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The Half Liz
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The Half Liz

How much truth should Nikki Haley tell about Donald Trump?

A composite image of Liz Cheney and Nikki Haley (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images/Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

On Friday evening we had a family quarrel in the Dispatch Slack channel. I started it.

It began with this tweet from Nikki Haley reacting to the latest hourly evidence that her opponent’s thriving political career is an unanswerable indictment of America and its people.

As the most insufferably shrill Never Trumper on staff, I naturally shared the tweet with our Slack community and sniffed that Trump being distracted from policy is perhaps not the biggest problem with him manically defaming a woman he was found liable for sexually abusing.

Sure, said a colleague, but Never Trumpers aren’t the target of that tweet. Persuadable Republicans are.

Haley can’t attack Trump’s fitness directly without essentially telling GOP voters that they’ve made a terrible mistake in supporting him for so many years, another commented. That would alienate people she’s trying to win over.

What’s the upside of Haley burning Trump down, a third asked? Many Republican officials formerly trusted by his base, like former Attorney General Bill Barr, have spoken bracingly about his fitness yet he’s still on track for a 50-state sweep in the primary. Shouldn’t she try to be effective rather than cathartic?

“Effective or cathartic?” has been a hot topic among the wider punditocracy over the past week as Haley has tiptoed toward sharper criticism of Trump.

Some, like Ross Douthat, believe Haley should spend her remaining time in the race calibrating her message toward maximizing her share of the vote, eschewing nuclear attacks on the frontrunner. Others, like Peggy Noonan, want Haley to be more aggressive toward Trump but with a lighter, more oblique touch than the glowering batting ram Chris Christie. Our friends at The Bulwark, on the other hand, see no point in Haley restraining herself in a race she obviously won’t win. “This moment in American history calls for bold truth-telling, drawing lines in the sand,” Michael Wood wrote recently for the publication. “It’s time to embrace your inner Liz Cheney,” he advised Haley.

Is that right? Is it time for “the full Liz”?

By “the full Liz” I mean a frontal assault on Trump’s fitness for office, largely dispensing with arguments over policy differences. Cheney has sharp disagreements with Trump on foreign policy, for instance, but those have become an afterthought to her core critique that he’s unbalanced and an authoritarian threat to American democracy. The full Liz is a fast track to pariah status in the modern Republican Party, as Cheney and Christie might tell you.

Opposite from “the full Liz” is what we might call “the full DeSantis.” If the full Liz concerns itself with character to the near exclusion of policy, the full DeSantis concerns itself with policy to the near exclusion of character. The governor of Florida had much to say during his campaign about Trump’s handling of COVID, his failure to build the wall, and so on, but had precious few thoughts about whether a coup-plotting demagogue is worthy of the White House. The full DeSantis, it turns out, is a fast track to underperforming abysmally in a primary against Trump.

Neither the full Liz nor the full DeSantis are great options for Nikki Haley.

So it looks to me like what she’s currently attempting, perhaps novelly, is what we might call “the half Liz.”

Haley spent most of the campaign practicing the full DeSantis, deflecting questions about the frontrunner’s fitness with meekly passive formulations about how “chaos follows him.” Fergus Cullen, the former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party, summarized her approach memorably: “She says in her stump speech, ‘I’m going to give you hard truths,’ and then she gives you easy truths.”

Now that she’s become the last challenger standing, she’s gotten punchier. Particularly on the subject of Trump’s mental competence.

She didn’t just say that to reporters, she said it to crowds of supporters on the trail in New Hampshire. And she hasn’t limited herself to age-based critiques. She’s begun to describe Trump lately as “unhinged” per his boorish victory speech last week in New Hampshire, even resorting to armchair psychology to explain his behavior. “When he feels insecure, he starts to rail. He starts to rant. He starts to flail his arms, and he starts to get upset. When he gets—feels threatened, he starts to throw all kinds of things out there,” Haley said Sunday on Meet the Press, describing Trump’s speech as a “temper tantrum.” The analogy is unmistakable: Nikki Haley, a mother of two, knows better than to take a cranky child seriously and so should you.

There was another notable exchange in that interview. When she was pressed about Friday’s blockbuster defamation judgment against Trump, for once Haley sounded conspicuously more like Liz Cheney than Ron DeSantis.

Benjy Sarlin pointed to that answer as tantamount to “crossing the Rubicon” in a piece published Sunday at Semafor. He summarized the essence of “the half Liz” in tracking Haley’s recent evolution on the subject of Trump’s fitness and her growing willingness to tell the truth about who won the 2020 election

What stands out about Haley’s remarks is not just that it’s a Republican taking on Trump over sexual misconduct, something that’s almost unheard of since he survived the Access Hollywood tape in 2016. It’s that a top rival is actually addressing the core argument of Trump’s candidacy: That he is the target of a vast conspiracy that stole the last election and is targeting him now in order to steal the next one.

These twin premises, which Trump has spent years working to build up and maintain, have made it virtually impossible to attack him. “Electability” is not an effective angle when losses are not considered legitimate. Attacks on Trump’s personal character, ethics, and competence are not effective angles when some malicious outside force — the “deep state,” “partisan prosecutors,” etc.— is to blame for his problems. To the extent his nomination looks inevitable, this is the reason.

The “core argument of Trump’s candidacy” is really just the man’s narcissism distilled to its essence, that he’s never to blame for his own failings. Whether personal, political, or legal, he’ll invariably attribute his setbacks to the corruption of others. You can’t be a Republican in good standing in 2024 without sharing that belief. It’s the first commandment of the cult.

Nikki Haley will probably never follow Liz Cheney’s lead by calling Trump an existential threat to the constitutional order. But Sarlin is right that questioning his mental stability and vouching for the defamation judgment are meaningful, if lesser, transgressions to GOP orthodoxy in their own right. By moving past policy to blame him for causing his own biggest problems, Haley is rejecting the first commandment. From “chaos follows him” to “he surrounds himself in chaos”: That’s the half Liz.

The full Liz is a nonstarter among Republican voters because it aligns foursquare with Democratic messaging about Trump. Liz Cheney will tell you that Trump is the most dangerous, least qualified person ever to run for president and Joe Biden will tell you the same, verbatim. Cheney would also doubtless have many dark observations about Trump’s psychological disposition if pressed to comment on it, and those observations would likely be indistinguishable from the average Democrat’s.

The half Liz seeks ways to challenge Trump’s fitness that don’t perfectly replicate Democratic talking points. For instance, Haley won’t praise E. Jean Carroll as some truth-to-power feminist hero or the various prosecutors who’ve indicted Trump as pillars of the rule of law, as liberals might. She will say that she trusts juries composed of everyday Americans, as many Republican voters do. Haley won’t denigrate Trump by speculating where, precisely, he sits on the spectrum of “dark triad” personality traits, but she will hint repeatedly that politicians over age 75 have lost some of their marbles. That’s an argument that the Biden White House is, er, reluctant to make but one that Republican voters have spent the last three years warming up to.

There’s another important difference between the full Liz and the half Liz: Tone.

Trump’s harshest critics, like Liz Cheney and Chris Christie, are inescapably dour, apocalyptic, and prone to chastising Republican voters. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz sounded similar in the final days of their campaigns in 2016, plainly mortified by the choice their party was preparing to make. Watching the American right rally around a lowlife has always been dispiriting but watching them do so again after he attempted a coup will leave any decent person exasperated and even contemptuous of his fellow citizens. There’s a reason this newsletter routinely reads the way it does.

Haley doesn’t sound like that, though. Strangely, as numerous political reporters have observed, she seems to be enjoying herself on the trail after losing Iowa and New Hampshire. Whether that’s because she feels liberated by her situation to speak her mind more freely, because she’s jonesing on having outlasted the other pretenders in the race, or because she’s in denial about the looming end of her political career, only she knows. But it’s notable how little scorn there seems to be in her recent attacks on Trump’s fitness. The vibe, as I’ve said, is less Cheney-esque fire and brimstone than that of a parent amused by the silly fit their attention-seeking child is pitching. 

There’s no venom toward Trump in the half Liz, just a patient, ever-smiling grown-up encouraging Republican voters to be as much of a grown-up as she is. The repeated use of the term “temper tantrum” is surely no accident.

It must drive Trump batty to be genially condescended to not just by an opponent but by a woman. Historically he’s shrugged off jabs thrown at him by male candidates, expecting a competition for dominance with them and never doubting that he’s the most alpha of the bunch. Being needled by women has always seemed to bug him as a special affront, though. He’ll have to endure it for another month now, maybe more.

Which brings us back to our threshold question. Is the half Liz effective as a strategy for Nikki Haley? Would catharsis, a la the full Liz, be preferable?

We can answer that question with a question. What does it mean for a candidate in Haley’s position to be “effective”?

Traditionally, to campaign “effectively” means to increase one’s chances of victory. If you’re winning over undecideds and closing the gap with the frontrunner, you’re being effective.

Haley has no chance of victory. She won’t win a single state. Her realistic best-case scenario is to lose in South Carolina by a smaller margin than expected, fight on to Super Tuesday, then bow out after getting swept. She might as well go full Liz, deliver the catharsis anti-Trumpers are craving, and bolster the “permission structure” Chris Christie tried to create for disaffected Republicans to oppose the miscreant nominated by their party in November. By any typical definition of “effective” electoral politics, the half Liz strategy is pointless.

But it’s silly to apply the typical definition of “effective” politics to a party that is, to put it charitably, atypical. What does it mean to be “effective” running against a strongman backed by a personality cult and bent on provoking multiple constitutional crises if reelected?

I would say that an “effective” campaign under those circumstances is one that weakens that strongman’s chances of winning the general election to the maximum extent possible. And by that definition, the half Liz might be optimal.

If Haley went full Liz before South Carolina, there’s every reason to think some of her supporters would peel away in disgust at seeing their favored candidate suddenly adopt “Democratic talking points.” New Hampshire was the experiment that proves it. Haley ran the full DeSantis strategy there while Christie ran the full Liz; Christie is now an ex-candidate while Haley is being given national platforms to rip Trump for being a squealing geriatric manbaby who seems increasingly “confused” as he approaches 80.

Assume that the full Liz would produce an 80-20 Haley defeat in South Carolina while the half Liz would hold Trump’s margin to 60-40. That might be the difference between Haley dropping out immediately versus sticking around for Super Tuesday, giving her more time to get under Trump’s skin, creating more opportunities for him to needlessly alienate Republicans who prefer Haley, and possibly changing the tenor of the news coverage about his victory. In an 80-20 landslide, the story will be how utterly Trump dominates his party. In a 60-40 win, the story will be that the candidate who supposedly dominates his party keeps losing 40 percent of “his” voters to Nikki Haley in Republican primaries.

If, in other words, the half Liz strategy ends up revealing the hidden extent of the GOP electorate’s misgivings about its leader, incrementally normalizing opposition to him on the right, I’d say that counts as “effective” for the anti-Trump cause before the general election.

There are other points in its favor. As one Dispatch colleague pointed out to me, voters, staffers, and donors may be more inclined to stick with a candidate who’s trying to win, however improbably, than with one who’s resolved to burn the party to the ground a la Liz Cheney. Haley’s extra weeks on the trail will also give Democrats an opportunity to study which of her attacks on Trump are landing with special force, information they can repurpose for November.

Even after she leaves the race, the residue of the half Liz approach might be useful in persuading wavering Republican voters not to support their nominee. Someone who’s categorically unwilling right now to listen to Cheney’s critique of Trump might have a seed of doubt about his fitness planted in their mind by the more amiable Haley. If that leaves that voter more susceptible to the full Liz argument this fall, that’s valuable.

But it’s also pure speculation, maybe even wishful thinking.

The obvious problem with the half Liz strategy is that it offers no reason not to prefer Trump in November as the least bad option available.

The full Liz strategy does. Trump is a threat to democracy, Biden is not: Cheney has been clear in framing the stakes of the election in those stark terms. Those who agree with her will vote accordingly this fall. Haley’s message, by contrast, is that Trump is “a raging incompetent who upsets swing voters that Republicans need to win,” as Sarlin puts it. He’s old, in decline, and needlessly alienates Americans who’d be willing to vote for a less objectionable nominee …

…but all of that is also true of Joe Biden. Absent the moral force of Cheney’s case, it’s not clear why any wary Republican would view Trump as the greater of two evils in the general election. There’s nothing in Haley’s criticism about that, only that the GOP can do better in a nominee. Even her complaint about the defamation judgment against him, that it’s a needless distraction from making the case against Democrats on policy, will evaporate when the primary is over and he’s the only game left in town for right-wing voters.

The full Liz is an earnest argument against returning Trump to the presidency; the half Liz is agnostic at best on that subject and, pending Nikki Haley’s eventual endorsement, potentially counterproductive at worst. After all, who cares about mental fitness or defamation once it’s a binary choice between Trump and yadda yadda “Flight 93” “end of America”?

All of this is a (very) long way of saying, I think, that what Nikki Haley says about Trump after her campaign ends will be much more significant than what she says about him during its current “hospice care” stage. The half Liz strategy is fine for now—she’s earned the benefit of the doubt on her political instincts by overperforming in the primary—but if she turns around after exiting the race and supports Trump, she’ll have proved my critique correct. Unless it eventually progresses to the full Liz, the half Liz is ultimately just a “permission structure” to vote MAGA in the general election, albeit a bit more grudgingly than you otherwise might have.

But we’ve got another month at least before Haley comes to that fork in the road and no suspense whatsoever about who’ll win the nomination to occupy our time until then. Go figure that certainly insufferably shrill Never Trumpers might cope with their boredom and fatalism by obsessing over the precise phrasing of the incantation that will at last break Trump’s spell over Republican voters and restore sanity to the right. Half Liz or full Liz? It could matter! Maybe!

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.