The Culmination of Republican Decay

Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, Ames, Iowa, January 2016
Eric Thayer/The New York Times/Redux
Sarah Palin with Donald Trump during his presidential campaign, Ames, Iowa, January 2016

Early in Tim Alberta’s American Carnage, Peter Wehner, the head of President George W. Bush’s Office of Strategic Initiatives under Senior Adviser Karl Rove, remarks bitterly that John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 presaged the rise of Donald Trump. Wehner deplores how his party, founded on “glorifying excellence and achievement,” came to embrace “this anger and grievance and contempt.” He had a different view in 2008, though, when he described Palin as the future of the Republican Party, which she had “suddenly revitalized” with her “grace and style.” Palin, he said, was “a supremely gifted political talent” whose “conservatism seems organic rather than manufactured, ingrained rather than recently imbibed.”

The main responsibility for Palin’s selection lay with two pillars of the post-Reagan Republican establishment: Bill Kristol, the neoconservative editor of The Weekly Standard and former chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, and Steve Schmidt, McCain’s chief political strategist and previously a deputy assistant to President George W. Bush and counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney. In plucking Palin from obscurity, Kristol and Schmidt, like innumerable GOP leaders before them, were promoting the party’s indispensable hard-right base—a base it has done so much to arouse and exploit since the late 1960s. “A spectre is haunting the liberal elites of New York and Washington—the spectre of a young, attractive, unapologetic conservatism, rising out of the American countryside,” Kristol wrote breathlessly in early September 2008. “That spectre has a name—Sarah Palin…a challenger of a corrupt good-old-boy establishment who’s a conservative; a successful woman whose life is unapologetically grounded in religious belief; a lady who’s a leader.”

Kristol, Schmidt, and others somehow persuaded McCain that he could appease the reactionary elements in the GOP, including the white Christian right and the Second Amendment zealots, while still keeping the party firmly under control. In fact, Palin’s nomination was only one incident in the party’s continuing radicalization. After Barack Obama was elected president, the Koch brothers and the Donors Trust of dark money funders (to which the Kochs were leading contributors) would mobilize and subsidize the Republican base in the so-called populist revolt they named the Tea Party.

Wehner, Kristol, and Schmidt are today among the most prominent of what remains of the Never Trumpers, hoping against hope that they can wrest the Republican Party from Trump’s grasp. Wehner has fared the best, securing prestigious contributing writers’ posts at The New York Times and The Atlantic, and a fellowship at the right-wing Ethics and Public Policy Center. Kristol—whose magazine, once owned by Rupert Murdoch as a premier vehicle for conservatism, was closed under pressure from Trump—rails against the president on the cable-news talk shows. Schmidt, who formally broke with…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.