Laugh at Sarah Palin all you want but there’s nothing funny about her role in dividing the US

·6 min read

She may be in the news for running around New York with Covid, but it’s worth remembering how she spread another sort of virus: rightwing populism

Underestimate Sarah Palin at your peril

Help! I am writing from beleaguered New York City which, on top of dealing with giant rats, a nasty nor’easter, and the surreal “swagger’”of a Bitcoin-obsessed mayor, is also battling a Palinvasion. Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, has spent the past week running around the city eating at multiple fancy restaurants despite the fact that she has tested positive for Covid-19. Palin, who isn’t vaccinated and has said “it’ll be over my dead both that I’ll have to get a shot,” has now become something of a public health hazard: New Yorkers are being told to go get themselves tested if they’ve been anywhere near her.

Palin, it should be said, didn’t just come to New York for the food. She’s in the city because she’s suing the New York Times for defamation. The trial was supposed to start on Monday but because of the whole being-infected-with-a-highly-contagious-virus thing it’s been pushed back until 3 February. When it gets going I’m afraid you’re going be hearing a lot more about Palin. This case, to put it in highly technical legal jargon, is kind of a big deal and has massive implications for press freedom in the US.

Some quick background: in 2017 the Times published a piece that incorrectly linked an advert put out by Palin’s political action committee with a 2011 mass shooting in Arizona in which six people died and 14 were wounded – including Gabrielle Giffords, then a Democratic member of Congress. The Times was very much in the wrong here, which it quickly admitted in a correction. That wasn’t enough for Palin, who is seeking damages. (It’s not clear exactly how much, but court papers estimate $421,000 in damage to her reputation.)

It’s highly unlikely that Palin will win. Thanks to a 58-year-old landmark decision called New York Times v Sullivan there is a high bar for defamation when it comes to public figures: you have to prove an outlet operated with “actual malice”. However if the case ever ends up in the supreme court there’s a not-insignificant chance that Times v Sullivan could be overruled. Two conservative supreme court judges, Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, have already made it clear that they are keen to rethink the decision and make it easier to sue the media. This would be a dream come true for people like Donald Trump who, while he was running for president, said he wanted to open up libel laws so he could sue people who wrote nasty stories about him.

The media should obviously be held accountable for mistakes in their reporting. However creating an environment in which news outlets are afraid to report on powerful people because they’re worried about being sued is obviously not a good thing for democracy. And Palin doesn’t need to win the actual court case against the Times to score a victory against the media and undermine press freedom. As first amendment attorney Ted Boutrous told CNN: “This lawsuit has always seemed to me to be part of a disturbing trend in recent years of high-profile political figures misusing libel suits as political stunts intended to chill speech on matters of public concern – exactly what the first amendment forbids.”

Long story short here is that you should not underestimate the harm Palin is capable of causing. Palin is often treated as a figure of fun by the media; she’s caricatured as a ditzy naif. But that image of her isn’t entirely accurate. You know that famous quote that’s attributed to her? The one where she said she could see Russia from her house? One survey found that almost seven in 10 Americans think she actually said that. She didn’t. Tina Fey did in a Saturday Night Live skit. What Palin actually said was that you can actually see Russia from an island in Alaska: this is perfectly accurate.

I’m not trying to defend Palin’s honour here or make her out to be some kind of rocket scientist or master political strategist. What I’m saying is that she’s not the simplistic caricature she is often portrayed to be. And while she may be in the news for running around New York with Covid, it’s worth remembering the enormous part she has played in spreading another sort of virus in America: rightwing populism. As Barack Obama has noted there is a “straight line” from Palin being announced as the vice-presidential nominee in 2008 to Trumpism. Laugh at Palin all you want but there’s nothing funny about the role she has played in shaping the divided and angry United States that exists today.

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