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Will Palin return to DC? A look at how her campaign style lines up and differs with that of Trump

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Sarah Palin came out on top of last weekend’s primary to replace longstanding Alaskan congressman Don Young (who passed away in March). She now advances to the general election scheduled for Aug. 16.

Palin’s vice presidential campaign in 2008 heralded the ascendency of the populist wing of the Republican Party. Her campaign this year may again serve as a precursor, this time, for what’s to come in the 2024 presidential election, assuming that Trump runs as expected. Yet despite similarities, there are important ways in which Trump’s populist approach differs from Palin’s. Examining such differences can provide insights into how their bids for office could impact the GOP and national politics.

Palin’s Christian faith is essential to her identity. She has described an experience in Alaska’s outdoor natural beauty when she was 11 as one in which she was “reborn.”

She concluded that “if God knew what He was doing when he created Alaska, then He certainly had some ideas in mind when He created a speck like me.”

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“From that day forward,” she wrote in her 2010 book “America by Heart,” “I put my life in God’s hands.”

In her writing, Palin has recounted numerous times she has prayed, by herself and with her family, at important moments in her life. When she was told that her baby would have Down syndrome (her fifth born), she initially questioned God. In preparation for her son’s birth (whom she and her husband Todd named Trig), she wrote a letter from the perspective of “his creator.”

She prayed, and when he was born, she wrote, “I knew that not only had God made Trig different, but He had made him perfect.”

Palin’s religious beliefs play an important role in her politics. She believes that faith played a decisive role in the creation of America and that prayer by American leaders in times of crisis is routine, bipartisan, and good.

Rather than John F. Kennedy’s approach to religion and politics in which he separated the two, she has praised Mitt Romney’s speech during his 2004 presidential campaign in which he “eloquently and correctly described the role of faith in American public life” by embracing religion rather than wanting to run away from it (as she implies Kennedy did). For Palin, her faith, she says, guides her, in ways large and small, consciously and unconsciously, virtually nonstop.

Palin’s views on abortion are informed by her faith. She has unapologetically stated that she is, and always has been, pro-life. The birth of a son with special needs and her daughter Bristol’s teenage pregnancy, though at first difficult to accept, she has written, strengthened her anti-abortion beliefs. “Choosing life may not be the easiest path, but it’s always the right path,” she concluded. “I had that confirmation.”

The importance that Palin places on her faith stands in contrast to Trump, who is not known to be particularly religious.

Trump had pro-choice views prior to running to become president. The reason for his later change of heart, he says, was not because of his faith but because he observed that a friend of his who considered having an abortion but did not, had a child who ended up being “a total superstar, a great, great child.” That example, along with other similar ones that he observed, resulted in his adoption of a pro-life stance, he has said.

As a candidate for president in 2016, rather than prioritizing social issues, Trump focused on things such as the economy, immigration, and foreign policy toward China.

On immigration, Trump made implicit, and at times explicit, racial/ethnic appeals, tapping into white, working-class cultural anxieties. He promised to build a wall at the southern border to keep out illegal immigrants whom he characterized, in many cases, as being, “criminals, drug dealers, rapists” (while adding the qualifier that some, he assumed, were good people). He pledged to ban Muslims from entering the United States. He referred to African Americans using stereotypical tropes (saying, for example, to Blacks in America, “You’re living in poverty; your schools are no good; you have no jobs.”)

While president, Trump characterized Haiti and African states as “shithole countries.” He tweeted that the four minority women who constituted what was known as the squad, should “go back” to where they came from. In regard to clashes between white supremacists and protesters at an alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump said that there were “very fine people, on both sides.”

In her memoir, Palin credits her relationship with Todd, someone who is part Yupik Eskimo and hated prejudice, for expanding her worldview.

Getting to know his family, she has said, led her to a greater appreciation of Alaska’s social diversity. “Our background differences were exciting to me,” Palin wrote in her memoir, “and opened up my more sheltered world.”

John McCain, Palin’s running mate in 2008, deliberately tried to avoid making race an issue in the election. He forbade using Obama’s former association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright as a wedge issue.

When an audience member during a town hall meeting said that she did not trust Obama and referred to him as an Arab, McCain refuted her, saying he (Obama) was a decent family man, citizen and not (an Arab). Such an approach stands in contrast to Trump’s racialized promotion of the “birther” conspiracy theory.

Palin objected, first in private, to the McCain campaign strategy of avoiding the topic of Obama’s former association with Reverend Wright. The disagreement spilled out into the public when after being asked about Wright by conservative commentator Bill Kristol she replied that she did not “know why that association isn’t discussed more, because those were appalling things that the pastor had said about our great country.” She went on to say that “because he (Obama) didn’t get up and leave — to me, that does say something about his character.” After the campaign, Palin wrote that she would “forever question the campaign for prohibiting discussion of such associations.”

In “America by Heart,” Palin wrote that minorities were disproportionately affected by Hurricane Katrina not because of racism or government incompetence, but because of the high rate of “fatherlessness among poor African Americans in New Orleans,” which “translated into high crime rates, rampant drug abuse, educational failure and chronic welfare dependency.” Those on the Gulf Coast were not as adversely impacted by the hurricane, she wrote, due to having “strong, intact families.” Such views not only seem callous (in blaming the victims of a natural disaster), but also play into long-held stereotypes of African Americans being violent, ignorant, lazy, and prone to violence.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the Trump presidency was his willingness to violate long-held democratic norms, as reflected most notably in his refusal to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election. Palin, like other prominent Republicans currently seeking office, has expressed skepticism over the results of the election.

During her time as governor, she was more circumspect. Shortly after being elected, Alaska’s Supreme Court issued a ruling that required the state to offer benefits to partners of same-sex employees. Republicans in the state legislature responded by passing a bill that would have prohibited doing so, which the Court ruled unconstitutional.

Though Palin was opposed in principle to the state granting partner benefits to same sex state employees, she vetoed the bill, saying that she was bound to do so by the constitution, thereby earning respect among Democrats and others across the political spectrum for privileging the state constitution over a personally held belief.

That was more than 15 years ago. Whether Palin would feel such an obligation today, given the loosening of democratic norms, is uncertain.

A Palin and/or Trump electoral victory would bolster the populist wing of the Republican Party.

Each has the potential to influence the GOP, and national politics more broadly, in their own way. It is too early to make a prediction with confidence as to whether either will return to Washington. What is certain, though, is that both will continue to inspire fervent support among their admirers and inflame opposition among their detractors in ways that few other public officials in the United States do.

David Dreyer is a political science professor at Lenoir-Rhyne University.