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Nikki Haley’s “rise” and the Republican flight from reality

Nikki Haley has no shot. Why can’t the GOP billionaire class see that?

Nikki Haley looks subdued while preparing to speak into a microphone.
Nikki Haley at the 2023 Presidential Thanksgiving Family Forum.
Jim Vondruska/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Tuesday, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley won the coveted endorsement of Americans for Prosperity Action — the primary vehicle that the billionaire Koch family uses to influence electoral politics. They have pledged tens of millions of dollars to help her defeat Donald Trump, the biggest sign yet that Haley is replacing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the GOP’s moneyed class’s perceived best chance for taking their party back from Trump.

Except Haley has no chance at all.

Currently, Trump is beating Haley by about 50 points in FiveThirtyEight’s national poll average. She’s down 30 points to Trump in Iowa and trails Ron DeSantis there as well. In New Hampshire, the early primary state that’s supposed to be friendlier for Haley, she trails Trump by 26 points. In her home state of South Carolina, she trails Trump by 29 points.

The standard rejoinder is that it’s still a fractured field, and that as also-rans drop out, their supporters will consolidate behind an anti-Trump rival.

But the divided field shouldn’t give Haley any real hope. Trump currently commands support from 59 percent of Republicans, meaning that if every other candidate dropped out, and every supporter of those candidates backed Haley over Trump, she’d still be well behind the frontrunner.

But that’s not what would happen if the field narrowed. Morning Consult’s tracking poll has shown that a plurality of Republicans who don’t currently support Trump would take him as their second choice. For this reason, the polling firm concludes that “the former president’s support could continue to grow if lower-polling contenders drop their bid.”

In short, the only shot for Haley or anyone else to win the nomination is if Trump drops out — or drops dead.

So why are all of these very rich people making such a terrible investment?

To answer that question, we need to move out of the realm of electoral politics and into the domains of ideology and psychology. The quest to find a Don Quixote to tilt at a Trump-shaped windmill is less about Republican politics as they are than Republican politics as a certain class of people want them to be.

There is a burning need among traditional conservatives to insist that the Republican party is a “normal” political party, not an authoritarian outlier in the grips of a dangerous demagogue. There is profound hostility to acknowledging that we live in a two-party system where the only way to beat Trump is to support Biden.

Confronted with two options they don’t like, the billionaire class is doing what many people do: insist that there’s a third option, no matter how fantastical it might be. But when the super-rich fly from reality, their fantasies lead to tens of millions of dollars going down the drain.

AFPA’s out-of-touch case for Haley

Oftentimes, talking about why people in politics are really doing what they’re doing devolves into speculation or attempted mind-reading. But in this case, AFPA helpfully released a memo — authored by senior adviser Emily Seidel — explaining its decision to endorse Haley. It’s a perfect example of the evasion of reality that has come to define the politics of a certain kind of elite Republican in the Trump era.

Seidel’s memo begins by arguing that Trump and Biden are mirror images of each other — as are the Republican and Democratic parties under their leadership.

“Republicans have been nominating bad candidates who are going against America’s core principles. And voters are rejecting them,” she writes. “Democrats see this as an opportunity and are responding with extreme policies that also cut against core American principles.”

But it’s clear, as the memo goes on, that Seidel is much more concerned about Biden than Trump. She never once mentions a single Trump policy or even character trait that makes him unfit for public office. Instead, it is Biden who is cast as the great menace that must be stopped at all costs.

“A second term of the Biden administration with control of both chambers of Congress would thrust our country into an economic tailspin from which it would take decades to recover and threaten core constitutional protections, putting our system of constitutionally limited government at risk,” she writes.

In reality, Biden is presiding over a historically strong economy (albeit one with real challenges). And the notion that Biden is threatening “our system of constitutionally limited government” — rather than the guy who literally attempted a coup against it — scarcely deserves to be taken seriously, especially given Biden’s refusal to involve himself in Trump prosecutions or play constitutional hardball through policies like court-packing.

But Seidel isn’t concerned with Trump on substantive grounds. The only specific criticism leveled against him is electoral: “our polls consistently show he would lose to Joe Biden.” As much as Seidel decries “Washington’s toxic culture,” it’s clear what she’s actually concerned about is preventing Democrats from holding power.

When you think about AFPA as an organization, and the GOP donor class it represents, this makes a certain amount of sense. The American superrich are overwhelmingly concerned with cutting taxes and reducing regulatory burdens on their corporations: Their political activity centers on advancing these causes above all else.

Indeed, Seidel’s memo makes the substantive case for Haley on almost exclusively economic and deregulatory grounds — praising the former governor for her proposals on reining in “out-of-control government spending,” her “reforms to an entitlement system that makes promises it can’t keep,” and her record of protecting “freedom and flexibility in our workforce.”

To be fair to AFPA and the Koch network, it is not only dedicated to advancing plutocratic interests. It also has taken principled libertarian positions on issues like immigration, criminal justice, and foreign policy.

Yet in those areas, Haley’s values diverge sharply from the organization’s. She has, among other things, pledged to “close” the southern border, crack down on progressive prosecutors, and send US special forces into Mexico. Seidel mentions none of these concerns, other than in a vague aside that “we don’t agree with anyone on every issue.”

This, for all the world, feels like pre-Trump business-as-usual: wealthy Republicans intervening in a primary to promote a doctrinaire free-market candidate that, they believe, stands the best chance of beating the Democrat and thus, in the end, enacting more tax cuts.

The elite Republican flight from reality

The problem, of course, is that it’s not 2012 anymore.

We live in a world where nearly 80 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of Donald Trump. These voters are, in many cases, authentic Trumpists: About 70 percent of Republicans believe that the 2020 election was stolen. New research by political scientists Larry Bartels and Nicholas Carnes found that House Republicans who opposed Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election were considerably more likely to lose in a primary or be forced into retirement than Trump-supporting peers.

Trump is not some kind of aberration, a flash in the pan akin to candidates like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann in previous cycles. He and — crucially — his worldview are so popular among Republican primary voters that they can’t be beaten by throwing money at someone like Nikki Haley.

That means the 2024 election is not a competition between an ordinary Democrat and an ordinary Republican. It is a choice between an ordinary Democrat and a Republican running on an increasingly open platform of tearing down American democracy. Instead of acknowledging this reality, AFPA has simply chosen to live in a fantasy land where the GOP is still the party of limited government libertarianism — and where Democrats are, implausibly, Trumpism’s mirror image threat to American democracy.

It’s easy to understand the reasons for this flight of fancy. From the point of view of someone who deeply believes in traditional small government conservatism, this election truly is an agonizing choice.

With the exception of free trade, Trump’s last term largely served the super-wealthy’s interests in economic matters — passing a massive regressive tax cut and slashing environmental regulations. But he also poses an existential threat to American democracy, promising a term of instability that could shatter the political calm necessary for the economy to function.

Biden, on the other hand, has worked to bring stability to American democracy. Yet he also has moved to the left on economic matters, in ways that threaten the billionaire vision of an American night-watchman state. In a contest between Trump and Biden, the superrich can’t get what they want the most: political stability paired with a continuing assault on the welfare state.

The support for Haley is a way of avoiding what they see as a terrible choice. It’s a desperation play designed to stave off what they see as certain calamity, an 80-yard Hail Mary thrown to a receiver in sextuple coverage.

Of course, there’s another choice. The super-wealthy could decide that nothing, even increasing their already vast fortunes, is worth jeopardizing American democracy. Instead of burning their money on Haley, they could choose to support Democrats. Unlike Republican elected officials, the billionaire class is not accountable to primary voters; they could simply choose to dedicate a portion of their unimaginable wealth to an altruistic political cause rather than a selfish one.

But that, I suppose, is even more unrealistic than the prospect of Nikki Haley winning the primary.

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