10/09/2008 05:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Secret Face of Sarah Palin

Question: What's the difference between a demagogue like Joe McCarthy and one particular Hockey Mom?

Answer: Lipstick.

Senator Joe (Tailgunner Joe) McCarthy was, in many ways, a pioneer of modern Republicanism--i.e. a hateful, small-minded gay-bashing legislator who was also a closet homosexual. But, sadly for poor Joe, he was cursed with a face that was, as they say, strictly made for radio -- a chronically smarmy, half-drunk kisser that could stop clocks at twenty feet. So, in due time, Video Killed the Radio Czar, to paraphrase an old pop song; and while a putz like Joe McCarthy could never pass as The Face of the lunatic right in the age of cable TV news, his essential message--that anyone daring to advance a vision of America not completely rooted in his own hideous crypto-fascism must be somehow and dangerously Other Than Us, and must be exterminated by any means necessary--has never disappeared from the Republican playbook, often re-surfacing in surprisingly naked form (as in the chubby, torture-happy countenance of Dick Cheney).

Now we find Joe McCarthy reincarnated--much to his delight, one must assume--underneath the smeary lipstick and too-cute blush of The Queen of the Know-Nothings, Sarah Palin.

Sarah Palin's mouth is where logic goes to die. She makes The Stepford Wives seem way too whacky and spontaneous. And, of course, these are her good points. She is also a liar without conscience or basic decency. She gives fresh meaning to the great old Sinclair Lewis line, "When fascism comes to America it will come wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross." If it was a mistake to underestimate Palin -- and it certainly was -- it's not because of any hidden political skills or native smarts on her part; it was because deep down in her insufferably smug soul--that knowledge-denying, Other-fearing, witch-doctored heart of darkness--she connects with the absolute worst in her audience, giving license to the same lynch-party lust that gave Joe McCarthy his fifteen minutes of fame--and condemned thousands of good men and women to broken careers, bullshit trials, and suicide.

So while John McCain lurches through his drama-queen campaign--he's become the Judy Garland of American politics--he's remained (relatively) careful to keep his own personal appeals to racism and anti-intellectualism somewhat muted. And that's good strategy, because McCain suffers from advanced Joe McCarthy Syndrome: the moment his soul gets hateful, it's embodied in his face--his smile becomes that hideous frozen rictus, he blinks in a kind of Morse Code of deceit, and all his wattles and jowls and various sacs of facial jelly start trembling in scary cross-rhythms.

Hence, Sarah Palin.

The condition of the American economy offers a classic scenario for the coming of some kind of half-assed fascism. Of course, we won't recognize it as such--not right away, anyhow--because it'll arrive on our doorstep in the shape of a whacky ingenue: Lucille Ball, let's say--the next-door neighbor in a dumb sitcom--Fascism With a Friendly Face.

And what face more telegenically perfect, more ideally crafted for the job, than Sarah Palin's face?

But try to imagine what happens if she wins--when the lipstick and rouge come off, and we are confronted by the naked Thing Itself.