January 23, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Haley is teaching Biden that attention to Trump’s ‘mental fitness’ moves some GOP voters

Her campaign may end tonight, but her lesson won’t.

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Nikki Haley’s bid for the GOP nomination could conclude tonight after the results of the New Hampshire primary come in. But her influence on the 2024 election is unlikely to end, no matter what happens. 

Why? Because the former US ambassador to the UN has taught us something about Donald Trump. More importantly, she has taught something about him to President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign.

Trump’s mental state has deteriorated. His incoherence is by now habitual. This is clear to anyone who pays even a little attention to his public statements. But Haley is the only one of his GOP primary rivals to have brought widespread attention to it. She’s the only one to have succeeded in exploiting it. And she’s the only one to show that Trump is sensitive to it. Her campaign may end tonight, but her teaching won’t. 

Trump’s mental state has deteriorated. His incoherence is habitual. Haley is the only one of his Republican primary rivals to have brought widespread attention to it. She’s the only one to have succeeded in exploiting it. And she’s the only one to show that Trump is sensitive to it.

Joe Biden’s reelection campaign is now “turning it out quickly,” Joe Scarborough said this morning. “Donald Trump says something stupid, it’s up online, like, 15 seconds later. It’s on TikTok, it’s on YouTube, it’s on X, it’s on Instagram reels. I mean, we’ve been seeing this over the last week, just how quickly they’re moving on Trump. I’ve got to say, I think this is why Trump got away with this in the past, because all his opponents were flat-footed. Maybe even the Biden campaign in 2020 didn’t have to do this as much as they’re doing in 2024.” He went on:

“There is a real understanding. Donald Trump loses his mind, forgets what he’s saying, confuses Barack Obama with Joe Biden, confuses World War II with whatever the hell he was confusing. He confuses Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi. The whole world is going to see in three seconds, and they’re going to see [it] because they’re on him now.”

I stress “they’re on him now” because that’s thanks to Haley. 

Trump often sounds incoherent because he so often speaks in maga shorthand. Over the weekend, at a rally in New Hampshire, he said: “We’re … going to place strong protections to stop banks and regulators from trying to debank you from your — you know, your political beliefs, what they do. They want to debank you, and we’re going to debank—think of this. They want to take away your rights. They want to take away your country. The things they’re doing. All electric cars.”

It turns out, as Heather Cox Richardson explained, that this is an oblique reference to an ongoing maga obsession. As Professor Richardson said, this obsession is part of a larger “attempt to create distrust of large financial institutions [which is itself] part of a larger attempt to destabilize the institutions of democracy. Trump is the figurehead for that attempt, but it is larger than him, and it will outlast him.” To the rest of us, however, this stuff is just word salad.

But Trump’s habitual incoherence is about more than maga shorthand. At another rally, Trump confused Nikki Haley with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, saying that Haley, not Pelosi, was in charge of security at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and that she is ultimately to blame for whatever violence happened to happen that day. 

This is not the first time Trump has shown signs of cognitive decline, something that can come with growing old. He has often implied that he’s running against Barack Obama, for instance, who, of course, is Joe Biden’s old boss. What’s new is the attention that’s being brought it.

Thanks to Haley. 

“Trump is at a rally,” Haley said over the weekend. “And he’s going on and on, mentioning me multiple times, as to why I didn’t handle January 6 better. I wasn’t in office then. They’re saying he got confused. That he was talking about something else. That he was talking about Nancy Pelosi. He mentioned me multiples times in that scenario.”

“The concern I have is – I’m not saying anything derogatory, but when you’re dealing with the pressures of a presidency, we can’t have someone else that we question whether they’re mentally fit to do it.”

That night, the big broadcast networks ran with the story of Haley calling into question Trump’s mental fitness. That was in addition to the Times and the others. Ron DeSantis’ now-suspended campaign developed what it called a “Trump Accident Tracker.” The press corps occasionally covered his incoherence. But no one brought attention to it the way Haley did. She’s the only one to have amassed a following inside the GOP that’s against Trump. Biden wants those voters. 

In any case, a strong offense is often a strong defense.

Here’s Politico’s Jonathan Lamire on “Morning Joe” today.

“This is the race the Biden campaign has always wanted. They feel like they best match up to Trump, who they can pose as an existential threat to the nation’s democracy, but also allows them to have some defense against what is President Biden’s greatest vulnerability per polling, which is his age. Donald Trump is only a few years younger and, as you mentioned, the verbal gaffes and the missteps and the incoherence, the flat-out incoherence from Trump has only accelerated. The Biden team is pouncing” (my italics).

History is full of primary candidates who ended up showing the opposition what works for party voters. Haley is showing Biden what works for some Republicans and GOP-leaning independent voters. Her campaign may end tonight. But her influence will probably go on.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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