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The Acceptance Stage
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The Acceptance Stage

Nikki Haley confronts her post-Republican future.

Nikki Haley speaks with young supporters during a campaign event in North Augusta, South Carolina, on February 21, 2024. (Photo by JULIA NIKHINSON/AFP via Getty Images)

Nikki Haley’s only shot at winning the Republican nomination is to stick around as a candidate for as long as possible and hope that something happens to Donald Trump.

Yet increasingly she’s spending her time saying things about him that guarantee she won’t be acceptable to the grassroots right as the nominee if something actually were to happen to him.

That’s weird, no?

Also weird: Few politicians in the United States, especially in the modern Republican Party, are as disciplined as Haley. She’s run a tight ship organizationally, a model of frugality relative to Ron DeSantis’ failed operation. And she’s unflappable as a retail campaigner, always smiling and always, always on-message.

On Tuesday, her composure finally broke.

Last month I dubbed Haley’s strategic approach to Trump after Iowa “the half Liz.” Like Liz Cheney, she’s grown willing to criticize Trump in ways that few other Republicans do. His age, mental fitness, and legal baggage have all featured lately in her arguments against him. But, unlike Liz Cheney, Haley isn’t quite willing to say that Trump is a menace to America’s constitutional order or that his character should disqualify him from the presidency. Those are “Democratic” attacks, ones that won’t be tolerated.

The point of “the half Liz” was to try to find a sweet spot in attacking Trump that would turn Republican voters in South Carolina against him more so than it would turn them against Haley herself. “The full Liz” is a fast track to having the GOP base view you as an enemy, as Cheney has learned the hard way. Maybe “the half Liz” could avoid that backlash while refocusing Republicans on Trump’s many flaws.

A month later, we can safely say that it hasn’t worked.

Haley has managed to avoid becoming a hate object for most of the party. According to one recent poll, a majority of GOP voters in her home state of South Carolina still view her favorably. And she’s made up some ground there in head-to-head polling with Trump since the end of January, rising from 21.8 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of the state to 36.5 percent today.

But she’s run out of time. The primary is on Saturday and Haley will lose badly, probably by a wider margin than she lost in New Hampshire. And although members of her party haven’t turned harshly against her, it may only be a matter of time before they do. The same poll I mentioned above found her favorability among Republicans in South Carolina sliding from 71 percent in November to 56 percent now.

“The half Liz” isn’t a winning strategy. At best, it’s a way to suffer a decisive defeat with a modicum of dignity intact, having thrown some reasonably hard jabs at Trump before succumbing. Haley must understand that at this point. She can read the polls as well as you and I can.

Watching her defiant speech in South Carolina on Tuesday, in which she vowed not to quit the race even if she loses the coming primary, the sense I got was of someone who’d given up on strategizing and had instead begun to face her political mortality in a party that’s no longer recognizable to her.

If there are five stages of conservative grief over the GOP’s gradual absorption by Trump, Nikki Haley might at last be approaching the acceptance stage.

When Haley switched to “the half Liz” after Iowa, many political commentators were struck by how cheerful she seemed on the trail. I noted it myself. Her odds of winning the nomination remained remote but there was a spring in her step. Strangely, she appeared to be enjoying herself.

But it wasn’t that strange, was it?

She must have felt gratified at having outlasted all of Trump’s other challengers once DeSantis dropped out. She had the New Hampshire primary in front of her too, where independent voters would give her a puncher’s chance at an upset. Then would come South Carolina, her home state, where she’d never lost an election.

It wouldn’t surprise me if she sincerely believed she had a chance of winning the nomination once she and Trump became the only two candidates left. No wonder she seemed happy.

And not just for selfish ambitious reasons. A Nikki Haley victory in the primary would restore the faith of many people in Republican voters, mine included. A candidate with 91 criminal charges pending against him can’t win a presidential nomination after all. The American right isn’t a lost cause!

Her shift in strategy doubtless also contributed to her good mood. Imagine how liberating it must have felt for a prominent Republican like Haley to finally speak a sliver of truth about Trump after bottling up her feelings for eight years. Psychologically, it would have been like a cloud burst after a brutal drought.

She was a happy warrior then. But not anymore, per her tears on Tuesday.

That must be due in part to her disappointment at the polls. She ended up losing New Hampshire by double digits and is poised to lose South Carolina by 25 points. Her fantasy of stunning Trump in the early states and making a race of the primary is over. She won’t be the nominee, he will. The American right is indeed a lost cause.

It may seem silly that she’d be shocked by an outcome that has looked for months like a fait accompli to everyone else but we should make some allowance here for basic humanity. Haley is an unusually successful politician; that success has understandably made her confident in her political acumen; and she and her team have invested heavily, intellectually and emotionally, in her strategy for victory. To have all of that suddenly shattered at the hands of a degenerate and his adoring admirers would shake anyone’s faith in themselves and the political world as they knew it. 

But losing to Trump isn’t the only aspect of the race that’s mortified her since New Hampshire, I’d bet. For instance, I wonder what she thinks about the ongoing ritual humiliation of Tim Scott.

Her old friend from South Carolina seems to have surpassed her in the Trump veepstakes lately but has paid dearly for it with his dignity. There was this loathsome moment during Trump’s victory speech in New Hampshire:

And then this one from a televised town hall on Tuesday night:

To keep his chances at landing on the ticket alive, Scott recently stooped to dodging questions about whether he would have certified Joe Biden’s victory on January 6, 2021. On some level Haley must be enjoying watching him squander what’s left of his honor, treating it as karmic payback for Scott cynically choosing to endorse Trump before the New Hampshire primary instead of the former governor who appointed him to the Senate.

But it might also be a cautionary tale for her. If, like Scott, she drops out and reconciles herself to Trump, she’ll pay with her own dignity as well. Team Trump will see to it. 

Supplication and humiliation await if she hopes to remain a Republican in good standing. No wonder her mood has deteriorated.

Something else that awaits her is a party whose most influential figures are now neutral at best on the subjects of Vladimir Putin and Russian expansionism. That’s never been more apparent than it has over the last month. I suspect it bothers Haley in a way few other other ideological sins do.

She is, after all, a true-blue hawk. I once called her a political weathervane, which was true with respect to Donald Trump but uncharitable more broadly given how consistent she’s been throughout her career in condemning Russian expansionism—even as Trump’s unlikely ambassador to the United Nations. Tuesday’s newsletter about the old guard of conservatives who continue to resist populist influence over Republican foreign policy might as well have been dedicated to her.

Imagine Haley’s horror, then, watching the last few weeks unfold.

In the span of 10 days this month, Trump said he’d encourage Russia to attack NATO countries that didn’t spend more on defense; Tucker Carlson, the populist right’s most popular broadcaster, gave Putin a friendly interview in Moscow; House Speaker Mike Johnson said he wouldn’t take up the Senate’s new military aid package for Ukraine; Russian troops won their first meaningful battlefield victory in months when they took the city of Avdiivka from undersupplied Ukrainian troops; and opposition leader Alexei Navalny died mysteriously inside a Russian prison.

When Trump finally got around to commenting on Navalny, he responded by comparing himself to the martyred dissident because of the recent civil fraud judgment against him in New York.

If you had set out to devise a series of events that would offend Nikki Haley’s Reaganite sensibility to the maximum possible degree, I doubt you could do better than all of that.

Listening to her lately, there’s a note of exasperated disbelief in her tone. She’s probably struggling to understand how the voters of her party, who have always outflanked the left in their ardor for containing Russia, could choose to be led by a clique of isolationists, post-liberals, and strongman simps.

But that is their choice, and as the next primary creeps closer there’s no way for her to go on denying it.

Right-wing Russophiles letting their freak flags fly all month, and Trump’s polling in South Carolina has risen by 8 points in that span. Republican voters there plainly don’t care about all the footsie being played with Putin. And if it turns out, as has been alleged, that the House GOP’s impeachment investigation of Joe Biden has itself been based on disinformation from Russian intelligence, rest assured that they won’t care about that either.

Even the traditional consolation for conservatives like Haley, that there remains a robust Reaganite power bloc within the party that can check Trump on policy, is no longer what it was. Mitch McConnell’s surrender to populists on the Senate’s immigration compromise a few weeks ago was so fast and unconditional that one wonders if the old guard’s days of resisting Trump’s isolationism are now also numbered. 

It’s Nikki Haley’s worst nightmare. The party she grew up in, whose worldview she adopted as her own, and which she once hoped to lead is collapsing around her. She … must have noticed. 

The coup de grace in her month of misery came a few weeks ago when Trump wondered at a rally why her husband was never by her side on the campaign trail, insinuating that he must be ashamed of being married to an also-ran. Haley was righteously indignant afterward: Her husband is absent because he’s deployed in Africa with the Army National Guard, and it wasn’t very long ago that a candidate insensitive to that hardship would have been roasted for it by pro-military Republican voters.

Yet, to all appearances, it hasn’t hurt Trump a bit. Even in a state like South Carolina with a higher-than-average share of residents who have served.

So why is Haley still campaigning to be this party’s nominee? What’s her strategy?

There is no strategy, as I said earlier. “The half Liz” was the strategy but it turns out even half a Liz is too much Liz for Republican voters.

Trump’s most lowbrow cronies don’t seem to distinguish between “the half Liz” and the genuine article, either.

There’s no such thing as “the half Liz” for a Republican, it turns out. Either you pledge your allegiance unquestioningly or you forfeit your right to call yourself a member of the party in good standing.

Haley knows that now, just like she knows now that she’s not going to win. She also knows that she has no near-term future in the party—although the fact that she hasn’t gone “the full Liz” by calling Trump a threat to democracy may mean that she’s trying to leave the door open a crack, just in case Republican voters regain their civic bearings a few election cycles from now.

So the question, really, isn’t why she’s staying in the race. The question is, why should she quit? At this point, what does she have to lose by continuing?

My colleagues at Dispatch Politics noted elsewhere that donations continue to pour into her campaign at a remarkable clip given how doomed she is. And as I mentioned earlier, her polling has improved meaningfully in South Carolina this month: It’s not impossible that she’ll top 40 percent in Saturday’s race.

She has money and supporters and no path to higher office anywhere that might be jeopardized by alienating the GOP’s Trumpist establishment. So why not keep going?

Staying in might even be helping her to accept what her party has become.

It must be terribly disorienting for a politician as calculating as Haley to watch her conservative criticisms of Trump land with thud after thud among Republican voters. She shouldn’t be surprised at that—those attacks have gone nowhere for eight years—but it’s one thing to know it and another to see it day after day on the trail, when the criticisms are coming out of her own mouth.

She’s getting a rough firsthand lesson in how little she still has in common with the majority of the GOP. To the extent that Haley has ever been a political weathervane, she no longer knows which way to point to appeal to Republicans. Perhaps her ongoing campaign is a matter of coming to terms with that, still not quite believing that right-wing voters are really, truly going to choose a figure like Trump over her—but getting closer to believing it with the result of each new primary.

Grief is a process. She’ll arrive at acceptance eventually.

There’s another possibility, though, that Haley has already quietly accepted that the GOP is lost and has come to feel a moral duty to make the case for traditional conservatism for as long as she can.

At the moment, by dint of her campaign, she’s the most prominent spokeswoman for Reaganism in the United States. Once she’s out of the race, that perspective will no longer have an influential voice within the party. The closest thing will be Mitch McConnell, the same broadly unpopular octogenarian who just capitulated to Trump on immigration and is almost certainly in his last term in the Senate.

In that context, one can imagine Haley concluding that she’s obliged as a matter of principle to go on trying to rally conservatives as best she can, to show the new populist GOP establishment that the Reaganite bloc is stronger than they think. Judging by the total obsequiousness of party leaders toward Trump, you’d never guess that he’s been losing a third of the vote or more in GOP primaries and looks poised to do so again on Saturday.

Nikki Haley has become the temporary leader of the conservative resistance and perhaps rightfully takes some pride in it, especially by contrast with the odious turncoat Tim Scott:

Where that resistance ends, nobody knows.

I’m skeptical that it ends with a new party—most conservatives are too partisan for that, and too reluctant to divide the anti-Democrat vote—but if you squint you might see the makings of one in the news today. Potentially it ends with a meaningful conservative crossover vote for Biden this fall that sinks Trump and shows the GOP that Reaganite priorities will need more respect going forward if a victorious right-wing coalition is to be built. A populist domestic agenda is one thing, a pro-Russian foreign policy is quite another.

But that’s the point to Haley’s lingering, not-quite-dead campaign: Where the conservative resistance ends, nobody knows. No weathervane is useful in gale-force political winds like these. All that’s to be done is to continue on, speak the truth about Trumpy populism’s foibles, and trust that doing so will matter somehow. Haley’s the last Republican left of any consequence willing to do so.

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.