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Bring On the Crack-Up
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Bring On the Crack-Up

New Hampshire and the future.

(via Getty Images)

To grasp the significance of last night’s primary result, you should watch three videos.

The first was published on Monday, the day before the vote.

In 2016 Ben Shapiro didn’t merely oppose Donald Trump, he vowed never to vote for him. He argued—on television and in print—that by embracing Trump, conservatives would inevitably deform conservatism. That was prescient—and ironic, as Shapiro himself has since become Exhibit A in proving his own thesis. Eight years later, he’s just another copium drug-dealer for populists, albeit an unusually successful one.

The second video comes from Trump’s victory speech on Tuesday evening.

Social media lit up after that exchange with unfavorable comparisons to Chris Christie’s infamous photo op with Trump after Super Tuesday in 2016. It’s not unusual for prominent supporters to join a candidate onstage for his victory speech but Trump’s mafia-don persona and obsession with belittling even his allies lends an element of degradation to it that’s not present with other politicians. No one on Earth has enough dignity to stand in solidarity next to such a boor without looking like a henchman.

Tim Scott is one of the most dogmatic conservatives in Congress and well-liked by seemingly everyone who knows him. Given that context, that he felt obliged to burble about how much he loves the most unfit presidential nominee in American history was so painfully humiliating that I had to resist physically turning away from the screen while watching it.

The third video was recorded a few hours before the race in New Hampshire was called for Trump.

Marjorie Taylor Greene is a kook’s kook, so there’s risk in assuming that she speaks for most in her party. But facts are facts: She’s close to Trump, enjoys an outsize presence in MAGA media, and has been mentioned as a vice presidential short-lister. She’s also far from the only influential populist to fantasize about a party purged of those who don’t treat loyalty to the leader as their highest political duty. Kari Lake’s desire to rid the GOP of “McCain Republicans” was so intense in 2022 that she couldn’t resist expressing it on the campaign trail. In Arizona.

Each of the three clips above is a glimpse at what awaits conservatives who remain in a party not just led but dominated by a post-insurrection, “retribution”-minded Donald Trump.

You can embrace him enthusiastically (or pretend to) like Tim Scott. You can wearily accommodate yourself to him on tribal partisan grounds like Ben Shapiro, knowing that doing so obliges you to defend or minimize every lunatic endeavor he undertakes going forward, however dark. Or you can try to remain in the party as a principled conservative, calling “balls and strikes” on Trump as necessary along ideological lines, and be roundly despised for it by the dominant populist bloc typified by Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Or, fourth option: You can respect yourself and your country enough to stop voting for the crucible of spite and malevolence that this party has become.

The most interesting thing about New Hampshire’s Republican primary wasn’t the result, it was how the two candidates reacted to it. Although the result was somewhat interesting too.

The final RealClearPolitics average predicted a Trump victory of 19 points while the last three polls of the state had him beating Haley by more than 20. He ended up winning by 11 due to record turnout for a GOP primary in the state and a mind-boggling gap between Republicans and independents among the two candidates. A lot of Trump-haters showed up to make their feelings known, many from outside the party—but not all:

Afterward, the winner sounded unhappy.

He raged at Haley on social media. He warned in his victory speech that the press would come after her for “stuff she doesn’t want to talk about” if she became the Republican nominee. He threatened to “get even” with her. Forever true to his own nature, he mocked the dress she wore on Election Night.

It was a curiously angry response from a man who had effectively just locked up his party’s nomination and had pointedly struck a more subdued, unifying tone in his victory speech in Iowa last week.

The weaker-than-expected margin must have irked him. But what really got under his skin, I suspect, was how Haley reacted to the result.

I’m not quitting, she warned in her concession speech. (And it was a concession, contrary to irony-proof Trump apologists who suddenly resent the idea of a losing candidate falsely claiming victory.) “With Donald Trump, Republicans have lost almost every competitive election. We lost the Senate. We lost the House. We lost the White House. We lost in 2018. We lost in 2020, and we lost in 2022,” she told a crowd of supporters. Chants of “Trump’s a loser!” broke out, which must have been a first for this era in any event organized by Republicans.

She also returned to a theme of her final days on the trail in New Hampshire, needling Trump for “senior moments” he’s had at rallies and unsubtly implying that Joe Biden isn’t the only candidate in the race who might have dementia.

It wasn’t the capitulation that Trump—or frankly I—expected.

Nikki Haley is a career politician with her eye always and everywhere on protecting her future national prospects. She’s spent eight years contorting herself politically to avoid making sworn enemies of MAGA populists. Last night erased any remaining doubt that she won’t be her party’s nominee this cycle. The obvious thing for a politician like her to do under the circumstances was to follow Ron DeSantis’ lead by promptly dropping out and pledging her support to the winner, preserving her viability for 2028.

Instead, Haley sounded prepared to burn Trump down, hanging around the race for no grander reason than to keep saying things about him on a big stage that he’d rather not be said. “Democrats would kill for a month of ‘Haley challenges Trump to take mental competency test’ headlines with her campaign highlighting every possible screw-up he makes on the stump,” Semafor’s Benjy Sarlin observed afterward.

This is not the Nikki Haley I thought I knew.

We can be uncharitable to her and assume that her refusal to quit is just another strategic ploy, remaining active as a candidate for as long as she can in case Trump keels over on the golf course this summer. Or we can speculate that it’s a product of personal pique, as Haley must be annoyed by the tabloid smear campaign launched against her this past week. I bet she has some theories about who’s behind it.

But isn’t it just as likely that the last Reaganite has at long last seen the writing on the wall for Republicans like her and accepted that she has no future in this party—and, for that matter, no longer wants one?

Those in the know are hinting as much to my colleagues on the Dispatch Politics team. “Haley appears to be approaching this new phase of her campaign with a devil-may-care attitude, unconcerned about finding her place in the Trump-era GOP,” Mike Warren and David Drucker wrote in a report published this morning. “Sources tell us she has no interest in serving as Trump’s vice president or in a second administration. And she simply is not interested in being a perpetual candidate—playing it safe to better position herself for another White House run in 2028. Her goal, these sources insist, is 2024 or bust.”

That’d be an awkward mantra for a candidate whose campaign effectively went bust less than 24 hours ago. But it’s realistic insofar as Nikki Haley’s chances of becoming her party’s nominee this year are no worse right now than they’ll be after right-wing voters have spent another four years marinating in the belief that being a Republican means nothing more or less than being an unthinking Donald Trump sycophant.

Her choice is the same as your choice and my choice: Either make peace with that reality as Tim Scott, Ben Shapiro, and Marjorie Taylor Greene have, or do what you can to prevent a political movement as unworthy to wield power as this one is from prevailing this fall. Surrender—or embrace the crack-up.

Maybe Nikki Haley has decided that dedicating herself to weakening Trump before he faces Biden is the best thing she can do for conservatism, for America, and for her own legacy. She’s not just embracing the crack-up, in other words, she’s accelerating it. At a moment when it already appears to be accelerating.

If that’s so, the Republican “hostage crisis” might at last be over.

For eight years, Reaganites have been warned by Trump fanatics that they’ll burn down the party in a general election if their man is denied the right to lead it. Republicans can’t win without them, and to the average tribal partisan conservative, there’s no political scenario grimmer than losing an election to Democrats. Very stupidly, to the great detriment of ideological conservatism, they’ve acquiesced to that demand repeatedly in the interest of keeping the left out of power. And it hasn’t even worked.

One wonders if Haley’s speech Tuesday night wasn’t a tacit acknowledgment by the last Reaganite that the price of acquiescence has finally grown too steep. There is a scenario grimmer than losing to Democrats, it turns out: Turning the Republican Party into a loyalty cult serving an authoritarian lunatic who believes he’s entitled as president to commit infinite crimes is actually worse.

Populists aren’t the only right-wing faction with enough electoral muscle to tank the GOP’s chances in the general election by staying home. Perhaps Nikki Haley, seeing no future remaining for classical liberals in this movement, is finally ready to shoot the hostage herself.

Better late than never.

“But what about policy?” the Ben Shapiro faction of anti-anti-Trump conservatives will cry.

Well, what about it?

There’s no meaningful policy component left to Republican politics. On any given issue, “policy” effectively means “whatever Trump thinks is best,” and that includes abortion. If you think I’m exaggerating, read the one-page 2020 platform of the Republican Party. On the pressing issues of the day, whatever Trump wants is the official position of this worthless party.

If we must entertain a policy argument for supporting Trump, though, both sides should make stipulations up front. I’ll stipulate that the more traditionally conservative elements of Trump’s program, like deregulation and enforcing the border, appeal to me more than Biden’s alternatives do. But the Shapiro types should stipulate that the case for Reaganite conservatives preferring Republicans to Democrats on policy is less compelling than it used to be.

Foreign policy? Democrats are more likely than Republicans now to project power overseas to contain traditional American enemies like Russia—and, perhaps, China. Don’t count on Trump, the America First-er, being more determined to defend Taiwan than Biden just because he’s prone to ranting about Beijing. Recent evidence suggests otherwise. And of the two candidates on the ballot this fall, it ain’t Biden who openly admires Xi Jinping’s “strength.”

Federal spending? Modern Republicans are no more likely to support reform to entitlements, the country’s heaviest and least sustainable fiscal burden, than Democrats are. Conservatives in Congress nowadays spend their time obsessing over token cuts to discretionary spending, craving moral victories while accomplishing next to nothing in long-term debt reduction. And that’s only when a Democrat is president; when a Republican is president, those same conservatives don’t care much about spending at all.

Social policy? Roe v. Wade is gone. The battle over abortion has moved to the states and Trump is palpably leery of pursuing federal abortion restrictions once he’s back in office. He’s certainly more likely than Biden to veto any congressional attempts to codify Roe, but given the improbability that Democrats will control both houses of Congress in 2025, that’s a moot subject anyway. Meanwhile, legal gay marriage is now a 70 percent issue nationally and has itself already been codified at the federal level. It’s not changing, Trump or no Trump.

Immigration? Trump would certainly be stronger on the border than Biden has been, which is no small thing given the magnitude of the crisis. But even here, there’s piecemeal evidence of Democrats inching toward a more sensible (or somewhat less insane) position. John Fetterman, Eric Adams, and potentially soon a majority of Senate Democrats: “Border security” is far too dirty a term on the left than it should be, but it’s getting less dirty by the day.

The question with immigration isn’t whether Trump and the Republicans are meaningfully better than Biden and the Democrats, though. They are, no doubt. The question is how steep a civic price you’re willing to pay to get somewhat better border enforcement.

How much ruination are you prepared to let this cretin visit on the nation through power grabs, flagrant corruption, installation of fanatics in positions of influence, future coup attempts, and as many crimes as the Supreme Court will constitutionally empower him to commit? Having seen the likes of Tim Scott and other Senate colleagues meekly endorse Trump over the last few weeks, and having watched them twice before decline to hold him accountable for high crimes and misdemeanors, how could you believe that a Congress with a meaningful number of Republicans in it will check him if he goes rogue in a second term?

I’ve said this before, but it must be stressed: His gross unfitness for office is not another issue set. It’s not something to be “balanced” against immigration, as if tearing the social fabric to pieces might be justified by a 25 percent reduction in illegal crossings. To offer policy reasons for reelecting him is to declare one’s willingness to smash the constitutional order; it’s purely a matter of the price being right.

I feel naive in thinking, or more accurately wishing, that career politician Nikki Haley has come to realize that. Maybe she had the same thought I did when she saw this data last night:

If the differences between Trump voters and Haley voters were over policy, the split on that question shouldn’t have been so neat. There were similar results in other recent New Hampshire polling, Will Saletan noted today in a piece for The Bulwark, with extreme divides between the two camps on whether the January 6 defendants should be pardoned and whether Trump will be fit to be president if he’s convicted—actually found guilty by a jury of his peers—of a crime. His voters broke 87-12 on that last question. No typo.

Haley’s fundamental problem isn’t that she’s out of step with Republican voters on policy, Saletan contends. It’s that they’re nuts, twisted beyond civic recognition by their nutty leader and the endlessly catastrophizing political-drug-dealing media propagandists who serve him.

Perhaps she’s been slowly coming to terms with that over time, and last night’s disappointment finally removed her last shred of doubt. That would explain the defiant tone of her concession speech.

It would also explain her stated intention of staying in the race as long as possible, which is destined to bait Trump into further obnoxious spectacles like his victory speech. By antagonizing him in refusing to withdraw, Haley’s waving a target at him for more tantrums, sexist attacks, and vindictive blowhardery. Biden probably can’t defeat Trump, but Trump can defeat Trump, as we saw once before in 2020. Each additional opportunity he’s given to remind voters of how comprehensively abnormal he is gets him closer to defeat. 

And Team Haley knows it. Staying in the race is a straightforward attempt to feed him more rope to hang himself.

It’s true, of course, that being boorish toward Republican opponents hasn’t hurt Trump in the past, but it’s also true that we’ve never been as close as we are at this moment to a true right-wing crack-up. A majority of the party is pleased to some greater or lesser extent with Trump’s renomination, but a meaningful minority is mortified by it. The more examples that minority has of prominent respectable Republicans refusing to acquiesce in this travesty, the more emboldened they’ll hopefully feel to do the same in November.

If Haley’s political career ends with her choosing to provide that example, it’ll have ended well.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.