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Fatwah / October 3, 2008

The fix was in. There’s no other way to explain the disconnect between Sarah Palin’s performance in last night’s debate–which made me cringe so much that my forehead started to cramp–and the post-debate analysis, in which everyone in punditland agreed on the happy Hollywood ending: Sarah Palin has redeemed herself. Seeing pundits all agree about this was terrifying.

What I saw in the debate wasn’t the hyper-confident, polished, prom-queen bully from the GOP Convention, but a woman desperately in need of beta-blockers: a nervous, wobbly-voiced contestant in a County Fair amateur show trying her darndest not to forget her lines. I was sure that her performance had McCain kicking his dog and calling his wife unprintable names, and that Palin would be announcing her withdrawal from the race “for personal reasons” by breakfast time.

You expect Fox News to spin Palin as positively as possible: as soon as the debate ended, Brit Hume grimly announced, “She seemed perfectly comfortable, she seemed to get more confident as the debate went on, and she certainly does not seem to have committed any of the gaffes or deer-in-the-headlight moments for which she’s been criticized in recent interviews.”

Switching to CNN, the blame-America-first network, Campbell Brown, hero-for-a-day among the HuffPo crowd for throwing a hissy fit over Palin, returned to tamed form, repeating Hume’s mantra almost word for word: “I think the big picture is there were no major gaffes here, so I don’t see it–and I’m not going to be the judge here, the polls will show it–that this isn’t going to be a big game-changer.” It was a frightening, pod-people moment, as if her executive producer were standing behind the camera holding Brown’s contract in one hand and a pistol-shaped lighter in the other. The Laura Bush look-alike not only lined up behind Palin, but she even adopted Palin’s distinctive Okie diction: “You know, she seemed to do very well with the plain-spoken language, and he [Biden]–when he started talking about amendments or whatever–kind of lost people a little bit.”

Campbell Brown modeling the Laura Bush chic look.

David Gergen, the embodiment of pundit centrism, hopped aboard the Palin-Is-Redeemed Express, although his face had a kind of pained, Stalin show-trial look as he spoke: “Give credit to Sarah Palin. It was the Sarah Palin of the early part of the campaign. She was spirited, she came out strong.”

Most depressing of all, Rachel Maddow, the only meat-eating progressive out there, gummed the Alaska governor in one of the most hilarious displays of self-censorship I’ve witnessed: “I think that Sarah Palin certainly did participate in the debate, and did stand along Joe Biden, and she did stay true to character,” Maddow said, as if she was a POW in North Korea. “In terms of substance, she did meet expectations in not being able to keep up with the specifics.”

There’s only one explanation why TV pundits were reading the same lines: the fix was in from the start. The redemption narrative was already built in. America needed this redemption, if only to take the edge off of the massive bummer that is 2008. This is the year that America became a Loser Nation–the economy doomed, the empire in full retreat, and–until last night’s Orgy Of Delusion–the hope of Main Street and Joe Sixpack turned out to be a total zero facing off against a lightweight like Katie Couric.

Americans are masochistic about a lot of things–they don’t mind getting yanked around, fleeced, repressed, lied to, or murdered–but one thing they won’t tolerate is a loser. If you stink of failure, you’re history–and it’s not a nice thing at all, since most of us fail at something. But that’s just the way Americans are. For most of us, Palin’s Couric interview wasn’t funny, but rather a manifestation of what losers we’ve become–just as Yeltsin’s drunken antics weren’t funny to Russians suffering during their horrible decline.

Tina Fey’s Palin impersonations on Saturday Night Live were painful to many Americans in ways that Blue Staters can’t fathom. After the debate, Chris Wallace gleefully announced, “”It may be harder for Tina Fey to mock her on Saturday Night Live, although Lord knows they’ll try.”"

Like most fixed events, this one started with a decoy: the alleged bias of moderator Gwen Ifill, the bland-o-matic PBS anchor, whom the right-wing claimed was an Obama mole, secretly plotting to open up a can of elitist whoop-ass on poor Sarah Palin. Ifill reacted the way all bullied kids respond to a callout for a fight: she showed up in a wheelchair, saved by her broken ankle. Palin, in one of her rare moments of prom-queen confidence, cheerfully told Ifill that she wasn’t going to answer her questions if she didn’t feel like it, a classic case of the popular girl humiliating the school nerd, to the delight of the entire student body.

Gwen Ifill as George Wallace: You wouldn’t beat up someone in a wheelchair, wouldya?

This is what even Palin’s critics fail to understand about her appeal: it isn’t that she’s “one of them”–the Joe Sixpacks and the Dodge Durango-driving Bloodsport Moms. Palin looks nothing like Middle Americans–she’s too physically perfect, too confident, too healthy, with a perfect pearly smile. The reason she’s so popular is because Palin is the adult incarnation of the top Heather.

Those who have seen Heathers and remember honestly their own high school experience know everyone wants to be friends with the popular bully. It’s ingrained in our culture–middle Americans are drawn to bullies like John McCain and Sarah Palin on a level so primitive that it’s almost impossible to counteract.

This has been substantiated by a recent study that suggests bullies are considered “cool” and popular by all (including school staff) but the directly-bullied kids.

Not that bullying ever stops–research published last year in the Journal of Management Studies showed that American workers are bullied up to 50 percent more than their Scandinavian counterparts. And yet, in a classic example of Americans’ penchant for optimistic delusion in the face of misery, “only one in 10 (nine per cent) of Americans were aware that the behaviour they experienced constituted bullying, leading the researchers to conclude that bullying behavior is ingrained in the culture of the U.S. workplace.”

This physical chasm between the popular bully Palin and her fans was made plain when CNN assembled an Ohio focus group to watch the debate: a cross-section of Americans herded into some grim provincial library and given “reaction dials” to show real-time reactions.

As the camera panned over the twenty or so participants, you could almost see the artery plaque, pre-diabetes and chronic back pain. They were a cheerless bunch who looked like a casting call for a Todd Solondz film. They desperately tried to please CNN team leader Soledad O’Brien–who, like Palin, is beautiful, slender and healthy–and who told some civics-class lies that they all pretended to believe–like “negative campaigning doesn’t go over well with these folks,” or something like that.

The CNN reaction dials revealed nothing during the debate. The only interesting moment came when Joe Biden solemnly talked about what a tragedy it would be if Obama were to get killed–and the reaction dials suddenly flat-lined to zero, indicating that Middle America has no strong feelings about whether a dead Obama is a good or bad thing.

Fox’s focus group was the most clearly rigged jury that this country has seen since the Civil Rights Act was passed, but that’s what you’d expect from a corn-fed creep like Frank Luntz, the Fox correspondent/Republican pollster who assembled the “focus group,” which he claimed were “undecided voters” split evenly between Bush and Kerry supporters in 2004 and split evenly about Sarah Palin. “Let me ask you now: how many of you thought Sarah Palin won the debate? Raise your hands.” They all raised their hands glumly, and Luntz turned back to the camera: “Almost all of them raised their hands.” Then he asked the audience why, and some creep in the back, who observed, “She was Main-Street America.” Luntz replayed their favorite moment, when Palin said that when it came to future financial crises, “Never again!” The planted creep in the back raised his hand and shouted, “I felt like it was a 9-11 moment.”

This is what happens when you ignore stupid zombies.

You might be tempted to ignore or dismiss Fox, but remember, Fox rates from two to three times more popular than its nearest network rival. Ignoring Fox for being evil or dumb will do about as much good as ignoring the Christian Right at the end of the last century. Like the cocky SWAT cop in the original version of Dawn of the Dead, ignoring and mocking the zombies just because they’re stupid misses the point–stupidity is their greatest weapon. The SWAT cop ignored the zombies right up until one of them bit half of his leg off–and by then, it was too late.

This article first appeared in The Nation. Mark Ames is the author of Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion from Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine.

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