And unlike earlier times, most of these organizations are no longer reliant on (or controlled by) large conservative foundations. A review of the biggest conservative foundations' grant-making reports found that they were responsible for about only $50 million of the $2 billion pulled in by the groups reviewed by the Phoenix.
Not incidentally, all of this is helping push the conservative base further to the fringe of American politics, and almost certainly damaging the Republican Party. But if you think that bothers the right-wing merchants, you've got it backward. If anything, they are incentivized to help the GOP lose: Democrats in power give them a foe to rally the ideologues against (and a growing pool of disaffected Americans if the economy, or anything else, goes badly). The ascension of Obama and the Democrats was a financial godsend that repowered the gravy train — it was the best thing to happen to them since the Clinton era, when conservative talk-radio listenership tripled, and much of this industry was born.
So are these organizations run by true believers, or cynical parasites? That's ultimately a moot point. It's like asking whether fast-food CEOs eat their companies' food, or if tobacco executives smoke. In a consumer market, the consumer will get what they want from someone, whether it's chicken nuggets, Marlboros, or the most reactionary, extremist fear-mongering.
"If you want to do well in that marketplace, they expect red meat," says Zelizer, speaking of the conservative customer base. "They don't want moderates — that's not what sells."
Palin is red meat, atop red Naughty Monkey heels. She will sell.
Building an empire
Plus, she has an army waiting to follow her — even here in liberal Massachusetts.
"I believe that, whatever she chooses to do, she would be terrific at it," says Sandi Martinez of Chelmsford, a Republican activist and unsuccessful candidate for State Senate, who adds, "I see Sarah almost as a female Ronald Reagan."
Other Massachusetts residents who contribute to right-wing groups, in interviews with the Phoenix following Palin's resignation announcement, agreed with that sentiment. Palin has many options for channeling that following into a quite-profitable enterprise built around her brand.
If she plays it right (and finds trustworthy people to manage her affairs), she can make a lot of money, from a lot of different sources. And there's more than just dollars. Nonprofit organizations will pay for her and her fisherman-husband, Todd, to cash in on their notoriety and live the lifestyle of the rich and famous: travel, well-appointed offices, and other lifestyle accouterments. She will be paid to take part in luxury "conference" cruises, like one hosted by Oliver North's organization in June, or National Review's this month.
(Palin knows all about that world: her path to the V-P nod actually began when she visited with groups from National Review and Weekly Standard cruises during their stops in Juneau.)
And if she's looking for a model of success, she would do well to study at the feet of the master: former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.