source: Axios

US presidential candidate Nikki Haley has been drawn into the limelight only fairly recently. Having spent her early campaign on the heels of Ron DeSantis and miles behind Trump, she was long overshadowed by some scandal or another, of which her rivals provided a never-ending supply. Her campaign had neither the shock value nor the theatrics that the Republican Party and American politics as a whole have grown accustomed to. The turning point was DeSantis’s plummet from grace, at which point it became clear that there needed to be some Republican opponent to Donald Trump.

A foil to Trump’s chaos, Haley exudes a sort of glossy corporateness. She frames herself as upstanding and principled, as the reasonable option – not a hard task when one of her former rivals led a crusade against Mickey Mouse and her current opponent is, well, Donald Trump. But we can’t assume that what Republican voters seek is reasonableness. They elected Trump, after all, and seem keen to vote for him again, despite witnessing the dizzying, scandal-ridden tailspin of the last eight or so years. It’s become abundantly clear that nothing he could do would make his adoring supporters bat an eye.

When it comes to the Nikki Haley campaign, however, Republican voters lack the same conviction. They oscillate between defiance, enthusiasm, and skepticism, especially when it comes to her decision to stay in the race. Why won’t she save face and jump the obviously sinking ship? Trump clobbered her in Iowa. In Nevada’s Republican primary, she somehow managed to be outvoted by a “None of These Candidates” option. She fell behind even in her home state of South Carolina, dragging pitifully behind Trump by 20 percentage points. But nevertheless, to give credit where it is due, she has been winning a noteworthy portion of votes in a party that has long been at Trump’s beck and call, as well as notoriously hostile to women and people of color. 

It would nonetheless be a gross miscalculation to count this as a win for women of color in American politics. Haley, a woman whose parents emigrated from India, has the opportunity to lean into her identity and acknowledge her history-making potential, but she won’t. It wouldn’t do her any good anyway, not in the GOP. Republican voters have made their distaste for any whiff of identity politics abundantly clear — unless, of course, we’re talking about pandering to aggrieved white traditionalists. Even some of those into the idea of Haley being the first female president feel compelled to stress that they aren’t backing her because she is a woman but — all together now! — because she is the most qualified candidate. And lest we forget, her real name is Nimrata Nikki Randhawa Haley. Thanks to the calculated trimming of her own name, many Americans have no idea that she is Punjabi. Her relative success in GOP politics is conditional on muffling any part of her identity that runs contrary to the all-American Republican image.   

Let’s not pretend that Haley’s accomplishments are testaments to her steeliness or gumption either. She ties herself into knots trying to appeal to the Republican base that Trump built. Rather than vanquish Trump, she wants to tiptoe past him. Though her brand of bigotry may be a touch more coy, she profits off the same xenophobic, racist, and homophobic sentiments that Trump does — not only because of her mere affiliation with the GOP, but also because of the type of rhetoric and policies that she has used to propel herself to political heights. She stays in the good graces of conservative voters by indulging their most cherished paranoias and delusions. 

One only need turn to Haley’s bumbling explanation for the US Civil War. “I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how the government was going to run, the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do,” she began, before continuing to waffle on about “the role of government” and “the rights of the people” — a flood of vague nonsense that didn’t once mention the word “slavery.” Likely not because she has less knowledge of US history than your average American seven-year-old, but more likely because chalking up the war to political abstractions like states’ rights is the safe option when trying to cater to conservative beliefs and preferences. Race has become a fraught topic in American politics, which Haley knows full well as the former governor of South Carolina, and even a tinge of social liberalism would just reek of wokeness.

That said, no ideology that a spineless Nikki Haley adopts could win her the presidency. Beyond their loathing for Democrats, Republicans rally behind one other thing: the Donald himself. He is more than a politician, he is a brand, a symbol, a movement. But more disturbingly, he’s an idol, too, whose supporters’ fervent, unflagging allegiance transcends all reason. Nikki Haley has yet to realize that, because of the simple fact that she is not Donald Trump, she cannot win this election.

What about the vice presidential seat then? Plenty of former Republican hopefuls, who have since dropped out of the race, really just used their campaigns to cozy up to Trump and wrestle for the vice presidency. It’s not in the cards for Haley, though. Besides the fact that she herself has said it is “off the table,” Trump is fond of surrounding himself with fawners and flatterers. Some of the other candidates who already dropped out of the race have endorsed the former president in such a bromance-ish, sycophantic fashion that it makes the way Mike Pence used to gush over Trump’s “broad shoulders” pale in comparison. Vivek Ramaswamy, Trump’s formal-rival-turned-sunny-sidekick, never misses an opportunity to bat his eyelashes at Trump or fluff his ego. In the MAGAverse of unscrupulous, opportunistic suck-ups and bootlickers, Ramaswamy takes the cake, which naturally makes him Trump’s dream campaign partner.

Compare that with Haley, who once said acidly in an online statement, “Donald Trump has his own mental deficiencies, and is prone to temper tantrums and wild rants.” She arguably still goes too easy on him and has even admitted that she would vote for him if things play out in his favor, but she hasn’t been dying to kiss the ring and declare her eternal devotion to Trump. She poses as an individual candidate with her own policies and voter base, rather than an extension of him. In what world would he want someone like that as his running mate? When you’re Trump and your greatest asset is your supreme, inimitable, unadulterated Trumpness, you want a force multiplier of it. You want double Donald. He already tried the whole rounding-yourself-out thing the first time around and look what he got: a white-haired wimp whining about the Constitution when his marching orders were a coup. He won’t make that mistake twice. 

It is, I suppose, a benchmark achievement that Haley has lasted this long in the race, not to mention as a Republican in the Trump Era. And I admire her persistence. Or pigheadedness. Take your pick. What Haley has done, and what I applaud her for despite her shortcomings, is that she has punctured Trump’s air of inevitability. Despite Biden’s tanking approval ratings and Trump’s ever-devout fanatics, she has proven that the latter’s victory in the general election is not a given. 

As she’s pointed out, she represents a second option in the Republican campaign, one that, due to the vehemence of Trump’s cult, we may not have thought Republicans wanted or needed. But it turns out that a sizable, if insufficient, share of GOP voters does seek a fresher face and has tired of his shopworn rants, moral depravity, and whole victim schtick. Those 40 percent of New Hampshire Republicans who voted for Nikki Haley aren’t negligible. They are a glimmer of hope, a sign of increasing disillusionment with Trump and a party that is slowly coming to its senses. Although Trump’s iron grip on the GOP hasn’t loosened quite enough, and we’re probably still doomed to a November rematch between those two old geezers, her campaign points to a dim, flickering light at the end of the tunnel.

Other posts that may interest you: