Matthew Norman: From the US comes a nasty whiff

Sarah Palin has a serious, instinctive gift for connecting with the bemused and the credulous that it would be folly to underestimate

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The misfortunes of others being the greatest solace in gloomy, scary times, God bless the United States of America! However alarming the fiscal situation over here, however nerve-jangling the anticipation of the forthcoming Spending Review and its impact of industrial relations, however wretched the prospect of the low level civil unrest that follows the scapegoating of the deprived by the wealthy, glancing across the Atlantic cannot fail to raise the spirits.

Exactly what is unfolding there remains hard to identify even for those better placed by geography, experience and intellect than your columnist. But even at this remove it is apparent that America is suffering some kind of paranoid psychotic episode.

The evidence is rich and varied, and extends beyond that crazy old scrote who never quite got round to burning the Koran in Florida, or even that canard du jour about the "Ground Zero Mosque" which, to the blissful unconcern of Fox News and those bamboozled into confusing it with a broadcaster of news, is neither a mosque, of course, nor scheduled for construction at Ground Zero. Hint at the resurgence in Islamophobia that fell dormant surprisingly soon after 9/11 though they might, these conflated outrages paint an imprecise picture.

More instructive, I think, is a political story which may at first strike you as on the irrelevant side of parochial. Seldom in a British newspaper do we read of Delaware, the second smallest state of the union, about which many of us know nothing other than that it provides the title and first line of a catchily imbecilic song, "What Did Delaware (Boys, What Did Delaware)?"

In the old days, she wore a brand New Jersey. But times have changed, and today she may have swapped that pristine woollen garment for a straitjacket. With the mid-term elections for Congress due in November, many voters in the primary for Republican senatorial candidate have plumped for somebody even they, Tea Party chimps though they are, know cannot conceivably win.

Nurturer-in-chief of this suicidal instinct, inevitably, is Sarah Palin, the Jimmy Jones of the Grand Old Party. Buoyed by a spectacularly destructive Vanity Fair portrait quoting her weeping over her own inadequacy to cope with the demands of governing Alaska, Palin flirts ever more openly with running for the far less challenging position of president. Those who snort derisively at her chances of winning the GOP nomination in any field containing better informed and more articulate rivals than might be found in a Petri dish may find in Delaware a compelling vignette.

That primary was held yesterday, and the result is unknown at the time of writing. Yet even if the Republican establishment candidate, a moderate Congressman called Mike Castle, defeated his Palin-endorsed, Tea Party Express opponent Christine O'Donnell, the fact that the outcome was in doubt to the last alone tells its tale.

In opinion polls matching them against Democratic candidate Chris Coons, Mr Castle wins by a mile and Ms O'Donnell loses by further still. No wonder the Democrats have been "salivating" at the notion of facing the latter, and the Republican establishment quaking at the prospect of her victory obliterating the party in a state not given to the fear-stoking nastery that makes the Tea Party such an impressive tribute act to the late Joe McCarthy.

This grassroots movement, so crudely but skilfully seeded and propagated by Palin and her sidekick Glenn Beck, would rather lose a national election with a candidate who precisely mirrors its prejudices than win it by supporting one who does not. Such fearsome integrity may yet propel Palin to the presidential nomination. No one, herself included, has a clear idea whether she intends to run against Obama in 2012, although the superficial signs – first noted almost a year ago when she dined and prayed with Billy Graham; more obvious now from the love she is lavishing on Iowa, the first state to choose its presidential candidates – suggest she does.

The danger she represents has little to do with her chances of becoming president. In a general election, at least according to all current polling, she could no more beat a Stalinist llama than Barack Obama. The vast majority of Americans are not wilfully stupid, however much it assuages our classical British insecurities to believe so.

But even a small minority of Americans becomes a loud and petrifying force when amplified by the pernicious megaphone that is Mr Murdoch's Fox network. It is as the figurehead of the Tea Party, and personification of the racism that is spreading throughout the United States, where almost one on five Americans now believes Obama is a Muslim, that she is a clear and present danger.

The woman whose claim to have the requisite foreign policy experience for becoming vice-president rested solely on having kept look-out for encroaching Russian jets from the porch of her Wasilla home cannot be mistaken for an intellectual giantess, but she has a serious, instinctive gift for connecting with the bemused and credulous that it would be folly to underestimate. Intuitively she understands how to stoke baseless fears – wickedly, brilliantly, she coined the phrase "death panels" regarding Obamacare – as all ambitious rabble-rousers of the ultra far right must.

She will never lead the free world. But as the most useful idiot available to those powerfully entrenched reactionary forces to whom Republican politicians are no more than conduits to persuading Americans to vote against own their own economic interests, she is priceless.

Watching the Tea Party crush centrist Republicans in race after race regardless of the damage this will do the GOP in November, noting the fanaticism at the rallies headlined by Palin and Beck, and recalling from his own childhood the power of crazed but charismatic rhetoric over a middle class grown poor and confused in Wehrmacht Germany, Noam Chomsky sniffs fascism on the breeze.

If that sounds hysterical, please God that it is. But something dark and hateful is stirring in America, and it seems certain to grow as long as unemployment and poverty persist. On Inauguration Day some 20 months ago it felt almost like a curse not to be American. Today it feels quite a blessing to be British.

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