“A Serial Liar”: How Sarah Palin Ushered in the “Post-Truth” Political Era in Which Trump Has Thrived

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L: An image of former Alaska governor and 2008 presidential candidate Sarah Palin that appears in FRONTLINE's documentary, "America's Great Divide." R: An image of President Donald Trump / Getty Images.

January 10, 2020
by
Patrice Taddonio Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

The rise of online misinformation, shared on social media and designed to stoke fear and inflame divisions, gained major national attention in connection with the 2016 presidential election. Continued blurring of the line between fact and fiction has helped to define the political era that has followed.

But a new FRONTLINE documentary traces the use of online misinformation at high levels of the American political conversation back years further: to Sarah Palin, a former Alaska mayor and the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate.

“She is the first of a generation of politicians who live in a post-truth environment. She was, and there’s no polite way to say it, but a serial liar,” Steve Schmidt, who helped lead John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and pushed him to choose Palin as his running mate, tells FRONTLINE in the documentary America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump.

“She would say things that are simply not true, or things that were picked up from the Internet,” the former GOP operative, who had also worked as a campaign adviser to President George W. Bush, continues. “And this obliteration of fact from fiction, of truth from lie, has become now endemic in American politics. But it started then.”

Schmidt and Palin have clashed in the years after the campaign ended, each accusing the other of mischaracterizations.

Palin’s role in exploiting America’s divisions (including on social media) and paving the way for the rise of President Donald Trump is explored as part of America’s Great Divide — a two-night, four-hour special premiering Jan. 13 and 14 on air and online that shows how the country’s increasingly divisive politics over the past decade have led to this moment.

Plain-spoken and not “too high-brow,” Palin entered the national political scene as a “almost a pre-Trump” and “electrified that GOP base like no one I had ever seen,” former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly says in this excerpt from the series:

The McCain-Palin ticket wouldn’t prevail in the 2008 election, but the anti-establishment fervor Palin had tapped into only grew. The next year, as President Barack Obama made health care reform a priority, Palin re-emerged. This excerpt from the series explores how she exploited fear with a new phrase that went viral — “death panels” — and how she took to Facebook to spread the false claim directly to her audience:

“She was a maven on Facebook. The original politician who saw that you could skirt the media and you could get the message out unfiltered, uncut to the public was Sarah Palin,” Alex Marlow, editor-in-chief of the hard-right outlet Breitbart News, tells FRONTLINE.

As America’s Great Divide goes on to explore, talk-radio and right-wing media ran with Palin’s false claim — and a new model for exploiting the country’s divisions through the spread of online misinformation and the blurring of fact and fiction was born.

For the full story on how that new model would help usher in the age of Donald Trump, watch America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump. From FRONTLINE filmmaker Michael Kirk, a veteran chronicler of U.S. politics who with his team has made nearly 20 documentaries on the Obama and Trump administrations, the series traces the growth of a toxic political environment that has paralyzed Washington and dramatically deepened the gulf between Americans — and holds political leaders across two presidencies accountable for their role. The series is essential viewing as the 2020 election year dawns, providing gripping and crucial context for the present moment.

Stream America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump, Part One:

Stream America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump, Part Two:

America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump is streaming in full on this page, at at pbs.org and on the PBS Video App. The series premieres on PBS stations Mon., Jan. 13 and Tues, Jan. 14 at 9 p.m. E.S.T./8 p.m. C.S.T. (check local listings). As part of the FRONTLINE Transparency Project, you can also explore more than 20 extended interviews with sources from the making of the series who offer in-depth accounts of history unfolding.

 

This story has been updated.

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