Can America's political discourse get any cruder?

Watching Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, it was impossible not to wonder how America, which has so often shown the world a better way, descended into a political discourse that demonizes enlightened thought and glamorizes mean-spirited crudeness, Neil Macdonald writes.

Perhaps there is a deeper meaning to Sarah Palin's rambling, word-salad endorsement of Donald Trump?

New friends. Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin endorsed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Iowa State University on Tuesday. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

In her solipsistic return to the campaign trail last week, Sarah Palin blamed President Barack Obama for the fact that her military reservist son punched his girlfriend in the face, then drunkenly threatened to kill himself with an assault rifle before winding up under arrest, facing criminal charges.

Track Palin had been "fighting for you-all, America," shouted his mother in Oklahoma, suggesting that her son's time in Iraq eight years ago left him with PTSD.

"It is now or never, for the sake of America's finest, that we have that commander-in-chief that will respect them and honour them!"

The audience roared.

Palin then explained that the better commander-in-chief would be Donald Trump, her pick for the Republican presidential nomination.

Veterans, you see, would never punch their girlfriends or need to be handcuffed by police if Trump was president. They'd feel his deep respect, and calm down and be more nurturing.

Forgotten by the fevered crowd was the supposedly bedrock conservative principle that people are responsible for their own actions, and that it's time to stop blaming society.

Wait. Sorry. Track Palin is white, and the son of Sarah Palin. In GOP land, that "blaming society" stuff is really just meant for blacks and Latinos, and Islamic terrorists who are, after all, Obama's fault, too.

When facts are irrelevant

Also forgotten in all that Republican excitement was the fact that Track Palin headed off to fight not for American freedom, but as part of the so-called troop surge behind George W. Bush's lie-based invasion of Iraq, a war Obama opposed.

And, of course, forgotten was the fact that under Bush's Republican administration, veterans often returned to official neglect and indifference.

But facts are irrelevant. The GOP campaign runs on the octane of emotion: resentment, anger, nativism and religious righteousness.

In fact, Palin's speech reminded me of another one I attended, years ago, in Tehran during my time as CBC's Middle East correspondent.

Mohammed Khatami, the reformer, had been elected president of Iran, and you could taste the craving for change in the city's mountain air.

Bumper-sticker politics seems to be everywhere in the U.S. this presidential election cycle, though mostly on the Republican side of the fence. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

On a whim, I decided to attend a Friday sermon by Ayatollah Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, probably the most hardline cleric in the theocracy.

He scorned the reformers and called down divine judgment on them, and exhorted the crowd to go and impose the will of the people.

It was a speech filled with hatred and religious bigotry and nativism, and the crowd absorbed it with the same sort of ecstasy U.S. conservatives evidently experience at Republican rallies nowadays.

I spoke to several people as they exited the sermon; most were rural, uneducated, and were bused in for the event. In cosmopolitan Tehran, Yazdi wouldn't likely have been able to fill a big classroom, let alone pack in thousands of panting zealots.

'You're fired'

Sarah Palin, likewise, feels most comfortable outside America's big cities, talking to the white evangelical Christians she calls "real Americans," as opposed to the ethnic stew of the more permissive, homosexual-tolerating, non-God-fearing souls who populate the coastal population centres.

Her speech endorsing Donald Trump had a stream-of-consciousness demagoguery about it; gibberish, almost. There is no other way to sensibly describe it.

"How about the rest of us?" she asked at one point. "Right-winging, bitter-clinging, proud clingers of our guns, our God, and our religion, and our Constitution."

She began by talking about "our great United States of America," then, a few minutes later, rhetorically asked the crowd if they wanted to "make America great again."

Like Yazdi, she spoke to her listeners' deepest insecurities and religious furies.

She called political correctness a "suicide vest," neatly conflating liberal prissiness with Islamic terrorism.

She suggested America, enjoying an economic recovery that's the envy of the world, is perilously close to utter ruin. She praised Trump's private-sector ability to run balanced budgets (he's filed for bankruptcy four times).

And the entire time, Trump stood at her side, mugging for the crowd, making silly gestures, mouthing "You're fired," his signature reality-show line, and generally clowning around.

A messianic mess

This is a man whose campaign has mostly consisted of slinging around coarse invectives at women, Latinos and Muslims, among others, in the name of battling "political correctness," which is some sort of obsession of the American right.

He is revered by the party base as a truth-teller. And he leads Republican polls.

Watching Palin and Trump, it was impossible not to wonder, once again, how America, a country that has achieved such excellence, and has so often shown the world a better way, descended into a political discourse that demonizes enlightened thought and glamorizes mean-spirited, lowbrow crudeness.

And something else occurred, a notion I've always shied away from because I find jingoism distasteful: None of this stuff would go anywhere in Canada. It would draw snickers and derision, not cheers.

The only reason I can cite for this difference in national attitudes is religion. Not the quiet, old-line religiosity whose adherents believe worship is a private matter, best practised in church.

I'm referring to the messianic, aggressive religion of certain evangelical Christian sects, which believe that even other streams of Christianity, never mind other faiths, are false, and that their job is not just to spread the word of God but to impose it, and that the best way to do that is to run the government.

That sort of religion happily ignores inconvenient facts and contradictions, and has always been ripe for the con job pulled by the Republican elite: promise to end atheistic permissiveness, then get into office and implement an economic agenda most friendly to Manhattan billionaires like Trump and multi-millionaires like Palin. (She recently put her 8,000 square-foot Arizona compound up for sale for $2.5 million.)

To be fair, this loopy form of religio-political fantasy is particular to the Republicans, and lots of religious Americans find it offensive to rational thought.

But it should not be dismissed, as clownish as its heroes can seem.

Think about Iran: Yazdi and his fellow hardliners triumphed. The reformers were shut down and jailed. The urban elites were cowed. It can happen.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.