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Let’s Do The Time Warp Again
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Let’s Do The Time Warp Again

For Nikki Haley, it’s 2016 forever.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley announced that she would vote for former President Donald Trump during an event at the Hudson Institute on May 22, 2024, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

As a Never Trumper, it’s my duty today to be furious at Nikki Haley. Yet I feel nothing—and not just because I’m heavily sedated.

On Wednesday, the shoe that we all knew would drop, dropped.

How angry can one be about this, realistically?

It’s traumatic to watch a “principled conservative” roll over for a proto-fascist out of rote partisanship, but we’ve all gotten used to that particular trauma by now. The anger is spent. Numbness and fatalism are what’s left.

It’s also hard to muster indignation at someone for disappointing you when you had low expectations for them to begin with. Haley is an ambitious politician, enough so to have challenged Donald Trump himself for the presidency this year. Once that path was blocked, it was always likely that the next path she chose would be one that maximized her chances of satisfying her ambition long-term. To remain even a longshot contender for her party’s nomination someday, she had to endorse the nominee. So she did.

A third reason it’s hard to be angry at her is that I meant what I said on Monday. Haley, warts and all, remains the least bad option for conservatives among the dismal field of potential Trump running mates.

Unlike Marco Rubio, her brain hasn’t melted under intense pressure to conform to populism. Unlike Tim Scott, she hasn’t groveled in ways so demeaning that the vicarious embarrassment from it risks stopping one’s heart. And unlike Doug Burgum, her national profile doesn’t depend entirely on earning Trump’s favor, up to and including dressing like him.

Hate her all you like, but you need to make peace with the fact that she’s the closest thing to a good influence that might plausibly land in Trump’s inner circle in a second term. I’ll go so far as to say that I’d retroactively give her a pass for Wednesday’s Trump endorsement if it turns out to have been part of a backroom deal with his campaign to choose her as vice president.

But no one thinks there was a deal, do they? I sure don’t. This surrender is unconditional.

Nikki Haley is a tragic figure. That’s the deeper reason to greet Wednesday’s news more in sorrow than in anger. She knows what the right thing to do is, and I think she genuinely wants to do it. She just … can’t. This is the only life she’s ever known; asking her to give it up is asking too much.

That moral failure has left her trapped in 2016. She’ll never get out.

My editors and I spent a few minutes this morning debating Haley’s motives for endorsing Trump and settled on two. One is to preserve her viability for 2028. The other is to preserve her value to corporate America.

Neither is very persuasive.

Whether endorsing Trump makes her more attractive or less so on the speaker circuit or to a company with a vacancy on its board is itself a matter of debate. Maybe it does, insofar as a business that hires a politician is essentially purchasing political influence. Haley will wield more influence within Donald Trump’s GOP as a known Donald Trump supporter.

But if his second term is the civic disaster that people like me expect, having a well-known Trump supporter on staff will be more of a liability for a business than an asset. Nor is it clear that Haley will hold any sway at all over a party that’s rapidly shedding her base of college-educated moderates and replacing them with blue-collar populists who despise “RINOs” like her.

How much influence did Paul Ryan wield over the GOP since leaving office, before he became an outspoken Trump critic? QED.

All of this also assumes that corporate executives, many of whom are culturally liberal, will make cold-eyed bottom-line decisions about whether to hire her instead of holding Wednesday’s political capitulation against her. Will a board full of Trump-haters who are disgusted at Haley for endorsing him lay their revulsion aside because bringing her on might be marginally better for business?

A company that’s all about currying favor with Emperor Trump irrespective of the moral implications would do better to put a MAGA goon like Corey Lewandowski on its board, knowing that he at least can get the emperor on the phone when needed.

Everyone wants to make money, but what Nikki Haley wants above all other things, I’ve always thought, is to be a figure of consequence. Ideally that would mean becoming the first woman president, but if that’s no longer an option then I’d expect her to focus on finding some other way to gain political significance. The obvious way to do that this year would have been to go about organizing a conservative boycott of Trump. Yet here she is, pledging to support him.

“She basically had a decision,” one of my editors put it. “Does she want to make retaking the GOP/building a new party the cause to which she devoted the rest of her life, or does she want to have a comfy retirement and maybe come in third in another presidential primary?” There’s very little political significance in that second option, but there’s a lot of potential significance in the first, particularly with Haley well-positioned by dint of this year’s primary to become a leader of the right’s Reaganite rump minority.

Did I misread her? Does she truly prefer a “comfy retirement” on corporate boards to being an important political player?

I doubt it. This is where the other motive comes in: As the runner-up in this year’s primary, Haley presumably believes she’s a top-tier contender for the Republican nomination in 2028. Raking in the dough from corporate America is nice, but the real benefit from endorsing Trump will come in the next presidential cycle. That’s when she’ll be crowned leader of the GOP and finally emerge as the significant figure she always knew she was.

But she won’t, of course. And on some level I think she knows it.

Politicians aren’t known for being clear-eyed about their chances of becoming president, but Haley would need to labor under an unusually dense illusion to believe Donald Trump’s party is prepared to turn to her anytime soon.

Populists have always found her suspicious due to her pedigree as a pre-Trump Republican, but the primary this year turned that suspicion into hatred. As I noted on Monday, Tucker Carlson promised to actively oppose Trump if he made Haley his running mate. On Wednesday, following the news of Haley’s endorsement, Marjorie Taylor Greene dropped this on her:

How does Haley prevail in 2028 in a party that, with each passing day, looks less like her and more like Greene?

And how does she do it now that she’s gone and annoyed the minority of Republicans who do prefer her to Trump? The price of endorsing him is disappointing the moderates and conservatives who supported her in this year’s primary as a bulwark of traditional conservatism against the populist tide.

Many of them will lose respect for her now. And no wonder:

Yesterday, Haley had a soft, smallish constituency within the party. Today she has none. That’s a weird move for someone who has her eye on 2028.

Strangest of all is that she seems to understand how little influence she has. The most striking thing about Wednesday’s endorsement is that it came with no strings attached despite the fact that she famously called on Trump to reach out to her voters and earn their support when she left the race. He’s done zero to meet that demand—unlike the Biden campaign—yet there Haley was, announcing her intent to vote for him anyway.

“She publicly challenged Trump to win her and [her voters] over, and it wasn’t easy, but his offer of actively less than nothing finally sealed the deal,” Semafor’s Benjy Sarlin snarked. That’s what happens when someone with no leverage makes demands of a more powerful entity and is ignored. Inevitably, and embarrassingly, they fold.

Haley’s sway within the GOP is so questionable, in fact, that it’s anyone’s guess whether her Trump endorsement will matter to her own voters. David Frum doubts it. “Haley was their instrument, not their leader,” he wrote of anti-Trump Republicans who turned out for her in the primary. “When the instrument ceases to serve its purpose, it can be thrown away without a pang or regret.”

Too Trump-friendly for conservatives, not Trump-friendly enough for populists: Does that sound like a winning formula in 2028?

Haley’s actual opportunity for influence over part of the American right was to withhold her support from the GOP nominee this year. That would have destroyed her chances at ever leading the party, sure, but it also would have cemented her reputation as a conservative leader willing to place her principles, and the welfare of the country, ahead of partisanship. If Trump went on to lose the election due to Reaganites staying home en masse, Haley and her faction would have gained real leverage over the GOP’s direction in 2028. Not enough to make her the nominee, but maybe enough to restrain the party’s worst populist excesses.

It would have turned her into a figure of political significance. She would have been able to say that she ended the “Republican hostage crisis.

Instead, she was reduced on Wednesday to praising Donald Trump on issues like the debt and constraining America’s enemies abroad, which is inane.

Haley’s not going to be the nominee in 2028, and she’s too smart not to realize it. “Isn’t it possible the party has moved, and the party is about Donald Trump and not what you’re describing, which might be the party of yesterday?” she was asked in an interview with CNN back in February. “It is very possible,” she conceded. A week later, she was out of the race, removing all doubt.

Why would someone who represents the “party of yesterday” be strategizing about the election of tomorrow?

The answer, I think, can be borrowed from the old joke about Brazil: Nikki Haley is the candidate of the future … and she always will be.

Specifically, she was the candidate of the future in 2016. She didn’t run for president that year, but she was at the pinnacle of her influence within the GOP as the twice-elected governor of a key primary state. She was poised to play kingmaker in the Republican race and it was plausible that her candidate of choice, Marco Rubio, would end up selecting her as his running mate.

In a universe without Donald Trump, she might have been vice president. And if not, she still would have been superbly positioned to compete for the nomination in 2020 or 2024 as a young, nonwhite Republican woman who might credibly expand the party’s electoral tent. Her time was coming. It was inevitable.

She was the candidate of the future. And, in Donald Trump’s universe, she always will be.

This is now the third presidential cycle in a row in which Haley has confronted the dilemma of whether to support Trump, and each time she’s handled it the same way. She criticized him initially in 2016, but came around in the end grudgingly, for obvious reasons. The candidate of the future needed to preserve that future by being a “team player.” When, not if, the party tired of Trump, they’d turn to her to pick up the pieces.

No doubt she expected him to lose that fall, as most of us did, and for the GOP to resume its Reaganite trajectory in the aftermath.

When he didn’t lose, “the future” was suddenly postponed.

After January 6, it looked like it would arrive at last. Haley seized that opportunity to denounce Trump and to declare his leadership of the party over, only to find to her horror that Republican voters didn’t agree. And so she reversed course and came around to supporting him again for the sake of preserving her viability in the GOP. She even vowed at one point that she wouldn’t challenge him for the nomination in 2024, no doubt hoping and assuming that he wouldn’t actually run again.

Then he decided to run. Faced with the prospect of “the future” being postponed again, Haley chose to move ahead with her own candidacy. Once again, she denounced Trump in robust terms—and once again, on Wednesday, she came around to supporting him because the “Haley future” that she and her conservative supporters were promised requires her to remain a Republican in good standing. The clock has now been reset to 2028 or possibly 2032, never mind that she hasn’t held any public office since 2018.

And so, for Nikki Haley, it’s always 2016. Cycle after cycle, the GOP is forever one landslide defeat away from seeing the error of its ways, throwing in the towel on populism, and pivoting to an electable center-right conservative woman who will set things right. The future is coming! It’s just taking a little longer than expected. Haley’s only 52 years old. All she needs to do is hang in there, say what needs to be said to avoid becoming persona non grata within the party, and … wait.

That future isn’t coming, though. Or, rather, it’s already here: 

One wonders how much longer it’ll take before she finally realizes “what time it is.

Watching Haley back Trump on Wednesday, I had dark visions of what might be in store for her. In 2028: “J.D. Vance has not been perfect. I have made that clear many, many times. But Gretchen Whitmer would be a catastrophe.” Then 2032: “Tucker Carlson has not been perfect. I have made that clear many, many times. But Josh Shapiro would be a catastrophe.” Or 2036: “Nick Fuentes has not been perfect. I have made that clear many, many times. But Wes Moore would be a catastrophe.”

It’s 2016 forever. The future is delayed, but rest assured that it’s coming. It’s a simple matter of Haley biding her time, being cordial with whichever authoritarian monster the Republican base prefers to her, and waiting for the big electoral wipeout that never actually arrives to catapult her to the top of the party.

It’s genuinely tragic. Because she can’t bear to extinguish the great ambition that’s driven her political career, she’s forced to degrade herself over and over again unto eternity by kowtowing to some unfit un-American cretin. She knows how to reclaim her dignity; I think she even wants to reclaim it. But what would be left of her existence if she finally let “the Nikki Haley future” go?

This is why it’s hard to be mad at her. It’s like being mad at the protagonist in an especially grim Twilight Zone episode. You don’t hiss when Rod Serling steps in front of the camera and pronounces their karmic doom. You shudder.

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.