Every now and then I like to engage in a bit of speculation. Not prediction, mind you, but something hopefully less presumptuous.
In this case, I’ve been musing about Nikki Haley’s path forward, if she has one.
Not whether she’ll win the nomination, which is unlikely. I’m more interested in her potential as an irritant, as a person ideally positioned to tamper with Trump’s fragile psyche. She now has the unmistakable opportunity to attack Trump from inside the Fox media bubble, something few have been able to do.
Haley just might be the focus of a novel strategy that does two things at once: It holds the door open for the slim chance she has of winning the nomination this summer, while at the same time, it lays the groundwork for a 2028 run at the presidency. Given the debased state of today’s Republican party, this is surely as good a strategy as any, though it risks doing more for Joe Biden than for her. More on this later.
For now, let’s presume that there’s a sizeable pot of money — right-wing, billionaire donor money — that’s prepared to support anybody who’s not Donald Trump. This is self-evident in the mere fact that Haley is still campaigning. Clearly, there are high-roller donors already invested in keeping her in the race, and there is much speculation about why that might be. I’m guessing that, at minimum, they see her as their only viable candidate if Trump’s campaign tanks.
But I’m also wondering if they might be playing a longer game. They could be looking ahead to life after Trump, by which time Haley might well be the last toilet-trained Republican out there.
Let’s further presume that getting rid of Trump is highly desirable to many, if not most, of these donors. They have wanted him gone forever, however much they’ve accommodated him in the past. To them, Trump is the loosest of cannons, and he’s already wreaked considerable damage on their party. It’s only a matter of time before he blows them all up, and they know it.
We’ll know more in the next week or two, but I think their strategy might be to have Haley go on the offensive, to embarrass Trump in front of his base, to subject him to ridicule wherever she can. If she has the will — and the continued backing — to go for a scorched-earth take-down of Trump, she’s in a unique position to do just that.
All she has to do is tell the truth about him in public, especially on Fox News.
She has already dipped her toe in this water. She has already publicly called Trump "totally unhinged.” She has already pointed to his increasingly obvious dementia. She has already drawn typically deranged responses from him. She continues to taunt him about refusing to debate her — something his handlers are desperate, for obvious reasons, to avoid.
These little apostasies are already more than enough to poison her standing with Trump, not to mention with his cult. Moreover, everything she’s done since the New Hampshire vote last week suggests that she knows her bridges are burned. She won’t be Trump’s running mate. She has no future at all in MAGA-world. Like Liz Cheney, she appears to have no choice but to go all-in on taking him down.
But unlike Cheney — whose appearances on CNN or MSNBC won’t sway a single voter — Haley has a real platform. Haley can go on Fox and deliver anti-Trump messaging directly to the Trump base. That has never before been possible, and the prospects are tantalizing.
Just think of the slime she can fling at him. Think of all the ridicule she can conjure just from the public record — no significant oppo research required. Think of all she can do to provoke him, to grab him by the ego and make him look stupid in front of his supporters. And she can do this in the language of the right-wing bubble.
She can tell them how Trump has twice been found liable for sexual assault by real juries. How his over-hyped businesses are about to be forfeited. How he stole nuclear secrets and played fast and loose with national security. How he planned and incited insurrection. How he’s happy to pull us out of NATO and sell Ukraine down the river.
And she can tell them exactly why he’ll be starring in multiple criminal trials that could put him in prison for multiple lifetimes.
These are all things that the Trump base has been shielded from, things they’ve either never heard, or refuse to believe. If she can use any or all of them to frame him as weak, senile, and broke, there’s no telling how many voters can be reprogrammed to believe her.
But the best part? She’ll be telling that same Fox audience much of what Democrats have wanted to tell them since 2016 — that Donald Trump is the world’s biggest loser. If that message alone could penetrate through the fog of Fox, Biden would get as much out it as Haley. Maybe more.
Keep in mind, no Democrat has ever had real access to the Fox platform, a hermetically-sealed bubble impervious to either logic or facts. Only carefully curated propaganda is allowed to get through to the Fox audience, which to this day knows precious little about Trump’s criminality. His impeachments, his indictments, his staggering financial liabilities, his failing businesses, and his apparent dementia are all, to them, breaking news.
But if anti-Trump messaging can be delivered by a Republican with the stature of Haley, and if she can deliver it robustly and repeatedly over the next few months, some of it is sure to sink in among some percentage of Fox viewers. And if she can manage to get enough voters thoroughly disgusted, some of them might just stay home on Election Day, or even vote for Joe Biden. Either way, it’s a win for Biden.
Haley is obviously aware of this possibility, and she has tried, clumsily, to “both sides” as many issues as she can, with mixed results.
On the “age” issue, it’s easy for her to lump Trump and Biden together as a pair of old farts, even as Trump’s cognitive decline becomes both more evident and more potentially damaging.
But when she turns on the gaslight and says, with a straight face, that Trump and Biden are “both being investigated,” you remember that it’s totally possible for her to despise Trump and still be a despicable person in her own right.
Haley’s campaign is not, ultimately, about her. She is simply the only candidate left for Republicans who can’t stand Trump, of whom there are many. In New Hampshire, almost half of primary voters rolled with that. If she chooses to go after Trump aggressively, there’s a chance she could get some real traction.
Or maybe not. I could be all wrong here. Haley could drop out of the race tomorrow. She could kiss Trump’s ring and beg his forgiveness. She could go out and campaign for him. But I don’t think so. Nor do I think she can keep up the craven deference that Trump was shown in all those cringe-worthy Republican debates.
I think her only way forward is to go full Chris Christie — to hit Trump hard, early and often. Halfway measures won’t get it done.
She has a unique opportunity. She can shine a light on Trump’s criminality. She can showcase his treason. She can turn his lies against him. She can show Republicans everywhere what a total slimeball he is.
Will the hardcore Trumpies care? No. Can she even pull it off? Who knows?
But you’ve got to admit, the very idea of Nikki Haley using Fox News to take a blowtorch to Trump — and of Democrats capitalizing on it — would be sheer poetry.