Of all the striking utterances that Sarah Palin delivered during her speech to the National Tea Party Convention on Sunday, none is more worthy of analysis than her claim that, as our president, “We need a commander in chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern.”
The charge is puzzling on several levels—but crystal clear on another.
Puzzling, because it makes no sense to criticize the Obama administration for arresting accused Christmas bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and prosecuting him in civilian courts for allegedly trying to blow up a passenger jet as it descended into Detroit.
That is exactly how the Bush administration handled the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, now doing time in a federal prison—and no one, least of all Palin, has ever accused Bush of being soft on terrorists.
Moreover, Palin’s sneering hint that Obama is going easy on the nation’s foes is belied by the facts. He has relentlessly escalated the war against al-Qaida, the Taliban and their allies, sending tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan and using CIA-controlled Predator drone aircraft to kill terrorist leaders in Pakistan.
Palin’s insinuations aside, Obama is certainly neither a wimp nor a pacifist.
On the other hand, he is the recipient of an Ivy League education, and he was a professor of constitutional law at one of the country’s best law schools, the University of Chicago—and that, it’s now perfectly clear, is what Palin really has against him.
Like George Wallace, with his cracks about “pointy-headed intellectuals” and Spiro Agnew with his attacks on “effete intellectual snobs,” Palin is tapping into age-old resentment against the educated, urban elite, whose major crime is to actually know something about which they speak.
In her view, and that of the tea party movement she is seeking to co-opt to her own inflated political ambitions, the painstakingly acquired insights of experts on subjects ranging from evolution to global climate change is of less value than the instinctive “common sense” of average people with no special knowledge of those subjects.
Hence her sarcastic references to the common people’s supposed resentment of being “lectured” by Obama and his fellow liberal politicians. To Palin, Obama is the teacher you loved to hate—especially if you didn’t get to go to college. It’s the envy the C students aim at the A students, and it does not go away.
More ominously, her campaign draws on the same old tactics—scapegoating outsiders and immigrants, ascribing power to nefarious plotters, pitting the so-called people against the so-called oppressive elite—that have characterized right-wing, know-nothing, populist movements since the early days of the Republic.
They often arise at times of economic stress, such as the current recession, pointing fingers and driving out rational thought with appeals to angry emotion. Theirs is the impulse behind vigilantism and the urge to ban books and the invocation of supposed traditional values to oppose social change. Theirs is the value system that stubbornly puts more value on intuition and received wisdom than on scholarship and experimentation. Theirs is the mind of the mob, resenting being told things it does not want to hear.
And that is what ought to alarm us. What Palin is doing is nothing new. In fact it’s the same, old, very sad story, and it’s playing out over again.
Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.