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Think Again

Nikki Haley Might Actually Be Helping Trump—and Hurting Biden

Trump is furious that Haley hasn’t quit the Republican race, but maybe he should be thanking her.


Donald Trump is desperate for the 2024 Republican contest to be over. Instead of celebrating his decisive win in New Hampshire earlier this week, the former president has had a multiday meltdown over Nikki Haley’s decision to stay in the race. “You can’t let people get away with bullshit,” Trump fumed Tuesday at what was ostensibly his victory party. “When I watched her in the fancy dress that probably wasn’t so fancy, I said, ‘What’s she doing? We won.’” A day later, in an all-caps, multipost rant on his bespoke social media platform, Truth Social, he threatened to permanently exile anyone who donated to Haley going forward, calling her “DELUSIONAL.”

One explanation for Trump’s anger is that he’s concerned about the damage that Haley, who once served as his ambassador to the United Nations, can do to his general election campaign. As Paul Waldman persuasively argued in The New Republic on Thursday, Haley can more forcefully make arguments against Trump’s competence and mental fitness than Biden can by sheer virtue of the fact that a Republican (and a former Cabinet official) criticizing the former president is more newsworthy than a Democrat doing so. “Each day Haley stays in the race will bring more stories in which Trump is attacked by a representative of his own party—for failing to fulfill his promises, for being weak when he pretends to be strong, and for his increasingly questionable cognitive state,” Waldman wrote.

That may very well be true. It is, of course, dependent on Haley staying in the race—something that’s far from certain, especially if her poll numbers remain abysmal in her home state of South Carolina, when the next Republican primary will be held on February 24. But there’s also an argument that Haley sticking around could benefit Trump—and that an early start to the general election campaign would help, not hurt, Biden.

Eight years ago, Trump won the GOP nomination by engaging in a scorched-earth assault on the party’s establishment. Successfully depicting rivals like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio as weak and ineffectual, Trump argued that the party’s politicians were unable or unwilling to do what was necessary to curtail immigration and protect American workers. On issues like the Iraq War and entitlement cuts, he was able to distance himself from unpopular positions and (spuriously) make the case that he would protect Social Security and pursue an isolationist foreign policy.

Trump’s attacks on his 2016 rivals helped reinforce the case that he was the kind of outsider who could cut through a number of political gordian knots. It also played into frustrations with the Republican establishment that were often whipped up by Fox News, by making the case that a strongman was ultimately needed to avoid catastrophic ruin at the hands of immigrants, terrorists, and other bugaboos. His willingness to dispense with various pieties—by, for instance, calling Ted Cruz’s wife ugly—only reinforced the sense that he was not a “politician.”

Nikki Haley is admittedly not as hateable as many of Trump’s past rivals. She’s not part of a dynasty like Jeb Bush, she’s not a twerp like Cruz or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who dropped out earlier this month. But she is a career politician—and now, in this two-person primary, the sole remaining avatar of the GOP establishment.

Haley is a Republican throwback of sorts. She has long been in favor of entitlement cuts and has wooed wealthy donors by pledging to “reform” Social Security and Medicare. She has long backed strict bans on abortion access, though recently made a mealy-mouthed call for “consensus” on reproductive rights. On foreign policy, she’s a proud hawk and could even be described as a “neoconservative.” She largely embodies the same strain of the party that Jeb Bush did—whom Trump trounced in 2016.

In reality, the policy differences between Trump and Haley are relatively subtle. In office, he mostly governed like a traditional Republican. He proposed a budget that cut Social Security and Medicare, he risked war with Iran by ordering the assassination of Revolutionary Guard commander Qassam Soleimani, and Supreme Court justices he nominated overturned Roe v. Wade. Nevertheless, Trump has long used establishment figures like Haley to appear more moderate. Her continued presence in the race will allow him to do that once again. It will also allow him to regain the mantle of an insurgent and outsider, despite the fact that he’s a two-time presidential nominee who’s captured the party from its voter base to Capitol Hill.

At the same time, it may also be true that if Haley were to drop out, thereby kicking off a very early (and tortuously long) general election campaign, it would help Joe Biden. It is still too early to tell what effect Trump’s numerous trials and legal problems will have on the 2024 campaign. But the ongoing Republican primary might be benefiting him now, by distracting voters from those problems. (Nearly 50 percent of independents still don’t think Trump will be the GOP nominee.) That will change shortly, as Trump’s legal schedule becomes increasingly crowded. He’ll be effectively campaigning from the courtroom for much of the year, and those trials will remind voters that he’s a fraudster, an insurrectionist, and a serial criminal.

A Trump-Haley faceoff will undoubtedly be entertaining. Trump will melt down multiple times a day, as he’s already done this week. If past is prologue, though, there’s no guarantee that his tantrums will damage his chances. But if the general election were to start soon, slumbering voters might wake up and realize the stark choice before them: Entrust America again to the sitting president or to that vulgarian slouching in the defendant’s chair.