07/26/2010 06:26 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The 'Fascinating Fascism' of Sarah Palin

"Fascinating Fascism" is a 1975 essay by Susan Sontag, which appeared in The New York Review of Books. Ostensibly a critique of an African photo journal by Leni Riefenstahl, it attempts to scrape off the whitewash the German filmmaker had succeeded in applying to her reputation after World War II. Riefenstahl had downplayed her relationship with the Nazis. Actually, she was friends with Hitler and Goebbels, and an enthusiastic propagandist for the regime. Sontag examines Riefenstahl's films for their adherence to fascist ideals and aesthetics. One thing she notices is that myth always supersedes history; otherwise unromantic facts will interfere with the presentation of the ideological narrative. Fascism entices weak, twisted, and desperate souls to accept a counter-reality where their darkest fears and impulses are countenanced and applauded. As Sontag memorably concludes, "The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death."

Which brings me to Sarah Palin. Like Riefenstahl, she displays a pathological predisposition for self-reinvention. But I'm not really comparing the two. That would be an insult . . . to Riefenstahl. Despite her faults, she was a cinematic genius. The unlettered half-term governor has done nothing of lasting value. And when I envision her future, I don't see great works. I see a dead zone. The abomination of desolation that froze Johnny Smith when he shook Greg Stillson's hand in Stephen King's novel. Like Palin, Stillson utters homey platitudes and proposes simplistic solutions to complex problems (he'd send "all the pollution right into outer space"). He wears a construction worker's helmet at rallies (don't put it past Palin to campaign in waders). Of course, Stillson is a fictional character, one of King's human monsters, an American Hitler. Palin, however, is flesh and blood.

I know. It's wrong to call people fascists. The other side has been doing it ever since Obama took office. Irate wingnuts should echo the words of William Randolph Hearst: "Whenever you hear a prominent American called a 'Fascist,' you can usually make up your mind that the man is simply a LOYAL CITIZEN WHO STANDS FOR AMERICANISM." Hearst was responding to the publication of Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel, It Can't Happen Here, which depicts the election of a populist dictator in America. But with Palin in the White House, I fear it can happen here.

She will likely declare her candidacy next year, perhaps in February, on the 100th birthday of Ronald Reagan. In the primaries, the Republican faithful will vote for this Esther/Jael/Judith (pick your favorite Biblical heroine), in the hope that she will exact Old Testament justice against their black, brown, gay, and overeducated enemies. Who can oppose her? Romney? Huckabee? Gingrich? She'll glamor them like a True Blood vampire. At the convention in Tampa, she'll make the most stunning and well-orchestrated entrance by a female politician since Cleopatra wowed Rome.

If the economy has not improved by then, Obama will be as vulnerable as Carter was in 1980, when Reagan won in a landslide. So a Palin presidency is a possibility. Imagine her in power, backed by the unhinged underbelly of our society. She'd govern as a radical revolutionary, not a conservative. Conservatives -- true conservatives -- have limits, lines they're reluctant to cross. Reagan and even George W. Bush could be persuaded -- or forced -- to pull back when they went too far. But radical revolutionaries can't be reasoned with; they live to erase and redraw lines. Umberto Eco listed the key points of fascism in his essay, "Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt". It reads like a profile of the New Right. This is Palin's army, awaiting their marching orders.

There is light on the horizon. She lacks optimism and humor, two of Reagan's strongest traits. If she runs, it'll be on a platform of grievance. And her speeches will drip with bilious sarcasm. Still, I've learned not to underestimate the gullibility and anxiety of my fellow citizens.

I mentioned Umberto Eco. In his novel, The Name of the Rose, an ancient monk commits a series of murders to keep secret the existence of a lost book by Aristotle, on the subject of comedy. Aristotle's influence was so pervasive in the medieval world, the monk was afraid the book would encourage people to laugh at the Devil rather than fear him. It would "teach that freeing oneself of the fear of the Devil is wisdom." After confronting the killer, the detective (another monk) says he would like to dress him as a clown and drag him in front of their colleagues. Then he would chastise them: "He [the killer] was announcing the truth to you and telling you that the truth has the taste of death, and you believed, not in his words, but in his grimness." Grimness is all that Palin and her cohorts have to offer. We have a moral and patriotic duty to expose them for the clowns they are.