Yesterday, Sarah Palin endorsed Donald Trump for president. "Of course she did," was the most common reaction to this news -- heard from both left and right. It is not only the most natural progression, but in fact it completes a circle of sorts. Because Palin really was the original Trump, in the world of Republican politics. Which is why I blame John McCain more than anyone else for the fact that Donald Trump is the clear frontrunner of the Republican pack right now. McCain's pick of Palin as running mate truly set the stage for where the GOP finds itself now.
John McCain was the original Republican "maverick." He got this reputation by occasionally disagreeing with the party's leadership, or breaking from Republican orthodoxy and working across the aisle with Democrats on bills he felt were worth a bipartisan effort. How quaint this all seems now, when today's mavericks of the GOP seem to only want to tear the entire party down and rebuild it in their own image. But that's indeed how McCain portrayed himself, at least in his first presidential run.
Of course, he lost that run to George W. Bush. Still itching to sit in the big chair in the Oval Office, McCain then reluctantly embraced Bush's agenda -- even the parts he didn't personally like. McCain got a lot less mavericky between 2000 and 2008, but the media still loved the maverick image and helped McCain continue to promote it in his 2008 run.
From reports of campaign insiders, McCain's big showdown with the party bigwigs happened right before the Republican National Convention. McCain had a truly maverick idea when it came to selecting his running mate. He'd pick a conservative Democrat, and really shake the race up! A bi-partisan ticket -- that would indeed have been something new on the American political stage. Alas, the establishment Republicans recoiled in horror at the idea (even considering how uber-hawkish Joe Lieberman was), and forced McCain to reconsider.
McCain then took a look at his "short list" for the veep slot on the ticket, and decided to make another maverick move -- he'd pick an obscure but photogenic governor whom few had even heard of. Thus, Sarah Palin was elevated to national political prominence.
This move was designed to stick a thumb in the eye of the Republican Party's bigwigs by ignoring all the "safe" choices McCain could have made from within the party's ranks. Palin would also be only the second woman ever to run for vice president, and the first Republican to do so. All around, it was seen as a gutsy -- if risky -- move by McCain.
Then she started campaigning. It became immediately obvious that Sarah Palin was just not ready for primetime, but the choice had already been made and so she had to be supported by all good Republicans. The party flocked to Palin's defense against that nasty "lamestream media" (as she so colorfully put it), and declared her to be even more qualified than Barack Obama (this was before she quit her governorship, halfway through her first term). They doubled down on Palin, because the Republican establishment really had no other choice. By doing so, they elevated the idea that someone like Sarah Palin was qualified to be president. Which is precisely why I blame McCain for Donald Trump's rise.
If John McCain had made a different choice for his running mate, we might never have seen Michele Bachmann run for president (or rise in the polls, if she had). We might not have had 17 people (some with zero elected experience) run for the Republican nomination this time around. Tina Fey would not be anywhere near the comedy star she is today. We all might never have learned to use the term "word salad." The abstinence lobby would have had to get along without a spokeswoman who inexplicably keeps having babies out of wedlock. "What if" is always a fun game to play, isn't it?
Snark aside, though, the political landscape would likely be a different one. By elevating Sarah Palin to a candidate for vice president, John McCain lowered the bar for entry into presidential contests for his party. Anyone could plausibly run, if Sarah could conceivably be leader of the nation. No experience was necessary, and no quip was too outrageous to utter on stage. Fringe candidates, instead of being ignored by almost everyone, suddenly were given the party's official seal of approval.
Donald Trump is a slightly more coherent version of Palin. They both talk in similar "word salad" style. Palin has problems even constructing a meaningful sentence when speaking about politics, but Trump manages to do so much more competently (although he still has problems fitting those sentences into rational paragraphs). At least with Trump, people understand the basic gist of what he's saying, rather than the head-scratching Palin routinely engenders (read her endorsement speech in full, if you want a walk down Memory Lane to her word salad days of yore).
Psychologically speaking, Palin was pure id. Trump is exactly the same thing -- he says whatever's on the top of his mind, consequences be damned. Palin's endorsement of Trump was not only unsurprising and entirely appropriate, it was also the completion of a path John McCain started his party down. If Sarah Palin could be contemplated as president, then why not Trump? The Republican Party at large, by defending Palin so fiercely during the 2008 campaign, appears to have permanently lowered the bar for who can be seen as an acceptable presidential candidate to Republicans.
Many Republican Party bigwigs and conservative pundits are now cowering in disbelief, because they've been predicting for over half a year now that Trump would eventually burn out and leave the race. This has obviously not happened, and (as of now) shows absolutely no signs of happening in the near future. They really have only themselves to blame, and Sarah Palin's re-entry onto the Republican stage only proves it. If she was an acceptable candidate, then so is Trump. You really can't have it both ways. So for those establishment Republicans grasping for someone (anyone!) to blame for the state of their party today, I offer up John McCain as scapegoat. Because if McCain hadn't picked Palin, we likely would not be where we are now. With Palin's endorsement of Trump, this circle is now complete.
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