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Why Nikki Haley would be a disastrous choice for the GOP
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Why Nikki Haley would be a disastrous choice for the GOP

The former South Carolina governor’s candidacy and her support from the usual establishment suspects look like an attempt to derail the Republican Party’s populist turn.

It seems that former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is bounding ahead in a hypothetical matchup with Joe Biden. Although Haley has not been able to make significant headway against Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who is now polling over 60% as his party’s preferred presidential candidate in the primaries, Haley would beat Biden by the largest margin among active Republican candidates — possibly by as much as 10 points.

According to RealClearPolitics, unlike Haley, Trump is running ahead of Biden by only about four percentage points. Given all the negative publicity that our former president has incurred over the last six years and given the mountain of legal difficulties under which he is now pinned, thanks to Biden’s Justice Department, his chances for re-election may be less promising than they look currently.

Haley has been doing her publicity with massive assistance from the Republican-neoconservative establishment. The Wall Street Journal has all but endorsed her already. The New York Post and the rest of the Murdoch media empire can’t say enough nice things about her. In fact, they can’t mention her without lapsing into spasms of rapture while railing against Trump.

If Haley does win the nomination, it would leave an enormous number of Americans who identify themselves as populists without a political home.

I recently listened to a conversation on Fox News between former U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Republican consultant Karl Rove. It was hard to tell which mood was more dominant in this animated conversation: profound loathing for Trump or blissful adoration of Haley. The two dispositions usually coexist in Haley’s fans, who view her as the top-drawer candidate for anti-Trump Republicans.

Dan McCarthy has described her as the “new John McCain” — a candidate who combines a circumspect, even equivocal position on most social issues with an unabashedly interventionist foreign policy. This is undoubtedly part of the reason Haley resonates with her constituency. All the same, her support from the corporate press as the “moderate” Republican could lead to a possible replay of McCain’s frustrated presidential bid.

The media could easily turn on Haley if she wins the GOP nomination, exactly as they did with her neocon precursor in 2008. The establishment’s interest here may be nothing more than using a “moderate” to move political discussions toward the left. Once Haley has served that purpose, the media will go after her as yet another “MAGA extremist.”

Even more ominously, Haley’s candidacy and her support from the usual suspects look like an attempt to derail the GOP’s populist turn. It is clearly aimed at undoing critical changes in our party politics that have occurred in the last few years and moving us back to something like the neoconservative ascendancy of the George W. Bush era.

The coup is being engineered with noticeable support from socially liberal business tycoons and Democratic donors who support a neocon foreign policy coupled with corporate tax cuts. (What else is new?) Haley’s campaign is starting to look like a takeover by wealthy members of the center left.

It's also hard not to notice that Haley has spent years giving herself a biographical and ideological makeover. Although she started out politically as a white Southern Evangelical of Indian ancestry, in recent years, she has dwelled on her traumatic youth as “a little brown girl” whose Sikh father wore a turban and tried to preserve his Indian identity. Haley also went from honoring her South Carolina background to more recently criticizing her one-time white neighbors as bigots. (Ironically, those white neighbors belonged to the group that gave her a majority of their votes.)

Haley also made a reputation for herself among the national media in 2015 when she signed a bill removing the Confederate battle flag from statehouse grounds in Columbia, presumably to make us all feel “more comfortable.” That, too, might have been a career move while Haley was positioning herself as a multicultural candidate who is big on “national defense” but who wants to dialogue with the left on divisive social questions.

If Haley does win the nomination, which still seems unlikely, it would leave an enormous number of Americans who identify themselves as populists without a political home. And it would be an attempted comeback by an establishment that was emphatically repudiated in 2016 but that still enjoys considerable media and financial clout.

As an added liability, this restoration seems to depend more and more on voters from the left who are joining the Republican establishment and its media boosters in promoting a “moderate” candidate. One doesn’t have to like Donald Trump (and I personally don’t) to know this game could end badly.

Trump is clearly favored by the majority of his party. Even if this situation changed, the populist direction of his party would be fixed. Efforts to undo that development by pushing a candidate who doesn’t line up with most of the party base seems like a recipe for disaster. Perhaps Haley’s fans could be persuaded to start their own party and stop trying to outmaneuver the Republican base.

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Paul Gottfried

Paul Gottfried

Paul Gottfried is the editor of Chronicles. An American paleoconservative philosopher, historian, and columnist, Gottfried is a former Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, as well as a Guggenheim recipient.