What is it about Sarah Palin that so appeals to the fringe right in America?
Listening to her keynote address to the national Tea Party convention on Saturday, the answer seems blindingly obvious. She's everything the right wing loves in a leader: A cheerful simpleton, unencumbered by objective reality, telling them with ringing conviction exactly what they want to hear.
Details are unimportant and largely undesired. Statistics are for liars. Anything that contradicts what Everyone Knows is of course just manufactured evidence from crooks, idiots, and socialists.
"Simpleton" is a key here, in a literal sense. The would-be leader must be comfortable with pure and easy explanations. Contradictions are tolerated, even ignored. Complexities and complications are not. Shades of gray are forbidden.
This is harder to achieve than it may seem. If the leader is too dim, he or she has difficulty sensing the desires of the audience/following, or putting them into simple, straightforward words. Too bright, and s/he has a hard time filtering out the contradictions. Sure, liars can play, but it's hard to lie convincingly and consistently over time. Really bright liars get bored and want to embellish. Sorry--too much of that won't do. KISS is the operative principle: Keep it simple, stupid!
"Cheerful" is equally necessary for a broadly successful political leader. Hateful and angry people are accepted (even welcomed and hailed) as commentators and observers. For a candidate, however, people of all persuasions usually want a person who will convince them that things will all work out. Gloom and doom need not apply.
Think back just a bit to the 2008 election. Obama the worried intellectual was not on the ballot. Obama the prophet of Hope and Change carried the day. If you're my age or older, think back to 1984. "Morning In America" Reagan swept to a landslide victory over Walter "I'll-tell-you-the-truth-I-will-raise-your-taxes" Mondale. Four years later, "Read My Lips" Bush the Elder tamped down the bilingual guru of smug competence, Michael Dukakis.
Truth is not a desired characteristic in this context. Truthiness is.
Naturally, to produce an electoral winner, the message delivered with bright simplicity must also be one that appeals to the sources of campaign finance. Palin has become a free media darling because she brightly mirrors the pre-set biases of her angry audiences. She'll become a successful national candidate only if she also manages to persuade the gray men of corporate finance that she will reliably carry out their bidding in the process. In the marketplace of ideas, after all, there's a premium value on the messages (and messengers) which command top advertising dollar.
Finally, yes, there's the physical appearance of the candidate to consider. Palin is attractive. In a visual-media driven culture, that's important. And yes again, it's even more so for a female candidate in a world where the double standard lives and breathes fire. However, appearance is a factor even for men at that level. Consider Obama himself; John Edwards before his disgrace; the physically fit and vigorous George W. Bush; John Kennedy; the trim actor Ronald Reagan; and so on.
One of the major reasons Rush Limbaugh will never make the big time as a candidate is that he's fat and ugly. And no one seems to mention chinless Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as a presidential hopeful. We should be grateful to the whims of superficiality for some small favors, at least.