Palin’s stardom continued unabated all the way through late 2011, a full three years after her arrival on the national scene. Her flirtation with running for the 2012 Republican nomination—never ruling out a bid and allowing supporters to build an operation for her in Iowa—kept her in the headlines. While dancing around a bid of her own, Palin threw carefree darts at declared candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. Her newest adviser, a filmmaker named Steve Bannon, helped position Palin as a populist alternative to the “crony capitalism” that had infected Republican politics. Advisers to the Republican candidates all groused privately to reporters about Palin’s headline-grabbing ways, but on the record, they politely welcomed Palin’s possible endorsement and shied away from criticizing her. In the summer of 2011, she announced a “One Nation” bus tour of historical sites up the East Coast, making stops at Fort McHenry, Gettysburg, and Bunker Hill, teasing a presidential run with her telegenic family in tow. Local TV news choppers chased the bus driving up Interstate 76 to air live coverage. ABC News, clearly interested in service journalism, added a helpful interactive map of the Palin bus tour to its website. The only event that managed to push Palin’s bus tour off of cable news was the “hacked” picture of Anthony Weiner’s junk that surfaced on Twitter. But some two months later, Palin was back at it, drawing a horde of press during her visit to the Iowa State Fair.
Only that October, when Palin declared that she wouldn’t run, did her influence begin to wane. Media attention drifted from Palin to the presidential race—and to wackier Tea Party characters like Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and the birther kingpin himself, Donald Trump. Romney wrestled the nomination away from his conservative rivals, temporarily snuffing out the restive grassroots wing of the GOP. Palin lingered on the scene, still showing up at conservative events, posting on Facebook, and handing out endorsements. But her schtick just got old, fading with time. Fox News dropped Palin in 2015. Her husband, Todd, later divorced her, a story that made barely a ripple. She surfaced recently with a strange Instagram video threatening to primary Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, and she showed up in Georgia to campaign for Republicans ahead of the January runoff elections. The appearance was met with a shrug and, according to script, a handful of snarky reporter tweets about her wardrobe.
Right now, for Trump, that kind of political trajectory—from the center of the known universe to a lesser moon orbiting Pluto—feels like an impossibility. Unlike Palin, Trump was an actual president who changed the course of history, with a vise grip on the Republican Party and most of its voters. Trump has only just left office; he has yet to give an interview; his second impeachment trial is underway; and his influence on the GOP seems secure enough. The media will cover him for a long time to come, and hangers-on like Matt Gaetz will always be available for #content. He will tease a presidential run, and maybe box out other Republican contenders in the process. But the center of gravity in politics always changes, whether he decides to run or not. Trump’s shocking deplatforming following the January 6 Capitol Hill riot, predicted by no one, immediately neutralized the predictable “Trump 2024!” takes that followed his November loss. What is Trump without his tweets? It was proof, yet again, that the political class is permanently addicted to the present, rarely looking up from Twitter to think about future possibilities that might contradict it. With his social media megaphone gone, Trump is quite obviously a diminished man, operating in a media environment that looks a little more like 2011, when the establishment media had a bit more power, and a little less like 2021. Yes, there are more conservative outlets today, and more discreet communities where the cult of Trumpism can flourish. But going back to his real estate days, Trump’s power has always depended on the mainstream media’s addiction to his antics. Without social media, his influence moving forward will now be much more dependent on the media and the Republican Party, and how much they choose to accommodate him. Right now they are. But they won’t forever. Bad politicians like Missouri senator Josh Hawley will try to Xerox Trump and fail. Better politicians, as always, will find ways to win by wresting power away from those who hold it, marshaling voters with messages of their own.
It’s already getting dark out there for Mister Trump. Without the presidency, he already commands much less of our mindshare than he did only a few weeks ago. Like Palin, Trump himself will recede over time, even if the damage he has inflicted on our political culture remains. [Continue reading…]