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'Joe the Plumber' and the rise of MAGA

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Although we are in the 2024 campaign cycle, two milestones this week got us looking back to the presidential campaign of 2008, when Senator Barack Obama first won the White House. The first milestone involves a viral moment.

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SAMUEL JOSEPH WURZELBACHER: Well, the reason why I asked you about the American dream - I mean, I worked hard. I'm a plumber. You know, I work, you know, 10, 12 hours a day.

SHAPIRO: That's Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, who became known as Joe the Plumber, after that exchange with then-candidate Barack Obama. He personified working-class America on the campaign trail. Joe the Plumber died this week from pancreatic cancer. He was 49. His legacy showed the power people have in politics, something NPR's Don Gonyea saw firsthand as he covered the 2008 campaign. Hey, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: What are your memories of that moment and what it meant at the time?

GONYEA: You cover a campaign. You know what it's like, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

GONYEA: It just becomes so much a part of you. And these things, these moments take up residence in the nooks and crannies of your memory, including, in this case, Joe the Plumber. He was an unknown. It was in Toledo, Ohio. He told Obama he wanted to buy the plumbing company he worked for, but he became an instant stand-in for working-class Americans terrified over the state of the economy and the financial crisis. It was one of those moments that just happens out of the blue. Then, just days later, there was a presidential debate with GOP nominee John McCain repeatedly attacking Obama by citing Joe the Plumber.

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JOHN MCCAIN: Why would you want to increase anybody's taxes right now? Why would you want to do that? - anyone, anyone in America, when we have such a tough time when these small businesspeople like Joe the Plumber are going to create jobs unless you take that money from him and spread the wealth around.

GONYEA: And within days, Ari, Joe the Plumber was out on the campaign trail with McCain trumpeting an anti-tax message.

SHAPIRO: Which sounds so much like what we went on to see with the Tea Party movement, the same sorts of complaints about taxes and government. But at that moment in 2008, no one had yet heard of the Tea Party.

GONYEA: Right. It would rise up as a force in the first two years of Obama's presidency when Tea Party candidates ran for Congress and for local offices in the 2010 midterms. But it is not a stretch at all to say that Joe the Plumber gave us a preview of all of that that would play out two years later.

SHAPIRO: All right. Well, I said at the top that there were two milestones reminding us of 2008. And the other one is that this was the day most Americans heard the name Sarah Palin for the first time. This was the day the Republican nominee, John McCain, named her as his running mate.

GONYEA: I was on an Obama campaign bus when that news broke. This was before we had smartphones. We knew she was Alaska's governor, but not much more about her. And I remember her name being pronounced mostly incorrectly on the bus - Pah-lin (ph), people were saying. So she just came out of the blue. And I've often thought about how her instant celebrity, her sassiness, her often-fraught relationship with the truth previewed what would hit with even greater political force in Donald Trump eight years later. And I should also add that Palin was there before Trump in how she viewed the journalists who covered her. We were, quote, "the lamestream media." Here's a sample.

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SARAH PALIN: But this BS coming from the lamestream media lately about this...

(CHEERING)

PALIN: Don't let the conversation be diverted. Don't let it distract.

SHAPIRO: So Don, what do you make of the fact that today neither Palin nor the Tea Party is prominent in American politics?

GONYEA: You can see that the dots from back then formed a path that eventually got us to Trump and his MAGA movement. A lot of the same players overlap. But again, in 2008, there was Joe the Plumber, and there was Sarah Palin.

SHAPIRO: And NPR's Don Gonyea was there. Thanks, Don.

GONYEA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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