It seems like such a long time now, but it was only four and half years ago that America was introduced to Sarah Palin, who came down from the wilds of Alaska to set conservative hearts aquiver. Long after she ceased to be listened to for any other reason than that she said something offensive, Sarah Palin's star has faded so far that even Fox News has no more use for her.
Her umbilical cord to influence—the connection between the studio Fox built in her house and the network's headquarters in New York—has been severed, her contract not renewed. Some of Palin's allies anonymously informed reporters that the decision was hers and not the network's, but I don't believe that for a second. Roger Ailes is not a sentimental man, and when necessary he won't hesitate to cut loose an asset whose usefulness is exhausted. And if you've ever seen her talking to Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity, you know that she was actually terrible at TV commentary. Neither articulate nor insightful, she stumbled her way through a hundred appearances as a "Fox News Contributor," offering viewers nothing more than her presence, as if that were enough. In the end, it wasn't. But that doesn't mean we won't miss her.
With the delightful lack of self-awareness that makes her what she is, Palin took the occasion of an exclusive interview with the filmmaker who directed a hagiographic documentary about her, posted on the right-wing race-baiting web site Breitbart.com, to inform conservatives that they need to work on "broadening our audience. I'm taking my own advice here as I free up opportunities to share more broadly the message of the beauty of freedom and the imperative of defending our republic and restoring this most exceptional nation. We can't just preach to the choir; the message of liberty and true hope must be understood by a larger audience." She then proclaimed that the way for the GOP to affect this audience-broadening would be to ... purge those who would consider compromise with Democrats. Never one to disappoint those waiting for some Palinesque analysis, she explained the 2012 election this way: "A moderate Republican candidate lost after he was perceived to alienate working class Reagan Democrat and Independent voters who didn't turn out for him as much as they did for the McCain/Palin ticket in 2008." Well put! If only Mitt Romney, who lost to Barack Obama by 4 points, could have been as successful as the McCain/Palin ticket, which lost to Barack Obama by 7 points.
Alas, there will be no broadening of Palin's audience. Without a regular gig on TV, the only ones hearing what she has to say in days to come will be her Facebook friends and Twitter followers, a devoted group but one that will dwindle over time. She may get paid nicely to give speeches to the likes of the American Sod Federation and turn up at the occasional right-wing confab, but the sad fact is that the time when anyone cared what Sarah Palin thought about anything is passing. So let's take a moment to acknowledge what we'll be without when she's gone.
There are few political figures remotely as interesting as Palin, with her unmatched combination of crazy ideas, absolute confidence despite a level of understanding of public affairs that would embarrass an average seventh-grader, and a nearly inexplicable white-hot charisma. For liberals, she's been the embodiment of "hathos," the thing you find so repulsive that not only can't you look away, you derive pleasure from your hatred of it ("hathos" was apparently coined by Alex Heard in 1985, but it has more recently been popularized by Andrew Sullivan). Can you imagine encountering a politician again whom you will find even half as appalling?
Other politicians have been considered dolts—Dan Quayle and Rick Perry come immediately to mind—but none has reacted to the accusation like Palin, not only defiant but without the slightest hint of embarrassment for whatever new way she exposed herself, from not knowing what the Bush Doctrine was at the end of George W. Bush's term, to coining inane new terms ("refudiate"), to reacting to every new controversy by claiming that the real victim was Sarah Palin (remember "blood libel"?), to that extraordinary, rambling statement she gave upon quitting midway through her first term as governor, explaining that she was walking away because to stay and do the job that the voters elected her to do would be "the quitter's way out." There really should be a long German word referring to the feeling liberals got whenever Palin said something even more idiotic and offensive than she had before, that combination of shock, disgust, and satisfaction that comes from getting yet more evidence that one of the other side's leading figures is such an epic nincompoop. Every time, you could almost hear a thousand conservatives plant their faces in their hands.
Palin's theme was always resentment, the acid bile of the culture war. If you ever felt that you were looked down on by Northeastern elitists, or people with too much education, or condescended to by people who think small towns are rather boring and not the only soil from which morality and patriotism can grow, or laughed at by people who find The Purpose-Driven Life to be a less than profound theological text, Sarah Palin spoke for you. She luxuriated in her grievances—against the establishment, against the media, against everyone from the mightiest politician to the lowliest teenager who happened to knock up her daughter (as Levi Johnston put it at one point, "It's almost funny, that she's like, 46 years old, and she's battling a 19-year-old, and I'm winning"). Resentment was her instrument, her tool, her vehicle and her purpose.
But now Saint Joan of the Tundra will fade from public view. There will be no more reality shows, no more magazine covers, no more speculation about future presidential runs. A couple of years from now, you might say to a friend, "I wonder what Sarah Palin is up to these days?" And they'll respond, "Who gives a crap?"