It's no surprise that Donald Trump and Sarah Palin got along fabulously when Palin's tour-that-is-not-a-presidential-election-event pulled into New York City. And it's not just because they are the two most famous people GOP insiders pray never get near an actual Republican primary election.
It's because The Donald and Palin occupy a unique space in today's media and political culture -- a fact-free zone where they earn millions shamelessly reflecting the world as they and their fans choose to see it, regardless of actual fact.
It's a world where Trump can insist his many bankruptcies, hinkey development deals and whispers of ties to organized crime have no bearing on his future as a politician. It's also a world where Palin can mount a multicity bus tour, trailed by carloads of media, stopping by a string of states crucial to the presidential primary process and insist she's simply on a high-octane family vacation.
And it's a world where Palin's employer, Fox News, can pretend it is careful about employing media figures who might run for actual political office, forcing less likable pundits such as Newt Gingrich to give up their fat contributor's contracts, while holding onto the most visible conservative voice who hasn't yet revealed her plans -- pushing to the limit how much she can do to position herself for a political run without actually having to declare one.
It's also no surprise that Palin hates the news media as much as she needs it. Coverage spreads her brand and her power; right now, her greatest weapon is her ability to generate buzz in media circles. But good journalists have this pesky habit of asking for facts demanding she prove the flimsy assertions which form the walls of her make-believe world. If Palin really wanted to deal with spinning inconvenient truths and flailing to resolve gaping hypocrisies, she would have kept her job as governor of Alaska.
On this tour, the media is pulled along for the ride -- literally -- handcuffed by its modern-day inability to ignore a public event which generates a certain level of attention. No one knows this better than the Palin and Trumps of the media world; in today's multichannel, always-on environment, big news outlets cannot afford to reward charlatans like Trump and Palin with the response they deserve -- silence.
All of this is the natural result of a news media world where large corners of its structure are built on the shameless reflection of political ideas crafted to serve a certain ideology. In other words, when you have cable channels, radio stations, websites and newspapers devoted mostly to parroting the supremacy of one point of view, you create media figures who excel at that practice, weaving gossamer webs of attitude and assertion mostly aimed at rallying followers who agree.
Once upon a time, they had a different name: hucksters.
All that's required is a pathological focus on your own career, a Superman-level imperviousness to shame, a Herculean ability to explain away obvious hypocrisies and a deep-seated talent for cultivating media coverage -- even as you complain about it and try to invalidate it.
In an odd way, Trump has provided the blueprint for this approach, plowing ahead with his never-quite real candidacy, until it was obvious that the downsides of actually running would outweigh any remotely possible outcome. Now Palin, strangely enough, is following his playbook, taking advantage of every opportunity she can to advance her position without running, free from worries about damaging her current political job or further upsetting a GOP elite which already hates her, even as it tries to keep her inside their camp.
She is rolling the dice a bit, betting that looking like a candidate on her own terms -- refusing most interview requests and declining to share her itinerary -- is nearly good as actually being one. And if her poll numbers rise enough when the dust clears, I'm betting no force on earth will keep her massive ego from jumping in the presidential race.
It is a shame that people who claim an altruistic drive toward public office are so willing to provide such a massive political distraction when there are key issues on the table worth tackling. Look no further than our own state, where even GOP supporters have buyer's remorse after electing a governor whose legislative actions don't seem connected to any coherent plan beyond serving his Tea Party roots.
In a different era, an independent news media would be trusted to sort through it all for anyone willing to pay attention. But in an age where some of the biggest news outlets are compromised by political or commercial bias, finding a referee to convincingly expose the Trumps and Palins of the world may be a near-impossible task.