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Opinion: Nikki Haley fails the Trump test

Jill FilipovicJill Filipovic
This week brings us a troubling new chapter in the story of Nikki Haley and Donald Trump: he, a person who wouldn’t know a moral dilemma if the snake in the garden of Eden bit him on the ankle, and she someone who understands what’s at stake when the most powerful person in the United States is unhinged and eager to shower punishment on those who dare defy him.
On Monday, Haley, who was the US Ambassador to the United Nations under the former president, said she would support him if he ran again in 2024 and wouldn’t run against him. Haley is a prominent star in the GOP, and was widely assumed to be running in the next presidential race. She’s smart, accomplished (she was also the governor of South Carolina), charismatic, highly qualified, politically ambitious and the rare woman of color in the Republican Party. And she is a coward.
There are several reasons why — other evidence to the contrary — cowardice should disqualify a candidate from a shot at leading the nation.
Americans deserve leaders who will put the public interest first, and who believe they are the best possible person for the job and are willing to fight for it. Failing that, they deserve a leader who will make a measured decision to cede power to someone — perhaps a more popular figure — who they think will serve the country honorably, ably and well.
Haley is doing neither of those things. She’s giving up, preemptively, so that a man she knows is destructive and incompetent can potentially reclaim power over her country. It’s dishonest, and indicates that Haley has ceded any claim she has to the public’s trust. This decision should dim her prospects on the national stage.
She clearly fears Trump and his base, and doesn’t seem to think she can win a primary in today’s Trump-obedient GOP with, potentially, the former president as rival. Worse still: She’s unwilling to publicly challenge him, even though she knows well — and has publicly expressed concern over the danger he poses.
Haley and Trump have been doing this dance for years now. In 2016, when Trump first ran for president, Haley said she would support any Republican candidate except him, calling him “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president.” After he won the nomination, she changed her tune somewhat, saying that while the election was embarrassing for both parties, she was planning to vote for Trump.
Soon after he was elected, Haley signaled she was willing to join his administration — and after he was sworn in, she did.
Her tenure with the administration was complicated, largely because of Trump’s penchant for chaos and short-sightedness. But when she left in 2018, the two were on good terms — a savvy move for a woman who hoped to someday capture the votes of his fanatical base.
When rioters attacked the US Capitol Complex in January, inflamed by the former president’s false claims that the election was stolen from him, Haley pointed out the obvious: Trump had stoked the riots and done profound damage to American democracy.
“We need to acknowledge he let us down,” she told Politico in February. “He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.”
Two months later, Haley is apparently happy to let it happen again.
Part of this, of course, is Haley being a sophisticated operator in a rankly misogynist and increasingly authoritarian party. Even though primaries are supposed to be contests of candidates and ideas — that’s their whole point — Trump and his supporters seem to believe that he is simply entitled to rule the Republican Party in perpetuity.
Haley surely knows that she’s already fighting an uphill battle to win the presidential nomination of a party with ever-more identitarian impulses, one that overtly caters to an overwhelmingly white and largely (and increasingly) male voter base, which Trump plays like a clarinet.
Anyone running against Trump would be tarred, but an Indian-American woman? If Haley wants a future in her own party, she surely understands that she has to play by the impossible rules of conservative female propriety — and that means not challenging the base’s favorite man for power.
Haley had (and still has) an option here: She could decide that the perils of Trump, Round Two, are simply too great to inflict upon her country. She could believe that there’s something in her party worth saving, and use her candidacy to figure out if she’s right.
Instead, she’s again taking the coward’s approach: speaking out when she believes the risk is low, and then refusing to actually act when the stakes are high. In this gambit — putting her own professional self-interest ahead of any moral duty or obligation to the public — at least she’s consistent. And positively Trumpian.
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