How Mike Huckabee Became the New Sarah Palin

St. Joan of the Tundra taught him the art of inviting ridicule and turning it into victimization.

In late January a once-dominant figure in Republican politics suddenly began hinting at a presidential run and got a lot of negative feedback. It had to make Mitt Romney feel better.

Yes, 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin pointedly refused to take herself out of the running for 2016. There were few cheers. And in a first, when Palin subsequently gave a scatterbrained and embarrassingly juvenile speech at Representative Steve King’s Iowa Freedom Summit, conservatives were as scornful as liberals.

In part that’s because the ratio between her brief career of statewide public office in Alaska and her subsequent self-promoting isn’t improving. But in part it’s also because she’s proved to be eminently replaceable in Republican politics.

St. Joan of the Tundra’s distinctive contribution to the conservative cause was not simply to serve as a lightning rod for resentment of the “liberal elites” that supposedly run the country, but to invite ridicule that she then turned into a sense of victimization and self-pity and a hankering for vengeance. For a while there, she could do no wrong, since every misstep turned into an opportunity for a fresh grievance against the mockery of snooty elitists.

Palin will hang around the periphery of conservative politics for some time (she’s a relatively young fifty). Her essential role of stimulating resentment and then promising vengeance, however, has been taken over by more conventional and respectable pols, much as George Wallace’s raw demagogic appeal in the 1960s was co-opted and refined by Richard Nixon. Indeed, one of the more notable developments of contemporary politics is the widespread preemption of Palin-style posturing against elites by other Republicans. These include potential 2016 presidential candidates ranging from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who has been seeking to brand himself as the champion of conservative Christians besieged by secularists and Muslims, to Mike Huckabee, whose new book, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, is a seething cauldron of resentment toward those who do not inhabit what Palin once memorably called “the real America.” But to a dangerous extent the whole party has absorbed some of the poison.

The mainstreaming of Palin’s act really began almost as soon as she burst onto the national scene in September of 2008, when Paul Krugman noted that the chip on the shoulder she exhibited was being emulated by other speakers at the Republican National Convention.

What struck me as I watched the convention speeches, however, is how much of the anger on the right is based not on the claim that Democrats have done bad things, but on the perception—generally based on no evidence whatsoever—that Democrats look down their noses at regular people.

Thus Mr. Giuliani asserted that Wasilla, Alaska, isn’t “flashy enough” for Mr. Obama, who never said any such thing. And Ms. Palin asserted that Democrats “look down” on small-town mayors—again, without any evidence.

What the GOP is selling, in other words, is the pure politics of resentment; you’re supposed to vote Republican to stick it to an elite that thinks it’s better than you.

Though it did not “sell” well enough to elect McCain and Palin at a time when the bottom was falling out of the economy, the pure politics of resentment spilled over into the Tea Party movement, which from the very beginning drank deeply from the right-wing populist well of belief in an overclass-underclass alliance of financial elites and bureaucrats and looters seeking dependence on federal benefits and the destruction of middle-class mores and virtues. One of the Tea Party’s great conspiratorial myths became viral after a Palin Facebook post argued that Obamacare would introduce “death panels” that would determine the fate of people with disabilities like her son Trig. At the peak of Tea Party influence, millions of conservatives had a tightly integrated view of Obamacare as representing an effort to cut “earned” Medicare benefits in order to vastly expand “welfare” and “socialized medicine” while attacking the sanctity of life from two directions through guaranteed, subsidized insurance for abortion services and (of course) death panels.

By the time of the 2012 campaign, Obamacare’s contraception coverage mandate became the target of a particular cultural resentment epidemic that embroiled the entire GOP: the religious liberty campaign, based on the idea that conservative Christians who viewed (against the scientific consensus) certain contraceptives (e.g., IUDs and Plan B pills) as abortifacients were being forced to subsidize homicide, and were thus being “persecuted for their faith.” The religious liberty campaign also became a pity party for those opposing same-sex marriage, with the victims being conservative elements of the wedding industry and a few TV personalities. At about the same time, a “scandal” swept the conservative media making the alleged slow walking by the IRS of applications for tax-exempt status by conservative groups who wanted to run election ads without disclosing donors into a frightful totalitarian specter of doors being kicked down and assets seized. And a remarkably large group of respectable Republicans—including new national GOP star Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa—embraced the John Birch Society’s “Agenda 21” conspiracy theory holding that local land-use regulations are part of a United Nations plot to kill private property rights.

From the point of view of constitutional conservatives (an ideological grouping that is rapidly absorbing both the Christian right and the Tea Party movement, which heavily overlap to begin with), you can add another important count to the indictment of liberal elites, bureaucrats, and their underclass clients: an unpatriotic determination to undermine rights and overthrow governing norms set down eternally by the Founders of this exceptional nation under the direct inspiration of Almighty God. So liberals were not only mocking the religion and culture of good white middle-class folk, and stealing their hard-earned money (and richly earned government benefits) to buy votes from the lower orders—they were also spitting on the foundational principles of America and defying God.

While nobody has written a full-fledged manifesto for conservative cultural resentment, Mike Huckabee’s new pre-campaign book is a significant step in the direction of full-spectrum cry for the vindication of Real Americans. It is telling that the politician who was widely admired outside the conservative movement during his 2008 run for being genial, modest, quick-witted, and “a conservative who’s not mad about it” has now released a long litany of fury at supposed liberal-elite condescension toward and malevolent designs against the Christian middle class of the Heartland.

The clever conceit of God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy is that Huckabee is explaining to powerful and arrogant elites of “Bubble-ville”—New York, Washington, and Los Angeles—the sturdy folk virtues and beliefs of “Bubba-ville,” by which he means the rest of the country, though it often sounds like just the Deep South as viewed by its older and more conservative white residents. But the book is clearly meant for “Bubbas,” and it is meant to make them very angry. The first chapter is entitled “The New American Outcasts,” and it asks readers to identify with the martyrdom of Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy and Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson for defending the “biblical” view of marriage and homosexuality. Huckabee actually launched the very successful idea of a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” on his Fox News show, giving conservatives the opportunity to show their contempt for “political correctness” by giving the chicken sandwich chain a record day of sales. And he’s long competed with Bobby Jindal in promoting Phil Robertson (a Louisiana native). But aside from these totems, the idea that “Bubbas” must fight back against people who would rob them of all liberty and property permeates nearly every page of Huckabee’s book.

Huckabee very quickly (in the second chapter, on guns) introduces the idea that people like “us” may need to resort to revolutionary violence to stop the assault on our traditions. He warms to the task at the end of a chapter of rants against the Transportation Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service:

If the Founders who gave up so much to create liberty for us could see how our government has morphed into a ham-fisted, hypercontrolling “Sugar Daddy,” I believe those same patriots who launched a revolution would launch another one. Too many Americans have grown used to Big Government’s overreach. They’ve been conditioned to just bend over and take it like a prisoner [!]. But in Bubba-ville, the days of bending are just about over. People are ready to start standing up for freedom and refusing to take it anymore.

This threat does not exactly reflect the sweet reasonableness of Jesus, but then Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, has a bad habit of identifying Christianity with his own narrow views, without acknowledging that there are actual American “Christians”—many tens of millions of them, mostly in “Bubba-ville”—who do not share his biblical literalism or his cultural conservatism. In this respect he’s less radical than fellow culture warrior Rick Santorum, who has openly argued that mainline Protestants are no longer Christians.

But beyond the obvious culture-war issues, Huckabee has appropriated Sarah Palin’s distinctive sneering tone toward the liberal-elite enemy:

For those of us from the land of God, guns, grits, and gravy, being told we need to ride a bicycle and live in a tree stump by an environmental lobbyist in a Gucci suit or an aging hippie who hasn’t been outside the San Francisco city limits since Jerry Garcia died goes over about as well as Pee-wee Herman lecturing George Foreman on how to throw a punch.

While this sort of rhetoric is Palinesque in its hippie-punching contempt for liberals, it also hearkens back to the original model of right-wing “populist” demagoguery, George Wallace, who loved to talk about “pseudo-intellectuals” and “pointy-headed bureaucrats” riding their bicycles to work. If this is what the most “genial” Republican presidential candidate is peddling, who needs Sarah Palin?

It will be interesting to see how much Palinism-without-Palin the 2016 presidential field ultimately produces. Aside from Huckabee and Jindal and Santorum, there’s Ted Cruz, whose father, Rafael, a conservative evangelical minister, warms up crowds for his son with culture-war bromides punctuated by comparisons of liberals with communists who share an “evil agenda” for “destroying what this country is all about.” The surgeon turned politician Ben Carson has become a huge crowd favorite via a stock speech that focuses on the supposed loss of fundamental liberties to the sinister power of elites imposing rules of political correctness to suppress dissent. Texas Governor Rick Perry has managed to turn economic development into a culture-war weapon via his constant “raids” on companies in liberal states, especially California, which has replaced New York and Massachusetts in the conservative imagination as the epitome of alien territory.

And in the first big cattle call of the 2016 cycle, the Iowa Freedom Summit, sponsored by Steve King and Citizens United, the big winner was Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker for a speech in which he boasted of winning three elections in a “blue state” without compromising with his enemies, who, he suggested, had descended to making death threats against his family.

In a recent column recanting his earlier enthusiasm for Sarah Palin, the conservative writer Matt Lewis accused La Pasionaria of the Permafrost of “playing the victim card, engaging in identity politics, co-opting some of the cruder pop-culture references, and conflating redneck lowbrow culture with philosophical conservatism.” The trouble now is that she hardly stands out.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.