Sarah Palin And The Demise Of The Tea Party Media

This week's messy, public breakup between conservatives and Sarah Palin was executed with brutal swiftness. After years of alternately worshiping and defending her from all comers while gleefully echoing her falsehoods about the Obama administration (death panels!), lots of conservatives -- and especially conservative pundits -- decided enough, and collectively tossed her overboard.

Palin's speech last weekend at a conservative confab in Iowa, odd and vacuous even by her standards, served as the trigger for the media mutiny. Morning Joe's Joe Scarborough tagged it "a tragedy," the Daily Beast's Matt Lewis apologized for his previous Palin support, and the Washington Examiner rounded up reactions from the GOP faithful: “Long and disjointed.” “A weird speech.” “Terrible. Didn't make any sense.” (See video of the speech below.)

After six years conservatives have essentially conceded what Palin's critics on the Left have said all along: She's not a serious person and she serves no serious political purpose. Palin, who symbolized an uber-aggressive anti-intellectual conservative push that coincided with Obama's election, seemed more interested in self-promotion -- via reality shows and habitually flirting with running for office that never materialized -- than in building a lasting political legacy.

Note that Palin's accelerated descent this week represents a larger trend within the conservative media. It represents the decline of the tea party wing of the right-wing press and how a once-flourishing enterprise of outside upstarts, with their eyes on disrupting the GOP hierarchy, have in recent years faded in terms of importance and prestige within that sphere.

For instance, five years ago players like Palin, tea party guru Glenn Beck, and tea party "godfather" Rick Santelli from CNBC were on the cusp of powering of grassroots movement to retake the Republican Party and the country. Beck drew huge cable audiences on Fox News while weaving dark tales of Obama deception, Santelli helped inspire patriot rallies across the country, and Fox favorite Palin surfed political celebritydom and eyed a possible White House run. They represented a new and different brand of media agitators who didn't take the traditional paths to the masses. 

But today they stand deflated. In fact, as the next campaign season looms, all three appear to be vanishing in the media's rear-view mirror.

Their decline in some way mirrors the popular decline of the tea party itself. While it has successfully altered the conversation within the Republican Party (see 2013's government shutdown), tea party candidates now often struggle to break through, and a recent attempt to tap into mass angst via a Washington, D.C. rally ended in an embarrassing failure.

Fox News, of course, played a powerful role in creating the anti-Obama tea party movement in 2009 with its endless hyping of rallies and causes. But Fox News long ago seemed to shed its insurgent, tea tarty affiliation and return to its traditional role of serving as the media equivalent of the Republican National Committee.

Palin parted ways with Fox in January 2013. She returned as a contributor later that year, but her profile has remained dimmed at the channel.

Like Palin, Beck also flamed out at Fox. And his demise began on a specific date: July 28, 2009, when the host called Obama a “racist” with “a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” The comment, as well as the host's complete lack of remorse, sparked one of the largest and most successful advertising boycott campaigns in television history. By 2011, Beck was off Fox News.

Between 2009 and 2011 though, Beck generated some huge ratings and became the tea party point person in America. The peak came in August 2010, with Beck's Restoring Honor rally in Washington, D.C. From the New York Times:

An enormous and impassioned crowd rallied at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial this weekend, summoned by Glenn Beck, a conservative broadcaster who called for a religious rebirth in America at the site where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech exactly 47 years earlier.

Among the featured speakers that day was Sarah Palin.

Since leaving Fox, Beck has lined his pockets as few media personalities have. But in terms of being a driving force in American, or even Republican politics, his right-wing power-broker status has clearly waned. (Last year, Beck announced that Sen. Mitch McConnell's tea party challenger was “called by God” to run. The challenger eventually lost by 25 points.)

As for CNBC's Rick Santelli? Back in February 2009, responding to Obama's plan to rescue bad mortgages, Santelli delivered a caustic, taunting harangue (“President Obama, are you listening?”) about the unfairness of Americans having to bailout “loser” homeowners. Santelli suggested Obama's plan would lead the country toward communism.

Since then, Santelli has blamed Obama for employment numbers and generally warned about the economic abyss the president was supposedly guiding the country towards. Obviously, the flood of positive economic indicators in recent weeks and months has undercut most of Santelli's attacks.

As for the Obama administration's plan to help rescues mortgages, the one that prompted Santelli's clarion call for a tea party revolution? A) The bailout program was always wildly popular with Americans. B) By 2014, the bailout program had earned a profit for a government.

Like Beck with his “racist” undoing, Santelli also suffered a flashpoint. His came last July when Santelli's CNBC's colleague Steve Liesman had had enough of the chronic misinformation:

It's impossible for you to have been more wrong, Rick. Your call for inflation, the destruction of the dollar, the failure of the U.S. economy to rebound. Rick, it's impossible for you to have been more wrong. Every single bit of advice you gave would have lost people money, Rick... There is no piece of advice that you've given that's worked, Rick. Not a single one... The higher interest rates never came. The inability of the U.S. to sell bonds never happened. The dollar never crashed, Rick. There isn't a single one that's worked for you.

The clip went viral and helped lay bare the nonsensical economic mutterings of the tea party “godfather.”

For Palin, the slights from former supporters this week likely sting. If it's any consolation, she isn't the only tea party media star whose marquee has dimmed.