Opinion | Haley Can’t Beat Trump, but She Can Sting Him

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Nikki Haley absorbed a double-digit loss to Donald Trump in the New Hampshire Republican primary, but vowed to soldier on: “This race is far from over,” she said Tuesday night. But in truth, as the saying goes, it’s all over but the shouting.

I went to Haley’s Monday night rally in Salem, N.H., and as I sat there watching her throw the softest possible punches at Trump, it occurred to me that she doesn’t even appear to be running to beat Trump, but merely to prove that she can compete with him. I don’t even get the sense that she thinks she can win.

She knows how to jab, but no knockout is forthcoming.

In the Republican race, Haley is the last real challenger standing of a truly sad lot, many of whom have since tucked their tails in submission to Trump. And some, like Vivek Ramaswamy and Tim Scott, 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.

Haley’s survival is a testament not to a steel spine, but to a gelatinous one: her Play-Doh-like tendency to try to fit the mold of whomever she’s talking to; her attempts to be authoritative while simultaneously tying herself into knots trying not to offend a Republican base that has ditched her brand of Republicanism.

And although she has lately ramped up her verbal attacks on Trump, those attacks are wobbly and mostly trivial. Haley still suffers from what brought down most of Trump’s other opponents: She doesn’t want to vanquish him as much as tiptoe past him.

Haley keeps insisting that she’d do better than Trump in a general election matchup with President Biden, pointing to the other side of a mountain that won’t be moved.

Trump won’t just go away; he’ll have to be defeated. And Haley can’t defeat him because she has no answer for the central problem: She needs the support of a group of voters who are religiously devoted to him.

However, I do believe that the longer she stays in the race, the more damage she’ll do to Trump’s bid. She has begun to highlight his shopworn, confused-sounding rants. We’ve spent a lot of time focusing on Biden’s age and acuity, but Trump is almost as old. He flubs and gaffes, too. Haley is drawing out a small piece of the unvarnished version of Trump.

As McKay Coppins smartly observed this month in The Atlantic, Trump has become an abstraction to voters, existing in many Americans’ minds “as a hazy silhouette — formed by preconceived notions and outdated impressions — rather than as an actual person who’s telling the country every day who he is and what he plans to do with a second term.” And what he plans is pretty terrifying.

I saw this haziness firsthand at a polling place in New Hampshire on Tuesday, as many of the people voting for Trump described him to me in hagiographic terms. I’ve seen it even among some liberals who’ve somehow forgotten the agita and anguish that the Trump years produced.

It’s probably not her intention, but Haley is providing a service to the nation: a soft launch of reminding voters that Trump is a chaos agent of the highest order who put the nation through a dizzying series of unnecessary crucibles that tested the very durability of our institutions and our ability to withstand his anti-democratic onslaught.

Haley has begun to do the work that Biden and his campaign team will greatly expand on — if they’re smart. Because from my conversations at that same polling place, I gathered that some of Trump’s support isn’t as intense and devoted as I thought it was. Several of the people who told me that they voted for him are also worried about the criminal cases against him. One man told me he was a registered Republican and that he’d voted for Trump since his preferred candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, had dropped out.

Right now, Trump is using the backdrop of his pending criminal cases to present himself as a victim. But as we move toward the general election and also the possibility of actual trials, his victim narrative may lose its value as a political advantage and become something more like a millstone.

I arrived in New Hampshire troubled about the prospect of a second Trump presidency — a very real possibility — but I leave it buoyed by the sense that he’s weaker than he appears and that Haley’s jabs, though not that effective, are only the precursors to the haymakers that the Biden campaign could land.

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John Doe

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