority of the primary campaign on top of the polls.
Just because Palin is more of a lifestyle brand than a political force right now doesn't mean the attitudes she's expressing don't resonate deeply with the conservative base.
This passage at the core of Palin's endorsement explains several different issues — immigration, budget deficits, government contracting, and trade — through the lens of a simple theory of politics: Republican donors don't share the interests of conservatives, and Republican politicians are totally in the pocket of Republican donors.
He’s been able to tear the veil off this idea of the system. The way that the system really works, and please hear me on this, I want you guys to understand more and more how the system, the establishment, works, and has gotten us into the troubles that we are in in America. The permanent political class has been doing the bidding of their campaign donor class, and that’s why you see that the borders are kept open. For them, for their cheap labor that they want to come in. That’s why they’ve been bloating budgets. It’s for crony capitalists to be able suck off of them. It’s why we see these lousy trade deals that gut our industry for special interests elsewhere. We need someone new, who has the power, and is in the position to bust up that establishment to make things great again. It’s part of the problem.
The genius of the Trump campaign is that it understands (or at least has learned) that for the voters it's trying to appeal to, populist concerns about "crony capitalism" and powerful political donors are tied inextricably to fears about globalization and cultural change.
Ted Cruz may be using "New York values" to attack Trump, but the thesis of the Trump campaign is that the "donor class" of the Republican Party is made up of businesspeople who don't want the same thing for America that conservative voters want. They're interested in maximizing their profits through globalizing markets, rather than paying attention to American workers at home. They're cosmopolitans who welcome a diversifying America and embrace immigrants as cheap labor and potential consumers — while many Republicans are deeply concerned that American culture is under threat and needs to be protected.
The subtext that the Republican "establishment" doesn't much care about keeping America America is what Palin means when she talks about "refusing to fight back for our solvency and our sovereignty":
What the heck would the establishment know about conservatism? Tell me, is this conservative? GOP majorities handing over a blank check to fund Obamacare and Planned Parenthood and illegal immigration that competes for your jobs, and turning safety nets into hammocks, and all these new Democrat voters that are going to be coming on over border as we keep the borders open, and bequeathing our children millions in new debt, and refusing to fight back for our solvency, and our sovereignty, even though that’s why we elected them and sent them as a majority to DC. No!
Of course, Palin is overstating the case here. There isn't a bipartisan policy consensus on "open borders," much less on welcoming unauthorized immigrants. (In fact, as Palin's former ally Ted Cruz is currently pointing out aggrievedly, Trump doesn't have the policy record on fighting unauthorized immigration that Cruz has.) But in a sense, Palin's right that the American political debate over immigration simply doesn't reflect the concerns a lot of people feel over it. And Trump does.
There's no way around it: Anxieties about immigration and about changing American demographics definitely have a racial component to them. Evidence has shown that Americans are more sympathetic to immigrants from Europe than they are to immigrants from other continents. Many conflate certain demographic groups, like Hispanics, with "immigrants."
Thirty percent of Americans think that more than half of all Hispanics in America are unauthorized immigrants (fewer than 20 percent of them are); one study found that Americans responded identically when asked a question about "immigrants" and asked about "Mexicans."
That doesn't mean those anxieties can be flatly described as "racist." And — this is the important part — it doesn't mean they aren't deeply felt:
"Well, you guys are all sounding kind of angry," is what we’re hearing from the establishment. Doggone right we’re angry! Justifiably so! Yes! You know, they stomp on our neck, and then they tell us, "Just chill, okay just relax." Well, look, we are mad, and we’ve been had. They need to get used to it.
This is the difficulty. There's a strong norm in America against expressing overt, personal racism in public, and that includes arguments about public policy. That's a good norm! But it also means that any attempt to express the cultural anxieties Trump supporters feel can be dismissed as an illegitimate public policy argument because it's racist.
So national establishment politicians generally steer clear of cultural arguments when they talk about immigration.
Instead, they try to draw a line between "legal" and "illegal" immigration — a distinction that doesn't matter much to many of the Americans who are anxious about immigrants changing the fabric of American life. Or they talk about immigrants as a potential liability for America, but focus on economic arguments — they take jobs, they use up welfare — that are oblique to the core of anti-immigration anxiety.
Predictably, this results in people feeling that their views are being suppressed. And Trump won tremendous loyalty from those people by tapping directly into their anxieties.
This is something that many conservative intellectuals — who are, themselves, in favor of further restricting immigration to the US — have been saying since the rise of Trump last summer. Jeff Blehar of the conservative blog Ace of Spades made this point as part of a series of tweets back in November:
A thought: every one of Trump's big "controversy" plays, though boorish, have made political establishment pay for lies told to American ppl
— Jeff Blehar/AoSHQDD (@EsotericCD) November 23, 2015
Trump's immigration rhetoric is vulgar bunk, but chosen b/c it taps into backlash vs smug pro-immigration consensus of elites. 2/
— Jeff Blehar/AoSHQDD (@EsotericCD) November 23, 2015
Ross Douthat, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and David Frum have all made variations on this argument in recent weeks: The Republican "establishment" created Trump, or at least empowered him, by limiting what "appropriate" attitudes about immigration could look like. As Douthat put it last week:
Even if you suppose, that is, that mass immigration would be an unalloyed good in a world where Western populations could manage to overcome their (or what you think of as their) bigotry and nativism and racism, in the world that actually exists politicians have to account for those forces and not simply assume that the right Facebook rules and elite-level political conspiracies can perpetually keep a lid on populism. If you make choices that very predictably empower the National Front or Pegida or Trump, you cannot wash your hands of those consequences by saying, "oh, it’s not my fault that my fellow countrymen are such terrible bigots."
To Douthat and to the other conservative intellectuals who've made this case, the solution is straightforward: Restrict immigration and make Trumpian excesses seem less attractive. You don't need to agree with that policy prescription to understand the dilemma here. There's a genuine tension between acknowledging anxieties about a changing America and discouraging racist attitudes.
But you also don't need to know how to resolve that tension to understand what its effects have been. One of them has been Donald Trump. And to dismiss him, or dismiss Palin's endorsement of him, is the kind of thing that made it possible for her to endorse him in the first place.