December 29, 2023 | Reading Time: 6 minutes

What Haley’s Civil War gaffe reveals about the Republicans

There is no place for a “reasonable” candidate.

Courtesy of Nikki Haley.
Courtesy of Nikki Haley.

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A quick programming note: I took off the first half of the week to celebrate Christmas. I’ll take off some of next week, too. In the meantime, here’s today’s edition. Politics never stops, even this time of year! Please enjoy and share, and thanks for supporting the Editorial Board. I’m so grateful that you’re here! –JS

The new Nikki Haley news is that she refused to say that slavery was the cause of the US Civil War. During an event in New Hampshire, she said that the bloodiest conflict on American soil was about, well, anything but slavery: “how government was going to run” and “the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do” were among other silly things that she said.

Magdi Jacobs, an Editorial Board contributor, said that “the fascinating thing about Haley’s response was her discomfort. You could feel her flailing as she reached for the perfect combo of a pre-Donald Trump conservative ‘states’ rights’ answer to appeal to centrist voters, all while knowing that the insurrectionists want more racist red meat.”

“This is a balance no one can strike,” Magdi concluded. “It shows how fundamentally weak the current GOP is, even if our political media doesn’t want to admit it. You can’t win without Trump. I firmly believe – and I think Haley does, too – that you can’t win with him either.”

“GOP megadonors need to come to terms with the reality that their base cannot be controlled. They let the MAGA flames burn out of control and now they get to reap the whirlwind.”

More precisely (and I think Magdi would agree) is that this balance is impossible to strike because there’s nowhere to put it. There’s no such thing as a moderate position inside today’s Republican Party. There’s no foundation on which to build the broad coalition of voters that’s necessary to winning (ie, winners need more than a base.) If such a position existed, Haley would have found it. It doesn’t, so all she can do is reach for a reason, any reason, as the true cause of the Civil War. 

To her credit, Haley quickly walked back her remarks. Perhaps she sensed something was at risk in sounding so unreasonable. “Of course, the Civil War was about slavery,” she said. “We know that. That’s the easy part of it.” She went on to say that the war was about “more than that,” citing, among other silly things, “the role of government.”

That she walked back her initial remarks may seem “reasonable,” but it won’t matter. Remember, even if she wanted to strike a balance between “conservative states’ rights” and “racist red meat” – and that’s apparently what she wanted to do – there is no foundation inside the Republican Party on which to put it. There is no moderate position. 

To be a moderate, you have to sound reasonable, but according to David Atkins, a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, the GOP base “doesn’t want even the perception of a more reasonable candidate. They want a dictator to punish their enemies.”

“Haley has zero chance of winning” the presidential election, David told me. “Even if she did win New Hampshire, it wouldn’t help her any more than it did Bernie Sanders in 2016 and Pete Buttigieg in 2020.”

There’s always makebelieve, though. Fortunately, Haley has a lot of help in that regard. The billionaire Koch brothers gave her their blessing. So did the popular governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu. They portray Haley as the champion of “conservative values,” as if “conservative values” was still shorthand for “moderate,” and as if Donald Trump’s gravity has not pulled the entire party to the far right.

While makebelieve is a powerful force in politics, it’s probably not going to be enough for Haley or any of the other GOP candidates. Oh, sure, they did OK while the neutral press was casting them as “legitimate alternatives” to Trump. But once the neutral press gets bored – and it always does – whatever promise they once had melts into the air.

It happened to Ron DeSantis. It happened to Vivek Ramaswamy. It will probably happen to Haley. Everything begins and ends with Trump. As Magdi said, the GOP can’t win with him and it can’t win without him. 

In the following interview with me, David Atkins explains not only why he thinks Haley is doomed, but why, in 2024, the Republicans are, too. 

JS: New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu endorsed Republican candidate Nikki Haley after the Koch network did. Could that be enough for her to win New Hampshire? And will that matter in the long run? 

DA: GOP megadonors need to come to terms with the reality that their base cannot be controlled. They let the MAGA flames burn out of control and now they get to reap the whirlwind. Haley has zero chance of winning absent some issue impacting Trump’s health, because the GOP base doesn’t want even the perception of a more reasonable candidate. They want a dictator to punish their enemies.

And let’s be clear: Haley is also a radical rightwing extremist, as her embrace of a six-week abortion ban makes clear. She just doesn’t seem like she wants to destroy the entire federal bureaucracy, send Democrats to gulags, weaponize the Justice Department and the IRS against all their domestic opponents, and institute mass deportation camps of immigrants. So she’s not the candidate of the GOP base, which does want those things and wants Trump to deliver them. 

The Republican Party’s base isn’t in the thrall of Trumpism; Trump is the avatar of their desires, which is why he will be the nominee. Also, even if Haley did win New Hampshire, it wouldn’t help her any more than it did Bernie Sanders in 2016 and Pete Buttigieg in 2020.

JS: You said the culture war is over. Taylor Swift won, Elon Musk lost. I have written that obituary, too, only to see myself proven wrong. 

DA: The culture war is over in the sense that people under the age of 50 in the areas of the country that make up more than 80 percent of the national GDP despise the theocratic conservatism that animates Republican activists. That isn’t going to change. 

This doesn’t mean that Republicans can’t win elections, and institute rearguard policy actions, like restricting abortion and LGBT rights. They can. The threat of hard-right fascist dictatorship is very real.

But most of the culture wars can be explained by the fact that the marketplace responds primarily to 18- to 45-year-old consumers in cities, while the electoral system responds primarily to 65-plus-year-olds in exurbia. The electoral system can produce a fascist takeover, but it will do so by oppressing a majority that wants nothing to do with it. Such tyrannies rarely last for long. 

In the meantime, the weight of popular culture is increasingly shifting to treat cultural progressivism as normative, if for no other reason than that’s the population advertisers want to appeal to. The engines of capitalism are working against social conservatives now, which is why you see such a growing rift between the evangelical base and the urbanite business Republican crowd.

JS: You said the GOP will lose 2024. You said that they have lost every special election. But special elections attract partisans. Presidential elections attract everyone. Am I wrong in noting the difference? 

DA: It’s no secret that Trump and Biden at the top of the ticket will make for an interesting dynamic in 2024, since neither are popular, at least at the moment. But in this environment, a generic Democrat is consistently beating a generic Republican. If the public’s concerns about both Trump and Biden as individuals were sidelined, and the voters were to choose a party and its policies, Democrats would be marching into a confident victory in 2024.

The key will be to remind voters of the tremendous legislative accomplishments of the Biden administration, emphasize Trump’s rampant criminality and danger to democracy, and remind people that no matter what they think of the candidates, the policy choices are very real. Republican rule would be a cruel disaster.

JS: I think the GOP is going to impeach Biden. How does that factor into your thinking, if it does, that the Republicans are going to lose 2024? 

DA: Republicans want to play tit-for-tat by impeaching Biden to take some of the sting out of Trump’s double impeachments. More generally, if they can make impeachment into a routine partisan clown show, then it minimizes and defangs the one tool in the Constitution that’s designed to stop an authoritarian, criminal unitary executive.

The flip side of doing this is that any impeachment of Biden by Republicans on flimsy pretexts is likely to have as minimal an impact on voters as Trump’s impeachments apparently have.

JS: What if there’s a major polling error and Trump isn’t really a mile ahead of the other Republican candidates? Most of us just assume he’s going to be the nominee. Iowa and New Hampshire might be stunners?

DA: What’s particularly interesting about Trump seizing the GOP nomination is the low-key panic among many Republican activists. While Trump’s indictments have so far not impacted his popularity, we are in uncharted territory. It’s impossible to predict what impact multiple public trials and possible felony convictions of the sitting GOP nominee might have on public polling and electoral outcomes.

One could speculate that the polling might be wrong, and GOP voters in Iowa and New Hampshire might choose a different nominee out of self-preservation. But Trump has developed a cult-like following, and one thing that we know about cults is that they are largely impervious to even their leaders going to jail. If anything, it makes them feel like martyrs. So I find it extremely unlikely that Iowa and New Hampshire will surprise us by selecting a Haley or Ron DeSantis.


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

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