Nikki Haley, like DeSantis, is afraid to confront Trump
It’s a losing strategy.
By Noah Berlatsky
Former South Carolina governor and Trump administration UN ambassador Nikki Haley announced her presidential candidacy yesterday with a slickly produced campaign video. She highlighted her South Asian background and experience, said Biden was bad, and promised to return to “fiscal responsibility” while securing “our border.”
“Get excited!” Haley tweeted, bringing to mind memories of Jeb Bush’s infamous “please clap.”
One thing Haley didn’t do in her video was address the orange elephant in the room. She didn’t so much as mention former President Donald Trump, the current polling leader for the Republican nomination. That’s not necessarily a surprise. Since 2016, the GOP in general, and primary candidates in particular, have been afraid to criticize or oppose Trump, even as Trump himself has denigrated and smeared his rivals in the most noxious and irresponsible ways.
The GOP has a collective action problem
Defeating Trump requires, at some point, criticizing Trump. But Trump’s large, enthusiastic base in the party will brook no criticism. If the entire party stood against him, he’d probably be in trouble. But everyone is afraid of being out front; no one wants to share the fate of Liz Cheney, who denounced Trump’s coup attempt and got crushed in her primary. So Republicans boast about their toughness while trembling and genuflecting before their fascist overlord.
This pattern was well established in 2016. Trump’s attacks on his rivals during the primary were bigoted, cruel, and often utterly divorced from truth. In one debate he mocked Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as “Little Marco.” He insulted businesswoman Carly Fiorina’s looks. He did the same to Heidi Cruz, Ted Cruz’s wife. Perhaps most egregiously, he pushed a completely false conspiracy theory about Ted Cruz’s father, who he claimed had been involved in the assassination of JFK.
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Trump’s rivals struggled to respond to these smears. The Republican Party largely refuses to believe sexism and racism exist; as a result, it’s difficult for people like Fiorina to accuse Trump of sexism, even when his crude attacks fit the bill. So other Republican candidates largely fell back on accusing him of being unserious or uncivil, or insisted that they’re above such mudslinging.
“I’m not going to spend a single cycle wondering what Donald Trump means,” Fiorina said after Trump attacked her.
Fiorina of course went down to ignominious defeat, as did all of Trump’s other primary opponents. Refusing to criticize Trump didn’t stop Trump. But did the new crop of Republican presidential hopefuls learn any lessons? It appears not.
In fact, the 2024 GOP contest is shaping up much like the 2016 contest. Candidates putatively running against Trump refuse to speak against him, or even to distinguish themselves from him. For example, during a recent CNN appearance, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu not only confirmed he’ll support Trump if he ends up winning the nomination, but distanced himself from his previous criticisms of him.
Along the same lines, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin oozed and flopped like an eel as he avoided rebuking Trump for election denial during a Face the Nation appearance last summer.
Another Republican contender, Larry Hogan, the former governor of Maryland, has to his credit been sharply critical of Trump at times, but even he recently indicated he’s open to lining up behind him in 2024.
As with Hogan and Sununu and Haley, so with former Vice President Mike Pence. Trump cheered on a mob threatening to murder Pence when his usually sycophantic VP wouldn’t join in Trump’s illegal and treasonous coup attempt. Yet Pence too has been wary of criticizing his former boss. He’s acknowledged that Trump was wrong to try to destroy democracy and install himself as a fascist dictator. But Pence refused to testify before the January 6 committee about how Trump tried to threaten and cajole him into participating in the insurrection. And he's hedged on whether he’d vote for Trump if he’s the Republican nominee — even though, again, Trump literally suggested Pence should be hanged, and encouraged a mob to try to track him down.
Trump’s closest competitor in polls, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, hasn’t shown any more backbone. Trump last year gave DeSantis the nickname “DeSanctimonious.” He’s called him disloyal. And recently, based on little evidence, he accused DeSantis of grooming high school girls.
Trump himself has of course been accused by dozens of women of harassment and sexual assault. He is currently being sued for defamation by writer E. Jean Carroll, who says Trump raped her. A tape in which Trump boasted about sexually assaulting women almost derailed his candidacy in 2016. In response to Trump’s insinuations, DeSantis could easily, and rightfully, point out that Trump’s history of sexual violence is extensive and that it should be disqualifying.
Instead, DeSantis followed the unsuccessful Fiorina playbook, blandly suggesting he’s above the fray.
“I don’t spend my time trying to smear other Republicans,” DeSantis said last week, taking the high road where Trump opponents have so often gone to die.
Which brings us back to Nikki Haley. Haley’s video announcement in no way indicates how she would break from Trump’s policies. The closest she comes to distinguishing herself is when she says the Republican Party needs a new generation of leaders and perhaps a woman at the helm. She also pointed out that the GOP has lost the popular vote in seven of the eight past presidential elections (Trump, in contrast, has lied and claimed he won the popular vote in 2016), though on her telling that seems to be more about Trump’s age than the fascism.
The failure to separate herself from Trump isn’t an accident. In January, when Fox’s Sean Hannity asked Haley to name a policy on which she differed from Trump, she just about broke short-form sprinting records running away from the question.
“Most of the policies he did I totally agree with,” she gushed.
Haley could’ve mentioned her support for aid to Ukraine. Trump, of course, was impeached for blackmailing Ukraine; he withheld aid to force the country to gin up dirt on then presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son. He’s continued to embrace Russian talking points, arguing just weeks ago that the US should unilaterally end Ukrainian military support. It would be an easy and meaningful policy difference for Haley to emphasize, but she won’t do it. That probably has something to do with the fact that the party is moving closer to Trump’s position.
When you come at the king you best not miss
Trump continues to be viewed positively by around six in 10 Republicans, and very positively by four in 10. Not only is he the former president, but for most Republicans he’s the rightful president; 70 percent of GOP voters believe his lies about Democrats stealing the 2020 election.
This leaves DeSantis, Haley, Youngkin, Cruz, Rubio, Pence, Sununu and all the other presidential hopefuls in a bind. As Democratic strategist Tommy Vietor said in reference to DeSantis, “If he starts punching at Trump, he’s going to anger a lot of the people he needs to vote for him.” But if no one makes a case against Trump, why wouldn’t the GOP just choose him again?
Arguing that Trump isn’t civil, or not nice enough, isn’t likely to sway Republican voters who like Trump’s aggressive style. And if you’re not willing to say that Trump’s election lies were wrong, then you’re agreeing that Trump should be president right now. If Biden stole the election — as Trump falsely claims, and other candidates are reluctant to dispute — then don’t GOP primary voters owe him their ballots to rectify this historic injustice?
As McKay Coppins has written in the Atlantic, Republicans candidates seem once again to be engaged in “magical thinking,” hoping against hope that someone, anyone, will take on Trump, so that they can step into the breach.
This isn’t completely implausible; Trump is facing multiple serious criminal investigations and civil suits; one of them could badly damage his presidential bid. And of course Trump is 76 years old. While he seems well enough at the moment, his health could take a turn for the worse. His rivals could get lucky and Democrats, or E. Jean Carroll, or an act of God could remove the orange tumor that has infected the GOP without any Republicans having to sully their hands.
So far, though, praying for divine intervention or for the legal system to intervene has not worked very well for Trump’s rivals. Primary opponents who won’t challenge Trump seem unlikely to pose him much of a challenge. Nikki Haley in her Hannity interview sounded like she was hoping for Trump’s endorsement as she boasted about what a good relationship she had with the former president and talked about how she loved everything he’d ever done. Meanwhile, Trump’s political operation is already taking shots at her, demeaning her as “just another career politician” who “started out as a Never Trumper before resigning to serve in the Trump admin” and then “resigned early to go rake in money on corporate boards” in a statement released after her announcement.
Haley isn’t going to win over Trumpers by playing nice, and Trumpers may still be a decisive part of the GOP electorate. That means she needs to be prepared for total war — to call him out as a loser by name. It’s still early, but right now it doesn’t appear she or any of the other Republican hopefuls are up to the task.