Nikki Haley Surrendered, but Not Her Voters

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The views of Nikki Haley Republicans—pro-Ukraine, pro-Israel, pro-market—reflect all those things that Republicans used to think in that bygone era when Reagans and Bushes and Romneys roamed the Earth. But few feel any emotional bond to Haley. If she gives a Ted Kennedy–style “dream shall never die” speech at the Republican convention in Milwaukee this summer, they won’t tear up. They’ll wonder what the hell she imagines she’s talking about.

Most of Haley’s supporters voted for her as a way to stop Donald Trump. Haley’s announcement today that she intends to vote for Trump won’t raise their opinion of him; it will only lower their opinion of her. When she says, as she said again today, that she wishes Trump would “reach out” to her voters, she’s speaking words that may sound like English, but make no sense. The only way Trump could reach out to Trump-skeptical Republicans is by pleading guilty to the many criminal charges against him and vowing to devote the rest of his life to restitution for the victims of his many civil frauds.

It’s neither surprising nor disappointing that Haley has aligned herself with Trump after inveighing so fiercely against his utter unfitness for office. His rivals always do. Ted Cruz did it after Trump insulted his wife and accused his father of involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Marco Rubio did it after Trump’s relentless mockery of his height, character, and intellect. Compared with those gross self-humiliations, it’s a relatively small thing to submit to a candidate who merely called you a “birdbrain,” scored xenophobic points off your name, and implied that your military-deployed husband had gone overseas to run away from you.

Haley is making a calculation about 2028. Perhaps it will work out for her. I doubt it, but who knows? The question before those who once backed her is more immediate.

Pollsters suggest that about two-thirds of Haley voters preferred Joe Biden to Trump. Do the math, and that’s two-thirds of one-fifth of all Republicans. That’s not a lot of people in total. But it may be more than the margin of national victory in 2024. Polls in swing states that find that young voters and voters of color are drifting away from Biden also find that older and more conservative white voters are sticking with him. Older, more conservative, and white are not exactly synonymous with “anti-Trump Republican”—but the categories do considerably overlap.

Donald Trump campaigns as if he can return to the presidency with the votes of only his most zealous supporters, those who believe his lies about the election of 2020. Joe Biden understands that elections are decided not by the most zealous voters, but by the most conflicted: those who dislike the other fellow just that crucially decisive increment more than they dislike you. From the point of view of Trump-skeptical Republicans, this election is no more about Joe Biden than a fire in a children’s hospital is about the fire extinguisher. They don’t think, Gee, I wish this extinguisher were newer, so I’ll let the children burn to death. They think, I hope there’s still an ounce or two of flame-retardant foam left in this old thing—and if there is, I’ll be damn grateful for it.

Those who cast their votes for Haley in the Republican primaries are sometimes denigrated as out-of-date and out of touch. There is much truth to those jibes. Very clearly, the party is trending in a new direction. Those who object—but who for one reason or another have not yet quit the party altogether—are clearly a waning force. But they’re not quite an extinct force. They are motivated by what they cherish: the country, its democracy, its place in the world, its Constitution. Nobody will change their mind about those things. Haley was their instrument, not their leader. When the instrument ceases to serve its purpose, it can be thrown away without a pang of regret.

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