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Sarah Palin Rules the GOP -- And She Will Destroy It

Palin's influence on a party largely devoid of leadership is expanding. If she doesn't become the GOP's future queen, she may be its future king-maker -- and its destroyer.

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Queen Esther

If Palin is indeed a cancer on the GOP, why can't the Republican establishment retire her to a quiet life of moose hunting in the political wilderness? Why has her appeal only increased in the wake of her catastrophic political expeditions? Why won't she listen to, or abide by, conventional political wisdom?

The answer lies beyond the realm of polls and punditry in the political psychology of the movement that animates and, to a great degree, controls, the Republican grassroots -- a uniquely evangelical subculture defined by the personal crises of its believers and their perceived persecution at the hands of cosmopolitan elites.

By emphasizing her own crises and her victimization by the "liberal media," Palin has established an invisible, indissoluble bond with adherents of that subculture -- so visceral it transcends any rational political analysis. As a result, her career has become a vehicle through which the right-wing evangelical movement feels it can express its deepest identity in opposition both to secular society and to its representatives in the Obama White House. Palin is perceived by its leaders -- and followers -- not as another cynical politician or even as a self-promoting celebrity, but as a kind of magical helper, the God-fearing glamour girl who parachuted into their backwater towns to lift them from the drudgery of everyday life, assuring them that they represented the "Real America."

If McCain had taken his preferred choice for a running mate in 2008, he would have chosen Joseph Lieberman, the turncoat Democrat and his best friend in the Senate. But with the base of the Republican Party subsumed by a Christian right that detested the senator, his advisors urged him to choose the untested, virtually unknown Alaskan governor to bring the faithful back to him. Their gamble paid off -- at least in the short-term. When Palin was  revealed as the vice presidential nominee at an off-the-record gathering of the Council for National Policy, a secretive cabal of the conservative movement's top financiers and activists, Tom Minnery of the Christian right outfit Focus on the Family recalled, "People were on their seats applauding cheering, yelling… that room was electrified."

Before her nomination, the provincial Palin had traveled outside the country only once and demonstrated little, if any, intellectual curiosity. During the campaign, she was flummoxed when CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric simply asked what magazines she read. Yet the fact that she had such a limited understanding of the world actually recommended her to the Republican base.

The gun-toting, snowmobile-cruising former beauty queen became an instant cultural icon. Little understood by those outside this culture was her religious worldview, cultivated during the 20 years she spent worshipping at the Wasilla Assembly of God, a right-wing Pentecostal church in her hometown north of Anchorage. When I visited the church in October 2008, a pastor from Kenya, Bishop Thomas Muthee, was at the podium comparing Palin to Queen Esther, the biblical queen who used her wiles to intercede for her people. The reference was clear enough: Palin, the former beauty pageant contestant who had chosen Esther as her biblical role model when she first entered politics, would topple America's secular tyrants, leading her people, the true Christians, into the kingdom. As he concluded his sermon, Muthee gesticulated wildly and spoke in tongues, urging parishioners to "come against the spirit of witchcraft as the body of Christ."

Three years earlier, in 2005, Muthee had anointed Palin during a public ceremony at the Wasilla Assembly of God, laying his hand on her forehead while praying to protect her "against all forms of witchcraft." The bishop claimed that he had personally battled a witch in his hometown of Kiambu, Kenya, driving the evildoer from the town and thereby ending an epidemic of crime and licentiousness. The episode was later  revealed as a farce by a reporter from Women's eNews who traveled to Kiambu and found the supposed witch, a local healer named Mama Jane, still living happily in her compound. In palling around with Muthee, whom she credited with helping propel her into the governor's mansion by anointing her, Palin revealed herself as an authentic religious zealot. Whatever her flaws might have been, this was what mattered to the movement in 2008 -- and what matters now.

 
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