“I know Russia well. I had a major event in Russia two or three years ago, Miss Universe contest.” – Donald Trump
“You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska.” – Sarah Palin
WASHINGTON – Mark Salter, the longtime John McCain consigliere, was asked by Politico’s Glenn Thrush whether he believed McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his 2008 running mate “opened the door a crack for a Trump-style candidate.”
“Maybe a little,” Salter said after a pause.
Stuff and nonsense. Salter was being modest. Palin’s nomination didn’t crack the door for Trump. It birthed him. Palin is, politically, the Mother of Trump.
Some of their similarities, such as their curious ways of justifying their knowledge of Russia, are superficial. Trump, asked by NBC’s Chuck Todd where he gets his military advice, said: “Well, I watch the shows. … You know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows.” This had more than an echo of Palin’s reply to Katie Couric in 2008 about which newspapers or magazines she reads: “Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years.”
But the likenesses go much deeper, between the candidates themselves and among the followers they’ve inspired: The attacks on the media. The demonization of a supposed “establishment.” The huge and sometimes violent crowds. The prominent platforms given both candidates by Fox News. The racist responses among supporters. The suspicion of science. The scapegoating of Muslims. The portrayal of President Barack Obama as something other than American.
Well before Trump built his national political reputation by questioning the authenticity of Obama’s birth certificate, there was Palin. In December 2009, she called it a “fair question” and “fair game” and said “the public rightfully is still making it an issue.” In 2011, after Trump said he was sending investigators to Hawaii to probe Obama’s birth, Palin responded, “More power to him.”
Before Trump said he would bring back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse,” there was Palin. Two years ago, she talked about how “if I were in charge, they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”
Before there was Trump talking about banning Muslim immigration (a stance Palin supports) and forced registration of Muslims, there was Palin. “Let Allah sort it out,” was her 2013 response to the Syrian civil war.
Soon after Palin was named McCain’s running mate in 2008, I went to see her campaign in Florida in front of 8,000 people – and as I reread my column from then it sounds much like the Trump events I’ve seen this year. She justified her accusation that Obama “pals around with terrorists” by saying that Obama isn’t “a man who sees America the way you and I see America” and that he “sees America as imperfect enough to work with a former domestic terrorist who had targeted his own country.”
When she railed against this “domestic terrorist,” Bill Ayers, one man in the audience shouted, “Kill him!”
She stirred the crowd to turn against the press in a manner similar to Trump’s rallying of supporters against penned-in reporters at his events: “Palin supporters turned on reporters in the press area, waving thunder sticks and shouting abuse. … One Palin supporter shouted a racial epithet at an African-American sound man for a network and told him, ‘Sit down, boy.’”
Back then, she stirred racial animosity (she tried to make an issue of Obama’s former preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, even though McCain had called that off-limits) and quarreled with the party establishment (the Florida GOP chairman was forbidden aboard her plane because he questioned Palin’s abilities).
Nicolle Wallace, a former top official on the McCain 2008 campaign, observed the parallel in The New York Times in January after Palin endorsed Trump: “Mr. Trump is riding the wave of anxiety that Ms. Palin first gave voice to as Sen. John McCain’s running mate. Mr. Trump has now usurped and vastly expanded upon Ms. Palin’s constituency, but the connection between the two movements is undeniable.”
McCain, admirably, refused to let the rage take over his campaign: He famously corrected the woman at his event who called Obama an “Arab,” taking a different approach than Trump, who let stand an accusation at his event that Obama is a Muslim.
But now there is no such filter. And the man who gave us Palin in 2008 worries that her political progeny could cost him his Senate seat in Arizona this year. With Trump on the ticket, McCain has said, “this may be the race of my life.”
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.