We’ll Always Have Vermont

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley announces the suspension of her presidential campaign on March 6, 2024, in Daniel Island, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

You can’t feel disillusioned by politics if you weren’t under illusions to begin with.

Whichever other words one might choose to describe the aftermath of Super Tuesday’s Republican primaries (my favorites are unprintable), “disillusioned” isn’t apt. For the readers of this site especially, the nature of the modern right was laid bare long ago. Yesterday’s outcome represented the last few wheezing breaths of a patient who plainly had been terminally ill since at least 2015 and probably long before.

It’s fine and proper to feel strong emotions at such a moment. But no one who watched that patient waste away would describe themselves as “disillusioned” upon seeing them succumb.

The time of death for the conservative movement was 10 a.m. ET on Wednesday morning.

In the end, after a year of campaigning as a formal presidential candidate, Nikki Haley won Vermont and the District of Columbia—two of the bluest jurisdictions in the United States—and was trounced elsewhere across the map.

In every way, the man who demolished her is less fit for office now than he was eight years ago, when he was arguably already the most grotesquely unfit major party nominee in American history. Older, crazier, more vindictive, more fascist, more criminally exposed: He won in a waltz over a smart, likable, well-qualified, electable conservative despite having barely campaigned and never debating.

And none of us is the least bit surprised. Expectations of the Trump-era right’s depravity are now so low that the real suspense on primary nights is seeing which alarming new lunatics the GOP base will thrust upon us as party nominees down ballot. North Carolina gave us a doozy yesterday but the bar can always get lower. And it will.

No one, let alone a conservative, should serve as an accomplice to this horde of vicious, illiberal, obscurantist miscreants and freaks. If the swing voters of this country insist on remaining willfully blind to the nature of Trump’s movement in the foolish hope of bringing back grocery prices circa 2019, let them do so without the complicity of those who know better.

And without the complicity of Nikki Haley, hopefully.

As the results rolled in last night, her campaign issued a statement warning Trump that he’ll need to address the “deep concerns” of her voters if he intends to win them over before the fall. As you’ve likely seen, she echoed that point in her remarks on Wednesday morning, never quite endorsing him but inviting him to “earn” the support of her backers. “This is now his time for choosing,” she sonorously declared.

I have no idea what that means.

When a defeated primary opponent invites the winner to court her supporters, typically she means that he should meet them halfway on policy. For instance, a centrist who loses to an ideologue might nudge that ideologue to moderate on a few issues as an olive branch to the vanquished.

Haley’s voters don’t dislike Trump because of his fondness for tariffs or a border wall, though. They dislike him because he’s a coup-plotting degenerate, an authoritarian virus that’s infected the American constitutional order to which they’re trying to mount an antibody response.

Exit polls conducted in numerous states on Super Tuesday found large chunks of Haley voters refusing to pledge their support to the eventual GOP nominee against Biden. As such, asking Donald Trump to “earn” their votes by addressing their “concerns” is tantamount to asking him to become a different person before November. It’s not his policies to which they ultimately object—although the average Haley voter would doubtless give him an earful about Ukraine—but to him.

Another thing. If Haley is now in the business of auctioning off her base’s support to the highest political bidder, presumably she’s willing to take bids from candidates other than Trump. Here’s one now, promising a “place” for her voters in his campaign:

Democrats in the Trump era have always talked a good game about courting disaffected conservatives without offering them much on policy, but Joe Biden is clearly more in sync with the average Haley Republican on subjects like Ukraine and violent riots at the Capitol than Trump is. If she’s serious about gaining influence for her base over the next president’s agenda, she should be treating their support as the prize in a competition between the two nominees, not something reserved for Trump that can be activated at his leisure by saying certain magic words.

Which brings us to an even stranger element of Haley’s remarks. The very fact that she expects Trump to offer something to her voters to win them over suggests she still doesn’t understand what her party has become.

The GOP is no longer a coalition in a meaningful sense. Insofar as there’s a populist majority that favors Trump and a conservative minority that favors candidates like Haley, it is. But true coalitions require compromise between the factions on the direction of the party so that all sides are broadly satisfied.

That’s not the way Trump’s Republican Party works in 2024. I devoted an entire newsletter to that topic on Monday: Now that he’s annihilated what’s left of the conservative movement within the party and even gotten Mitch McConnell to kneel before Zod, he’s not “negotiating” with the traditional Republicans who are left. He’s dictating terms. They can either support him and his agenda as-is or they can leave the party and let the country be governed by liberals for another four years. He’s not meeting Nikki Haley’s voters, or anyone else, halfway.

If there was any lingering doubt about that, his response to Haley’s withdrawal from the race on Wednesday morning erased it.

Taunting her after her gracious surrender isn’t the olive branch that her voters were looking for, I assume. Neither was this:

Remember that Kari Lake has been trying to make amends lately to traditional conservatives who bear her a grudge for her attacks on “McCain Republicans” in 2020. Now here she is, the day after the candidate favored by those same McCain Republicans has been humiliated at the polls, gratuitously other-izing Haley by using her given first name.

Populists are so hostile to the idea of building a coalition with conservatives that they can’t fake civility toward them even when they’re straining to present themselves as coalition-builders.

Notably, some of Haley’s own top advisers seem to recognize this. Her spokeswoman compared Biden’s statement favorably to Trump’s on social media this morning, alerting supporters to the fact that only one of the remaining candidates seems conciliatory toward them. And her communications director responded brusquely to Kari Lake’s tweet with a phrase that’ll be familiar to recent readers of this newsletter.

Haley herself has marveled recently that the “Republican coalition” seems to benefit only one of the parties to it.

There is no “Republican coalition” left for her voters to join. There is only Trump, take him or leave him—assuming he even deigns to accept their support. As I said on Monday, in 2024 one can be a conservative in good standing or a Republican in good standing, but not both.

So, contra Haley, it’s not Trump’s “time for choosing.” It’s her voters’, and hers. It’s always been hers.

It would be churlish to mark the end of her candidacy by doing nothing more than browbeating her about not endorsing Trump.

She deserves praise. And here’s one of the highest forms a Republican in this era can receive: Haley escaped this ordeal with most of her dignity intact.

Not all of it. To the bitter end, she lamely dodged uncomfortable questions about the Trumpist threat to the constitutional order instead of answering them forthrightly. For maximum dignity, she would have needed to go “the full Liz,” not “the half Liz.”

But, had she gone “the full Liz,” she would never have broken out of single digits and forced Trump through an embarrassing string of underperformance in the early states relative to his polling. She was trying to win a Republican primary in Trump’s party; “the full Liz” would have been electoral suicide. Just ask Chris Christie.

She made the compromises she needed to make to create a modicum of viability for herself, becoming the only candidate in the field besides Trump to grow her support over time. She outlasted Ron DeSantis, the great anti-Trump hope, and did so without compromising on traditional conservatism, as DeSantis did. She never stooped to crass Trumpian insults a la Marco Rubio in 2016, and never became a cynical pandering populist poseur like Ted Cruz and a million other traditional Republicans have. She was a Reaganite in full, giving the Reaganite minority in the GOP a candidate they could be proud to vote for.

“Never wrestle with pigs,” George Bernard Shaw famously might have said. “You both get dirty and the pig likes it.” Nikki Haley has wrestled with the pig twice—once as his ambassador to the United Nations, once as his primary opponent—and somehow came away both times without much dirt on her. I’m not sure there’s another Republican in America who can say the same.

The best way to appreciate Haley today is to contrast the dignity of her own surrender with the disgrace of Mitch McConnell endorsing Trump. McConnell had nothing to lose by refusing to make that endorsement: He’ll retire as Republican leader in November after almost 40 years of achievements in the Senate, most notably a conservative revolution within the federal judiciary that he spent decades nurturing. As the de facto head of the pre-Trump GOP establishment, he could have withheld his support from Trump 3.0 as an exclamation point on his career, a last little show of defiance on behalf of Reaganism.

By choosing to endorse him anyway, he lived down to the standards of the establishment he led. Reaganites in Washington have always seen Trump for what he is and yet, almost to a man, rolled over for him anyway. That’s Mitch’s legacy too: For all of his scathing criticism of Trump after January 6, he voted to acquit him at his second impeachment trial.

Without McConnell holding open Antonin Scalia’s vacant seat in 2016, Trump might not have won his first term. Without McConnell acquiescing in an acquittal at that second trial, Trump wouldn’t have been eligible for a second. At every turn where he might have meaningfully resisted the GOP’s takeover by a boorish populist Caesar, McConnell declined. In time, he’ll be remembered as a key broker in the party’s catastrophic transition from classically liberal to authoritarian. His endorsement today is, in that sense, a perfect sort of exclamation point on his legacy.

Haley is different. Unlike McConnell and most everyone else in the Republican political class, she did have the nerve to challenge Trump, however futilely.

And so the question for her now is this: How does she want to be remembered?

How much of her considerable dignity is she willing to squander to continue chasing the pipe dream of being nominated for president eventually by a Republican base that disdains her and her faction as vestiges of a corrupt, crypto-progressive right-wing ancien regime?

There is a lot of debasement, civic and personal, to come for conservatives who are willing to sign their names to MAGA 3.0 in the name of personal ambition. There’s already been a lot, of course: For instance, with McConnell’s endorsement on Wednesday, we now have multiple Republican senators who’ve endorsed Trump after he publicly insulted their wives.

But a second Trump term is a whole other ball of wax. If his first term was a spectacle of bumping into legal limits on his power through haphazard, volatile decisions about policy and personnel, the second will be a deliberate exercise in testing those limits and exceeding them. The things Republicans will be forced to defend in his next presidency will be an order of magnitude more hair-raising than “mean tweets.”

Why would Nikki Haley, a dignified person, lend her support to that?

Even if doing so would improve her chances at the nomination in 2028, why would she want to belong to a party whose “influencers” now say things like this?

The party she’s spent her adult life hoping to lead no longer exists, by her own admission. “The Republican Party … has become an organization whose goal is the election of one person at the expense of anything else, including integrity, principle, policy, and patriotism,” the New York Times declared in an editorial on Wednesday, starkly but not incorrectly. You can be a conservative or you can be a Republican; you can stand for something or you can stand for Trump. But you can’t be, or do, both.

Why would she want to go on trying?

One more question for Haley: How much would her endorsement matter, realistically?

It’s one thing to sell one’s soul to play kingmaker, with all the glory and material gratitude that might entail. It’s another to sell it for peanuts, barfing up perfunctory endorsements for the honor of joining the large and growing “Trump mocked my spouse” club, and then failing to move the needle. Judging by the exit polls on Super Tuesday, Haley’s support for Trump might matter much less to her voters than anyone expects, assuming it matters at all.

In Virginia and North Carolina, only a third or so of her voters were Republicans. Some 48 percent of Haley voters in the former state approved of Joe Biden’s performance as president, a share higher than Biden’s national job approval. As much as Never Trumpers like me would like to believe that her campaign has galvanized a cohort of principled conservatives to oppose Trump this fall, the likely truth is more pedestrian. Haley’s actual coalition consists mostly of Democrats and independents who always intended to support Biden in the general election and are showing up in the Republican primary simply because it’s an opportunity to stick it to Trump a few months early.

She’s a protest vehicle for them, not the guru of some coherent ideological movement. As such, there’s no reason to think those voters will heed her if she ultimately endorses Trump. On the contrary, her doing so might achieve little for him while destroying the goodwill she’s built among anti-Trumpers for offering them a respectable alternative this cycle. If that were to happen, Nikki Haley would finally have gotten dirty from wrestling with the pig.

She should stay as clean as she can.

The day may come when the right wishes to get clean again, and right now there are precious few Republican leaders who aren’t covered with filth themselves who might help them do so. Haley will be well positioned, maybe uniquely, to capitalize on a return to sanity. But if it never comes—and it probably won’t, the pessimist says—washing her hands of Trump will at least give her the great consolation of not having abetted a malevolent political movement as it goes about wrecking America’s civic heritage.

Everyone feels good when they’re clean. If Nikki Haley is doomed to political irrelevance, she might as well feel as good about it as she can.

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