Trump ‘sees dead people’ but as in the movie Haley may be one of them without realising

Published February 8, 2024

The Telegraph

Be careful what movie quotes you tweet, Nikki

There’s an old saying in politics that you can’t beat somebody with nobody. Nevada Republicans disproved that Tuesday when 60 percent backed “none of these candidates” rather than vote for Nikki Haley. Her embarrassingly large 2-1 defeat shows exactly why Donald Trump is on the verge of winning re-nomination. 

Haley has faced a daunting challenge from day one. She represents the GOP’s Old Guard, the segment of the party that still reveres Ronald Reagan and wants to turn back the clock to the pre-Trump Republican Party. Like them, she’s uncomfortable talking about the new culture war issues that animate party activists. She still talks about old verities like balanced budgets and enthusiastically backs American support for Ukraine. Haley is very much a modern woman, but she’s essentially asking the GOP to party like’s it’s 1999.

Republican voters know this, and they don’t want it. Today’s conservatives are afraid of the future and want someone who unapologetically and unrestrainedly wants to fight it. No one would confuse the often-inarticulate Trump with the erudite William F Buckley, Junior, founder of the conservative magazine National Review. But Trump’s “Make America Great Again” jihad against woke, progressive globalism is just an updating of the most famous line in Buckley’s 1955 Mission Statement for NR: “It stands athwart History yelling Stop”.

Reagan’s political genius lay in part in his marriage of that sense of existential despair with a sunny optimism that, to borrow one of his favorite quotes from Thomas Paine, “we have it in our power to begin the world over again”. Trump’s great failing is that he lacks that positive belief and simply makes despair his fuel in a massive battle of wills. Haley’s failing is that she is incapable of articulating the despair so many in her party feel, and hence cannot match Reagan’s ability to bring them out of the darkness and into the light.

That’s why polls have consistently shown since last summer that Haley would lose to Trump by roughly 2-1 were she to emerge as his sole challenger. Nevada Republicans’ verdict is eerily close to that ratio, as is the average of the two most recent polls in advance of South Carolina’s primary. A month of campaigning has not changed the basic fact that Republican voters know who Haley is, and they don’t want her.

Her campaign isn’t over simply because of a quirk in many GOP primary rules. Most states allow people who aren’t Republicans to vote, and they are Haley’s only hope. She needs unprecedented numbers of these people to turn out on her behalf to have a prayer of winning. New Hampshire’s results showed she is getting some of that, but nowhere near enough to win. Haley has to do better in her home state in two weeks or her campaign will die.

She’s not going down without a fight. Her weekend appearance on Saturday Night Live likely didn’t reach a conservative audience but would have been viewed by the Democrats and independents she needs. Her constant refrain that only she stands between the Biden-Trump rematch nobody wants is catnip for the many independents who dislike both leaders. Early voting for the primary starts on February 12, so we’ll soon start to see if that effort is paying off.

It’s worth noting, too, that Haley’s courting of the disaffected middle is paying off in general election polls. A recent Marquette Law School poll of uber-swing Wisconsin showed Trump tied with Biden among registered voters while Haley held a 15-point lead. That difference is mainly due to independents backing her by 26 points against Biden while they back Biden by 7 points versus Trump. But those people don’t usually vote in Republican primaries: the same poll shows Trump thumping her by a 64-22 margin among Republican primary voters.

That disconnect shows both her promise and her challenge in the unlikely event Trump had to drop out of the race for health or legal reasons. Haley would be the last person standing and would seek to appeal to the former Trump convention delegates by pointing to her ability to beat Joe Biden. But as much as party leaders might want her, the MAGA delegates would likely fight her tooth and nail anyway. She’s Princess Leia, and they want the Terminator.

Haley tweeted a line from the movie The Sixth Sense after Biden erroneously said he met the long-deceased French President Francois Mitterrand after his inauguration: “I see dead people”.

But the movie’s plot twist is that the main character, played by Bruce Willis, turns out to be dead himself. The dead people his child patient sees don’t know they’re dead, and so they walk amongst the living oblivious to their true fate. Nevada’s stunning rebuke suggests Haley is one of the political dead. If so, she’ll soon discover the truth and disappear.

Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.

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