Sarah Palin is a rather unique figure on the American political stage. Propelled out of obscurity by receiving the GOP vice presidential nomination in 2008, she became an instant celebrity. Everyone had an opinion on her. She was loved or hated; few were indifferent. In 2009, simply through Facebook posts, she almost derailed health care reform. However, her political acumen has been called into question since by variety of missteps and peculiar decisions, ranging from her abrupt resignation from Alaska’s governorship to her family’s penchant for taking part in reality television. In about three years, she has gone from being an unknown to a political juggernaut before descending to the level of a political sideshow, the Fox News equivalent to a Kardashian sister.
While this career trajectory may be relatively unknown in American politics — few have so quickly come to dominate the political landscape to her extent before rapidly falling in American history — it seems like a career straight out of European history, and French politics in particular. In fact, the arc of her political life bears a distinct resemblance to that of French General Georges Boulanger, who, in a period of political turmoil in the late 1880s, suddenly rose to political prominence until he squandered his opportunity and faded from the scene.
Boulanger electrified French politics in 1888, becoming the dominant political figure on the right, uniting all stripes of monarchists and Bonapartists under his aegis. His career culminated on Jan. 27, 1889, when he was successfully elected to the French National Assembly as a deputy from Paris by an overwhelming majority of voters. The time was rife for a coup, and his supporters waited for the signal. It never came as Boulanger hesitated. As a result of this prevarication, he fumbled away his opportunity for power and was eventually charged with treason and fled the country. He lived two years as a forgotten exile before killing himself in front of his mistress’ grave in Belgium.
While this may not match Palin line for line — it’s highly unlikely that Palin has any mistresses, dead or alive, let alone the desire to seize power in a monarchist coup — there are much deeper similarities. Both rocketed to political success on the right wing of politics outside the normal channels. They did not come to the establishment; the establishment came to them. But then through hesitation, miscalculation, or bad advice, they fumbled away the opportunity to seize power. (In Palin’s case, her party’s nomination). It was not that long ago that Palin seemed an unstoppable political force. Now, she is reduced to appearing at medium-sized rallies in Iowa, where she plays coy about her future while incoherently attacking “crony capitalism” in one breath and demanding an end to all corporate taxation in the next. As Michele Bachmann wins early tests of strength and becomes the favorite of evangelicals, and Rick Perry rides a wave of popularity thanks to his straight-talking anti-government bluster, Palin seems to have missed the main chance.
At this point, if Palin resembles any GOP candidate running, it’s Ron Paul. There is a strong and vocal minority that adamantly supports her — but very few voters she can convert. She has transformed herself from a political phenomenon into a glorified reality star. If George Washington was the Father of Our Country, she is the Octomom. Palin once wielded influence and power and could dominate the political conversation in 140 character bursts. But she missed her opportunity. Now, like Georges Boulanger, she’s likely to end up a quirky historical footnote, not a serious figure.