A lot of bewildered voters have spent the last year asking themselves how, exactly, Donald Trump managed to become the Republican Party's standard bearer. According to President Obama, the answer lies in the summer of 2008: In a new interview with New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait, Obama said that Sarah Palin is responsible for Trump, and connected the dots between the current state of the Republican Party and her vice presidential candidacy. And his reasoning isn't wrong.
"I see a straight line from the announcement of Sarah Palin as the vice-presidential nominee to what we see today in Donald Trump, the emergence of the Freedom Caucus, the tea party, and the shift in the center of gravity for the Republican Party," Obama told Chait during their conversation in August. "Whether that changes, I think, will depend in part on the outcome of this election, but it's also going to depend on the degree of self-reflection inside the Republican Party."
If you were to only look at, say, the last five years of ongoings in American politics, it would be easy to conclude that the Republican Party has always been the nativist, obstructionist party that it is now. But it wasn't always like that.
To be clear, nativism has been a part of the Republican Party's DNA since at least the 1960s, and it reared its head in the the Obama-McCain race long before Palin got involved. In 2007, for instance, there were rumors that Obama had been sworn into the U.S. Senate on a Quran, not a Bible, and that he refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. These were utterly false accusations, of course, but for a time, they were primarily confined to chain emails and low-grade gossip blogs.
This changed on Aug. 30, 2008, when McCain announced that he'd chosen Palin as his running mate. The pick seemingly came out of nowhere: At the time, it was widely expected that McCain would put a moderate like Mitt Romney, Joe Lieberman, or Tim Pawlenty on the ticket. Years later, Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe wrote that Palin "was such a long shot, I didn't even have her research file on my computer, as I did for the likely McCain picks."
But McCain did indeed choose Palin, then-governor of Alaska, as his understudy, and it quickly became clear that she was a unique candidate. She presented herself as a folksy "hockey mom" straight out of America's heartland, but far more significant than her friendly demeanor was her willingness to elevate nativist, conspiracy theorist rhetoric to the mainstream.
It was eight years ago, almost to the day, that Palin accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists." Ostensibly, this was a reference to the fact that Obama had once served on an education board in Chicago with William Ayers, a co-founder of the Weather Underground; never mind that Obama had fully denounced Ayers' past involvement with the revolutionary group. But Palin's comments went beyond mere guilt-by-association. She engaged in a full-fledged otherization of Obama, depicting him not as a well-intentioned political opponent but as an un-American foreigner who she claimed wanted, quite literally, to take down the U.S. government.
"This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America," Palin said. "We see America as the greatest force for good in this world ... Our opponent though, is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country."
There's a qualitative difference between garden-variety campaign attacks and what Palin said. Here was the Republican Party's vice presidential candidate questioning not the experience or ability to lead a nation, but the patriotism of the man vying to be the nation's first black president. That was not normal.
Unfortunately, Palin's brand of politics quickly became mainstream within the GOP. Before the campaign was over, attendees at McCain rallies started shouting things like "terrorist," "treason," and "kill him" whenever Obama was mentioned. In one instance, a supporter said she was concerned that Obama was "an Arab," and McCain had to tell her that this wasn't the case. The former GOP nominee has never expressed regret for putting Palin on the ticket. Incidentally, he has also endorsed Trump.
McCain and Palin lost that election, of course. But before they did, Palin succeeded in mainstreaming the type of right-wing xenophobia that, prior to the 2008 campaign, had been confined to the fringe of the party.
Now, that fringe is the party. Trump is the logical extreme of what Palin's vice presidential candidacy only hinted at. And we should have seen this coming.