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Have the Republicans gone too far? Sarah Palin has a lesson for outrage-hunting politicians

Sarah Palin laid the path for Donald Trump's presidency. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sarah Palin laid the path for Donald Trump's presidency. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


April 7, 2022   5 mins

How far is too far? From the Access Hollywood tape that many felt sure had sunk Donald Trump’s presidential hopes to the violent crescendo of January 6, this is the existential question Republican politicians have been forced to ask themselves in recent years. But the antics of two headline-grabbing GOP members of Congress pose a slightly different question, one usually asked out of exasperation rather than curiosity: is there even such a thing as too far?

Marjorie Taylor Greene and Madison Cawthorn have only been members of Congress for a little over a year, but in that short time they have earned themselves reputations as hateful bogeymen for Democrats, embarrassing annoyances, if not worse, to many Republican colleagues and renegade heroes to others in the GOP base. As the midterms near, they are also test cases for the appeal of their extreme style of politics. Might these black holes of political attention collapse on themselves?

Far-Right and far-out, Greene’s latest high-profile indiscretion was to appear at a white supremacist conference hosted by Nick Fuentes. A straightforwardly racist, anti-semitic Holocaust denier, Fuentes introduced Greene by asking the crowd to give “a round of applause to Russia”. The appearance — notwithstanding Greene’s subsequent insistence that it was an innocent mistake and that she had no idea who Nick Fuentes was — lacked the darkly eccentric draw of some of her previous outlandish statements, such as the one about Rothschild-owned space lasers causing Californian wildfires. Greene has been stripped of her committee assignments by the Democratic-led House. She has not, however, been formally censured by her own party, and is proudly endorsed by Donald Trump.

By contrast, Cawthorn’s problem isn’t kooky or noxious views — not that he doesn’t hold them. A few weeks ago, he had called Volodymyr Zelenskyy “a thug” and the Ukrainian government “evil”. But his antics have tended to antagonise fellow Republicans in a way that Greene’s have not. More recently, he embarrassed his colleagues (and amused the rest of us) during a podcast appearance in which he claimed to have encountered rampant cocaine use and orgy invitations among the Washington establishment. Tellingly, it was his characterisation of Washington as a depraved Gomorrah that provoked the sharper reaction from House Leader Kevin McCarthy and other senior Republicans.

But does any of this come at an electoral cost? Or will this pair of outrage-hunting political influencers get re-elected in spite of their fringe beliefs?

For partisan-minded Democrats, justice can only be served by one of their own. And so gullible donors fill the coffers of Democratic would-be opponents of the Greenes and Cawthorns who stand approximately zero chance of winning in their heavily Republican districts. One example of these well-funded knights in shining armour is a black veteran in a cowboy hat. Marcus Flowers wants to “hold Marjorie Taylor Greene accountable” in the south-western corner of Georgia she represents and has raised more than $4.5 million to do so: an absurdly high figure for a House seat which FiveThirtyEight estimates has a 45-point Republican lean. Greene herself has raised similarly silly amounts, exploiting her national anti-hero status to rake in $7.5 million since the last election.

If Greene is to be defeated, it will be in Georgia’s 14th Congressional District Republican primary on 24 May. Here, those lining up to do the deed are less appealing to the terminally online liberals wasting their money on Democrats like Flowers. A donor interested solely in making sure Greene is not re-elected would give not to Flowers, but to Jennifer Strahan. She is the most serious challenger — but, according to the most recent campaign finance disclosure, has just $60,332 in cash to take that opportunity.

As was clear in a recent interview, Strahan, a business owner, is no less conservative than Greene, although her promise of dutiful, low-key representation of her voters in Washington contrasts with Greene’s national celebrity.“Representative Greene does not own conservatism,” Strahan tells me. “A lot of people in our district share similar beliefs, but they also want someone who is fighting for the people
. [Greene] is not usually in the district. She is off fundraising and doing other things that you’d expect to see in a typical politician.”

“The one thing I want to restore to this position is that it is about service, not being a social media celebrity,” she says. A noble goal, but one that, as the fundraising figures suggest, might be misaligned with the incentive systems of 21st-century American politics.

As for Cawthorn, his notoriety has cost him endorsements that matter in North Carolina’s 11th District, a mostly rural western part of the state that includes rural Blue Ridge mountain communities as well as affluent (and Democratic-voting) Asheville. Thom Tillis, a Senator from North Carolina, has endorsed one of Cawthorn’s challengers, a state senator called Chuck Edwards who, like Strahan in Georgia, promises low-key dependability rather than attention-seeking. Yet Cawthorn’s toughest challenger could prove to be Michele Woodhouse, a former district chair who is running as an avowedly “America First” alternative. She describes herself as a former Cawthorn backer exasperated by his reckless style.

Cawthorn’s bigger problem may not be his national infamy, but his lack of political nous. Last year, he toyed with switching seats and seeking election in North Carolina’s newly drawn 13th District, rather than the 11th. When a court ordered the district’s borders be redrawn, Cawthorn changed his mind — more the actions of a career politician than a man-of-the-people outsider.

His amateurishness was also on display as he handled the fallout of his “coke and orgies” claims last week, apologising to colleagues, offering unhelpful clarifications and blaming the liberal media for the whole thing. But Cawthorn still has one big thing going for him: the support of Donald Trump. He will speak alongside the former president at a rally in North Carolina this weekend.

By neat coincidence, the week that started with Cawthorn’s claims about Washington debauchery ended with the return of a familiar face to the political fray: Sarah Palin, who more than a decade ago helped to reignite the culture wars in which the likes of Cawthorn and Greene now do ferocious daily battle. “America is at a tipping point,” she said in a statement announcing a bid for a vacant Alaskan congressional seat. “I knew I had to step up and join the fight.”

Elected office was always incidental to Palin’s celebrity. She was Governor of Alaska for just two and a half years. After her vice-presidential bid made her a conservative star and a global punchline — not that she ever seemed to mind the jokes — the administration of Alaskan government didn’t seem quite so exciting. She resigned in 2009, not even seeing out her first term, let alone seeking re-election.

As many have observed, Palin’s rise was an important waypoint on the journey that brought America to the Trump era, and tribute acts like Greene and Cawthorn. By today’s standards, the “going rogue” brand pushed by the no-nonsense hockey mom from Walisa seems positively wholesome. And to revisit the outrage it generated feels a bit like watching those clips of Fifties prudes panicked about the damage Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips might be doing to teenage girls’ minds.

If Palin was a politician for the reality-TV era, Cawthorn and Greene are built for the Instagram age: political influencers who thrive in a fractured media landscape by delivering a more potent, concentrated product to a segmented audience. But as well as being a trial of that offering’s wider electoral appeal, this year’s midterms could also be a test of whether Cawthorn or Greene need a House seat to remain in the political fray. One suspects that space will be made for either of them in the conservative-entertainment world if they find themselves out of a job.

Palin, for instance, had fame, fortune and influence after 2008 without having to worry about the voters. Of course, a former member of Congress might not have the draw of a former vice-presidential candidate, but Cawthorn and Greene are evidence that notoriety matters more than seniority. The challenge, whether in Congress or not, is to stay relevant. Palin managed it without elected office. For a while. But now here she is, once again seeking the votes of her fellow Alaskans. Rather than serving as a model, perhaps that should be a warning to those fringe Republicans flirting with the electoral defeat in pursuit of political stardom.


Oliver Wiseman is the deputy editor of The Spectator World and author of the DC Diary, a daily email from Washington. He is a 2021-22 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow

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Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago

Honestly this just reads like an incoherent “Republicans bad” Don Lemon rant. I could read something similar in the Washington Post editorial section if I wanted to. Oh and by the way, no one actually cares what “respectable” Republicans think at this point. Republican voters have been screwed by their party establishment too many times (it’s almost like representative is supposed to mean something), Democrats never did and are just pretending to so they can score some political points (which they are going to need with how badly things are going), and Independents are independent for a reason. One last thing, don’t try to rewrite history with the culture wars Wiseman. Every Republican presidential and vice presidential candidate in my lifetime has been called an prudish, idiotic, redneck, philandering, rich boy, evil genius, second coming of Hitler by mainstream Democrats (just pretend the contradictions do not exist).

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt Hindman
Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I, on the other hand, really enjoyed the article – hilarious. I don’t think the author would think all Republicans are bad, just the extremists and nutjobs represented by Greene, Palin et al. It’s the same on the left … the extreme woke fringe seem to have taken over the whole show, but out in the real world I suspect we still have the great bulk of people thinking of themselves as centre-left or centre-right, and just generally fed-up with the division & diversion brought upon us by the extremists.

Last edited 2 years ago by Russell Hamilton
Tom Watson
Tom Watson
2 years ago

Unfortunately I think most people are more fed up with the other side’s extremists. 2024 should be a fun year (if we even get there).
I enjoyed it also.

Last edited 2 years ago by Tom Watson
Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago

What is extremist and crazy about Palin? Woman in Alaska manages to become Governor of her state. She hunts, does adventurous things in the wilderness and is a Christian. If that makes her ‘crazy and an extremist’ it is you who is crazy and an extremist.

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I gave up part way through wondering why I was reading it.
Interesting piece by Tucker Carlson last night on FoxNews

Laura Cattell
Laura Cattell
2 years ago
Reply to  Bill W

Anyone with half a brain won’t be reading that.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Laura Cattell

I have a PhD in Philosophy, and will be reading that.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

It doesn’t count when you believe certain things. There is only one accepted viewpoint to hold these days. That is what a true democracy looks like, after all!

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

I stand corrected.

James Watson
James Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

I don’t think you are making the point you think you are making

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

QED – you’ve less than half a brain proven by you taking a PhD in Philosophy. And maybe less than that now you’re boasting about it.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

Just the Washington Post? You forgot the NYT, LA Times, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC, SNL, Chicago Tribune, etc. etc. etc.
Remember, Republicans throw grandma off the cliff and starve children whilst Democrats work hard every day to save the world with other people’s money.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
2 years ago
Reply to  Warren T

I did not forget, I just tried to keep my word count down.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago

violent crescendo of January 6″
I stopped reading here, because I guessed what would follow. The author needs to back this statement up with something. Some evidence. Anything. Who was killed in January 6th? Does the author know what the word ‘crescendo’ means? The word ‘violent’?
It makes me wonder, in all seriousness, if those belonging to the professional laptop class actually think about the words they type into their MacBook Air keyboards.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

6th of January, no more than a “fart in a windstorm “ as they say in the Cotswolds.

Last edited 2 years ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
Laura Cattell
Laura Cattell
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

You don’t think it was a violent crescendo? You weren’t watching what everyone else was watching. Do you think the slaughtered civilians in Ukraine were planted? Seriously, shame on you.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Laura Cattell

I’m pretty sure that G.Stull’s point is that January 6 was somewhat less violent than what is being inflicted on Ukrainian civilians.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Laura Cattell

“Do you think the slaughtered civilians in Ukraine were planted?”
Not all of them, only the ones in Donbass during the past eight years who were fake propaganda planted by Putinbots.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

I was wondering when he would add the mandatory “mostly peaceful protests” line to this piece.

Richard Aylward
Richard Aylward
2 years ago
Reply to  Graham Stull

January 6 was mostly a politically motivated intelligence operation. The only deaths as a direct result were of Ashli Babbit and a woman named Boylan – at the hands of capitol police. Regardless of arguing that right now – the treatment of the detainees and other alleged “insurrectionists” has been unconstitutional and uncivilized. Like Trudeau and the truckers it is used to turn political opponents into “terrorists” so they can be treated as such and a message is sent. All that said – MTG was one of – if not the first – to actually visit the prisoners and attempt to get the word out about their treatment. Fuentes is a piece of scat and if she in anyway endorsed his views it was a serious error on her part. But I have not dug into that story. I am hopeful for a populist counter-squad with potentially MTG, Palin, Boebert, and another TBD fourth and pray MTG hasn’t mucked it up.
Addendum:The main goal of Jan 6 – like every thing else – was to stop Trump from being able to run again or otherwise fatally wound him politically. He will do that to himself here if he keeps pushing vax and warp speed as his greatest accomplishment. He will need to turn that one around 180 to have my future support. Till then: DeSantis/Gabbert 2024, Smaybe DeSantis/Reynolds, Reynolds/Gabbert
.

Last edited 2 years ago by Richard Aylward
Jem Barnett
Jem Barnett
2 years ago

Sarah Palin got “Trump’d” by the media, long before Trump even came along. I know this will be an unpopular view, but she was a fantastic speaker, and she scared the life out of the media establishment because she had that same X factor thing that Trump has, where people really connect with her, especially when she speaks at length. Obama had this gift as well.
For those who don’t know much about her, check out the speech she gave at the RNC in 2008 when running with that crusty old loser McCain. Watch the way the crowd respond to her, and the things she is saying. They listened politely to McCain, but they respond to Sarah and connect with her. Fascinating to watch.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCDxXJSucF4
Palin foreshadowed Trump — she front-ran that message that Trump later ran on; she appealed to the same voters; she was hated by the same core of establishment Republicans + Democrats; she got hounded by the media relentlessly and they attempted to humiliate and shame her …and her supporters.

A great example was the way they meme’d the “I can see Russia from my house” thing and made it an emblem for her stupidity. SNL did skits on it, the NYT and WAPO ran features on how dumb she was. Of course they all knew exactly what she had really said, which was that the continent of Russia is literally a stone’s throw from the coast of Alaska, which it is. You can in fact see Russia from Alaska. But this one off-the-cuff figurative statement was enough to push her out of civilised society for more than a decade.

I remember thinking way back then that she wasn’t the sort of person I would vote for, but that the power of the media and what they did to her reputation was such an obvious lie, and yet it completely silenced her and pushed her off the stage of federal level politics into the gutter. Articles like this one, even so many years later, still take that narrative about her as an assumed baseline. Powerful stuff, what the media can do. Bernie Sanders is another who seems to get hounded and misrepresented in this manner also.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
2 years ago
Reply to  Jem Barnett

One other fascinating part about Palin was how ok it was to attack her as a woman.
Especially by feminists who otherwise would consider any criticism of a woman as “sexist” and “misogyny”

Jem Barnett
Jem Barnett
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Good point, this does actually seem like a political divide, the different treatment of women. I have noticed for example with first ladies/first families the really obvious differences in the way they’re treated and spoken about depending on whether they’re Dems or Republicans.

The Republicans and their media (such as Fox, Daily Wire etc) seem much more careful and reserved about saying vicious things about say, Michelle Obama, or Jill Biden, or Biden’s daughters. But that same reservation does not play in reverse. The Dems and their media allies were vicious beyond belief about Melania and Ivanka, and about Bush’s daughters. Interesting. That actually would be an interesting topic for an article, to explore why such a convention is not respected equally by both sides.

The one exception I think worth noting here is Trump, who was a Republican (although many would disagree and say he was actually rogue agent who simply performed a hostile takeover of the party he fancied using to become President! …after all, the Republican establishment seemed to hate him even more than the Dems did)… But Trump broke the convention for R’s for playing nicer with the ladies, and he went in for Hilary just as hard as she did. He treated her like all the others, irrespective of her sex.

Contrast that to the debate with Kamala and Mike Pence, where you see that he’s not going to come for her like she was for him; he acted differently than he would have if a man was opposing him. Worth some thought. Thanks for your comment.

Richard Aylward
Richard Aylward
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

People remember where they were during historic events like 9/11 and the murder of JFK. I remember where I was when I heard, “I’m a hockey mom.” That speech spawned the Trump / MAGA / America First populist movement that is realigning our nation to this day. It also pulled up a (Neenah Foundry) sewer cover releasing legions of hateful demons from the very bowels of the Inferno. That is when everything the political right did became an existential threat justifying any illegal, unethical, unconstitutional, or just plain nasty tactic in response. On that note, VDH had a good one yesterday – “In comparison to Kamala Harris Sarah Palin is Cicero.”

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

….feminism is dying or let’s hope so : ) it’s lost its raison d’etre. It’s just one more victimization group, so tedious.

Last edited 2 years ago by Cathy Carron
William Hickey
William Hickey
2 years ago

Say the words “Massachusetts Democrat” or “San Francisco Democrat” or “New York City Democrat” and everyone in America has a pretty good idea what those words mean.

Ted Kennedy. Nancy Pelosi. Bill de Blasio. AOC.

That’s because deep “blue” states and cities send folks to Congress and to their governors’ mansions who are as left wing as they are. They elect — and get— what they want.

Now say the words “Wyoming Republican” or “Mississippi Republican” or “South Carolina Republican” or “Utah Republican.”
What do you get?

Liz Cheney. Roger Wicker. Tim Scott. Spencer Cox.

See the problem?

For far, far too long the most conservative states have sent not reliable fire-breathing equivalents of Ilhan Omar, Barney Frank and Gavin Newsom, but “bidniz-friendly” libertarians and non-entities like John Cornyn and Mike Crapo.

Thus the legislative momentum for change is only pushed in one direction — to the left.

Conservative and traditionalist Americans have had enough of the trimming of donor puppets. We want warriors who will censure and if necessary expel left-wing Democrats; who will investigate left-wing institutions; and who will put items in the legislative hopper — like immigration moratoriums and prayer in schools — that the majority of voters want.

Let the Democrats oppose them.

We want the Overton Window of acceptable politics to move WAY right. MTG, Paul Gosar, Matt Cawthorn and candidates like Joe Kent and Robby Starbuck are the right messengers for that task, not Mitt Romney and Tim Scott.

Back in the Sixties the anti-war left used to say, “Two, three, many Vietnams.”

I say, “Two, three, many MTGs.”

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
2 years ago

Republicans: be dutiful and low-key while we dismantle the republic and every institution in America which works.

Dawn McD
Dawn McD
2 years ago

The name of the town in Alaska where Palin was mayor is Wasilla (nitpicking, apologies). What bothered me about Palin was her stupidity. She couldn’t get through an interview without putting it on full display. My primary thought, whenever I see Kamala Harris speaking publicly, is “she reminds me of Sarah Palin.” The last prominent American politician before Palin who was such a public dummy was Dan Quayle.
Marjorie Taylor-Greene is usually just an amusing crackpot, but Madison Cawthorn is a transparent buffoon. I saw the video clip in which he described supposedly being invited to “a sexual get-together.” Who talks like that? This is a guy who doesn’t know how things actually work, just making it up as he goes along. I know the Republican Party is in a bad state, but people like this are not the answer to the problem. What we need is dozens and dozens of more people like Ron DeSantis, but they’re apparently nowhere to be found.

Lloyd Byler
Lloyd Byler
2 years ago

What an utter waste of time to read this screed.

get me back by 5 minutes please…

the only thing I learned is that Mr. Airhead Wiseman is bottoms itching for Sarah Palin click bait trash articles.

I will make sure not to click on them.. thanks for the heads up, Mr. Bucko Wisecrack Yellow Journalism Media Mafia Brigade Clansman leader..

Vince B
Vince B
2 years ago

It is indeed pretty bad when Sarah Palin starts looking statesmanlike. The GOP was already taking a weird turn into Palin Land before Trump came down the gilded escalator and made acting like a rowdy frat boy a savvy career move for young Republicans.
I am hoping and praying that we see a collapse of the woke left – I see cracks every day, from polls in France to comments on the NYT Op-Ed board – and an implosion of the Trumpified right.
Totalitarians to the left, fascists to the right. Leaders throughout the West with the courage to call out the extremists on their own side will seize the day. I’m no fan of Bill Clinton, but I give him credit for his Sister Souljah Moment, which was a prerequisite for Democrats to get anywhere near the White House at that time.

Last edited 2 years ago by Vince B
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Well I thought this was ok. I especially like the application of time perspective on Palin.
But I knew it’s even handedness would upset the usual Unherd suspects .