Striving After That Which Is Not Worth Having

Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley speaks at a campaign town hall event at Wentworth by the Sea Country Club in Rye, New Hampshire, on January 2, 2024. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images)

Before it was a worn-out celebrity magazine, Vanity Fair was a wonderful novel by the English satirist William Makepeace Thackeray, whose benevolent Puritan name belied his cutting and skeptical temperament, and before Thackeray got hold of it, “Vanity Fair” was an allegorical venue in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, a place where, as Thackeray would later put it in his novel, “Everybody is striving for what is not worth the having.” That sentence in slightly modified form was used as the tagline for the terrific 2018 television adaptation starring Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp, though it might as easily be the motto of the dreadful 2024 American reality television series currently starring Nikki Haley as Becky Sharp-as-a-Doorknob. 

One could make a pretty good case that the 2024 Republican presidential nomination is something not worth striving for and not worth having, but Haley isn’t even in the running for that: At the risk of giving a hostage to fate, her most likely political future includes losing in Iowa, then losing in New Hampshire—and then being shredded like a dry winter leaf sucked through a Husqvarna Z572X Zero Turn in her home state of South Carolina, where Donald Trump currently leads her by a margin of more than 2 to 1 in the polls. I am not in the race, but I am closer to Haley in the polls than Haley is to Trump. 

It would be one thing if Haley’s bid were some kind of admirable display of conscience: When Cato the Younger disemboweled himself (twice, really—it is kind of a grisly story) rather than consent to live one day under the tyranny of Julius Caesar, it was a worthwhile gesture, and he died a good death. Nikki Haley is not going to her death, even if her reputation is. Haley—a Southerner and former governor who once acquitted herself reasonably well in a Confederate flag controversy and currently is striving after a presidential nomination once conferred upon Abraham Lincoln, for Pete’s sake—managed to wrongfoot herself on a predictable troll question about the Civil War, initially describing it as a conflict about liberty and good governance before adding, pathetically—and here pathetically is, for once, precisely the right word—“What do you want me to say about slavery?” 

Well, governor—what do you want to say about slavery? 

People ask Republicans these Civil War questions for two reasons: 1) They think there is no good way for a Republican candidate to answer the question, that waving away the slavery question makes them look like they are courting bigots and Lost Cause goofballs, while being frank about slavery will cost them support among the bigots and Lost Cause goofballs they are courting; 2) They think Republicans are dumb. 

Nikki Haley is not dumb—she is not an idiot, but she plays one on TV. 

Most Republicans do the same—it is the defining feature of their party in 2024. They have fully internalized Trump’s boobishness (though he is not the origin of GOP boobery) and his used-car-salesman’s superlatives. Rep. Elise Stefanik, taking a victory lap after the announcement of the resignation of Harvard President Claudine Gay, boasted that this is “just the beginning of what will be the greatest scandal of any college or university in history.” That is true if by “any college or university” you mean the 20 most famous institutions in the United States and if by “in history” you mean the past six months—if not, then surely Martin Heidegger’s Sieg-heil!-ing his way to the top at Freiburg University in the 1930s limbos right under the admittedly low bar set by Claudine Gay and her enablers at Harvard. But that is how Republicans talk—and think, if I may abuse the word—these days, “the fierce urgency of now” as seen from whatever is three flights of stairs down from the lowest gutter in Palm Beach. 

I used to say that Ted Cruz reminds me of the pickup artist in Infinite Jest, whose opening line with women is: “Tell me what sort of man you prefer, and then I’ll affect the demeanor of that man.” (Yes, I wrote the same thing about Elizabeth Warren, once—it’s a good line.)The difference, of course, is that the imaginary pickup artist in the novel deploys his gambit with success, while Ted Cruz almost lost reelection to an El Paso trust-fund snoot with the politics of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the keen mind and Ciceronian affect of Jeff Spicoli after an all-morning wake-and-bake in the VW van. Cruz is the guy who lost to the delusional authoritarian game-show host the last time around, and I wonder which part of his subsequent story arc has Nikki Haley saying: “I gotta get me some of that political magic.” Trump calls Haley “bird brain” and his minions call her “Nimrata Randhawa,” believing—not without reason—that there is political juice to be had out of primary voters by painting the South Carolina-born former governor as a dirty foreigner scooped up out of some sweaty Noida call center, but I’ll bet you a fair heap of gently depreciating U.S. dollars that my editors will get more of an earful from her people after this column than Trump has received in the whole of her timid, chickens—t campaign so far

What do I think of the Republican contenders’ attempt to take on Trump head-on? I think it would be an interesting idea—maybe even one worth trying. 

Very large majorities of Americans do not want Donald Trump—or Joe Biden—to be president again. According to my English-major math, that suggests there is an opportunity for some sensible center-right politician to build an anti-Trump and anti-Biden coalition, winning the primary and the general election with basically the same group of voters, thereby liberating himself or herself from the perceived need to pretend to be one sort of man or woman for one set of potential voters and a different sort for different voters. It suggests that some sensible center-right person could win the primary and the general without the coup-plotters and the Lost Cause dopes and the bigots and the QAnon kooks and the rest. 

Chris Christie isn’t really trying to do that—he’s just waging a merry little jihad that is about Trump rather than about the wider movement currently organized around him. But somebody could do it. The thing is, Nikki Haley does not seem to think that she can do that. Her idiotic Civil War gaffe isn’t evidence of some covert racist sensibility on her part—such claims are ridiculous. Instead, her idiotic Civil War gaffe is evidence of something we already know that requires no additional evidence: Haley thinks her best bet is trying to stay in the good graces of the kooks and bigots and conspiracy nuts, because that is the only available path to power. I have a pretty low opinion of the Republican electorate—but not as low as Nikki Haley’s, it would seem. 

Maybe Haley has it right. But if you don’t think you can win without the kooks and the bigots, then it probably isn’t worth winning. But winning is one thing—if you think you can’t secure … a distant second-place showing that is only a point or two ahead of third place … then, really, why invite all of that stink into your life? 

One rarely hears the words, “Thank goodness I ended up back in Arkansas!” But, for Bill Clinton, those were the right words. 

In the early 1990s, Democrats were in a state of absolute political despair. Ronald Reagan had trounced them twice, hard, and Americans had come to equate the party with the unfortunate dorks it had put up against Reagan in 1984 and George Bush in 1988, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, respectively. In 1972, Richard Nixon had crushed George McGovern in a 49-state landslide, and while Watergate was the end of Nixon, the GOP bounced back pretty quickly, with Reagan taking 44 states in 1980 and 49 states in 1984. 

(Recount Minnesota!) 

You know who wasn’t in the middle of all that? Bill Clinton.

In 1972, Clinton was still in law school; in 1980, he was on his way to becoming, as he ruefully put it, the youngest ex-governor in Arkansas history; in 1984, he was back in the governor’s office and, having learned something from losing to a Republican in a state where there often had been no Republican candidate at all for some statewide offices (Clinton himself had run unopposed in his election as attorney general), Clinton turned a few degrees to the right; in 1988, he opened the convention that would nominate the doomed Dukakis by giving a speech that was mostly an advertisement for his own moderating “New Democrat” style of politics and then, when Dukakis went down in flames, Clinton led an “I Told You So” tour as head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. 

It helped Clinton a great deal that he was, for all of that time, the big noise in a Southern state that was trending Republican (a partisan transformation that, following the slow political pace of many other Southern states, would not be complete until 2014) and that he was far, far away from the likes of Dukakis, Mondale, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and other exemplars of sanctimonious urban Northeastern welfare-state politics who were, at the time, the towering figures in the Democratic Party. If Bill Clinton had been a son of Greenwich who grew up to be governor of Connecticut or a Hoboken scion who grew up to be governor of New Jersey, he would not have been president of the United States—and, indeed, the Democratic Party might never have recovered from its defeat and humiliation in the 1980s and 1990s. 

 (Oh, the Rev.  Jackson! If you think antisemitic outbursts are a new feature of left-Democratic politics, go read up on “Hymietown.”) 

It is an interesting matter for speculation: Bill Clinton’s policies as president had very little to do with the technology-driven prosperity of the 1990s—Bill Gates and Marc Andreessen had a lot more to do with it—but Clinton and his party had a lot of good feelings stick to them, as was inevitable, and one imagines that the dynamic would have been even more intense had that decade of prosperity happened under a president from the more capitalist-friendly (at the time, and in theory) Republican Party rather than under a Democrat who had to drag his party—whining and moaning if not kicking and screaming—out of the 1970s and toward some kind of British-style pre-Thatcher union-goon social democracy. Bill Clinton learned the lessons of his party’s mistakes, as did his opposite number in the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, the modernizing and moderating Labour leader whose Spice Girls-era “Cool Britannia”  was a hell of a lot more attractive than the Sad Britannia of the current crop of resentful Little Englanders.

Bill Clinton was a canny enough politician that he did not run a lot of no-hoper campaigns that obliged him to make a lot of promises and sell little bits of his soul to the likes of Lane Kirkland (the AFL-CIO boss who opposed Clinton on NAFTA) or Al Sharpton (speaking of left-wing antisemitism) or their ilk. Clinton knew how to dance: As governor, he cheesed off Arkansas teachers’ unions by pushing for mandatory competency testing, but he also softened the blow with higher pay. When his party was making tweedy professorial noises about the need to address the “root causes” of crime,  Clinton made a big show of tough-on-crime policies and did everything short of staging a bullfight to publicize his state’s reinstatement of capital punishment and its first executions in years. 

All of that meant that when the time came—the time when the country was a little bit fatigued by 12 years of Republicans in the White House and irritated by a modest recession but by no means interested in resurrecting the political corpse of Walter Mondale—Bill Clinton could step forward and plausibly advertise himself as a different kind of Democrat, as a real alternative both to a Republican Party whose conservatism was increasingly strident and doctrinaire and to the model of Democratic politics that had, e.g., turned Detroit into a smoking ruin. 

Nikki Haley is a little older today than Bill Clinton was when he was elected president and a little younger than George W. Bush was. She has some time. Or, rather, she had some time. One might wonder: If she is not really going to run against Trump and Trumpism—not only as a matter of bad manners and corruption and the occasional attempted coup d’état but as a matter of substantive ideas and real values—then what the hell is she doing? We know what Christie is doing: He loves this stuff, loves being in the game, and he doesn’t think he’s really hurting his party or his country, and because he’s a cheerful nihilist from New Jersey who naturally assumes that we are all doomed, anyway. We know what Vivek Ramaswamy is doing: He’s a bored rich mediocrity who, like a lot of bored rich mediocrities, thinks that his talent for making money is part of a general-purpose genius encompassing a talent for statesmanship that simply could not be fully actualized as, say, a county commissioner in Ohio or a city councilman in New York. We know why Ron DeSantis is in the race: Politics is his therapy, and he’s one broken shoelace away from leaving a jack-o’-lantern with a knife stuck in the side of its head and a note that says “You” on the national doorstep before ringing the doorbell and scampering madly away. Haley could, if she were so inclined, stand tall among these Lilliputians and offer a real alternative to the moral midgetry of the contemporary Republican Party rather than merely retailing a skim-milk version of the genuine full-on-psycho article. 

Ultimately, Nikki Haley can’t give the Republican Party what it really needs—which is one of those 49-state wipeouts like the Democrats suffered in 1972 and 1984: Even a 1988-style 40-state ass-whipping might do the trick. The people who study addiction tell us that the need for junkies and drunks to “hit bottom” before recovery is a dangerous myth—but it may be true for political parties. 

But for now, Haley and the GOP seem content to do what addicts always do: to keep striving after what is not worth having.

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