What is Nikki Haley doing? What are her real intentions? Those questions have dominated every aspect of her candidacy.
So much of what’s been said about Ms. Haley the last few months has been about what she’ll do after she loses — even that the original premise of the campaign must have contained hidden ambitions or total delusion. There’s been an assumption, even from would-be allies, that there must be another angle to the campaign, that she must want the vice presidency.
That’s partly because, in her speeches, Ms. Haley often resists giving her listeners satisfaction, withholding the obvious point, allowing them to fill in what they want, both to Ms. Haley’s benefit and peril. She did not make a strong moral case against Donald Trump last year.
But here we are after her big loss in New Hampshire, framed by many as the definitive end. Right now, Ms. Haley’s unwillingness to publicly engage with the obvious works differently, reveals different things.
For instance, in a hotel ballroom by the Charleston, S.C., airport, with people decked out in “SC ❤️ NH” stickers, cheerfully wanting something they and everybody else know they probably won’t get, she proceeded as normal, giving that homecoming crowd primarily her normal remarks. She layered in critiques of Mr. Trump that dealt with inarguable surface realities, like how he talked about her the night before rather than about solutions to the nation’s problems: “He didn’t talk about the American people once; he talked about revenge!” (When she ran through a variety of problems he could have talked about, one woman yelled, “He don’t know!”)
Insofar as she engaged with the obvious, literal reason that people in the room seemed so amped — that she was still in the race — it was this: “You know, the political elites, in this state and around the country, have said that we just need to let Donald Trump have this.” That was clearly what people in the room, who dropped into a long “noooo,” had come to hear discussed.
And as she said that night, she’s down by just 15 delegates — 32 to 17 — in a race to 1,215. Her tone was cutting on this point. But the implied posture from this candidate who doesn’t offer up the obvious next point was this: What’s so dire if I stay in the race a few weeks? Who’s losing here? Could someone explain the problem?
Outside that hotel ballroom, we’re doing the darkest version of the full Trump experience, on a compressed timeline.
In the most immediate sense, we’re fully in the phase where Republicans submit to supporting Mr. Trump, or he and the campaign joyfully bring about submission. That took months in 2016. The new chair of the House Freedom Caucus, Bob Good of Virginia, endorsed Ron DeSantis last year, for instance. “Bob Good won’t be electable when we get done with him,” Mr. Trump’s campaign manager told a news outlet recently — and within minutes of Mr. DeSantis dropping out, Mr. Good endorsed Mr. Trump.
In this phase, Mr. Trump brings South Carolina’s governor, lieutenant governor, State House speaker, attorney general and three of its members of Congress onstage in New Hampshire to embarrass Ms. Haley. But it’s also to undercut them on some level, too, to have them travel to New Hampshire at his beck and call.
The result is that you can catch a clip of Representative Elise Stefanik in Manchester, N.H., explaining that Ms. Haley has been “disloyal” to Mr. Trump or flip on a Trump rally and hear Senator Tim Scott (originally appointed by Ms. Haley to his post) saying in Laconia, “We need Donald Trump for world peace” and leading people in a “Trump! Trump! Trump!” chant.
“Did you ever think that she actually appointed you, Tim? You must really hate her,” Mr. Trump said the next night at his victory party, and Mr. Scott stepped up to say: “I just love you.”
But that’s not the extent of the situation the country’s in, and the brightness of Ms. Haley’s last few days underscores the darkness of Mr. Trump’s. The night before his victory in New Hampshire, he ended his rally, for no clear reason, by reading his remarks set to music — movie score music, strings and atmospherics. Mr. Trump dropped his voice into a subdued, even cadence and read from prompter. “We are a nation in decline,” this part of the rally began. “We are a failing nation.”
The first part touched on more familiar topics (energy, the border, chaos in the world). But he then escalated, claiming that the Justice Department wouldn’t investigate fraud and the F.B.I. won’t allow the presentation of “election-changing facts.” As the music kept playing, and Mr. Trump kept reading, the language kept accumulating, getting more intense word by word (demolish, expel, liberate, rout).
We had a great country three years ago, he said. Now, “we are a nation that is hostile to liberty, freedom, faith, and even to God. We are a nation whose economy is collapsing into a cesspool of ruin,” he said, calmly. “We have become a drug-infested, crime-ridden nation that is incapable of solving even the smallest, smallest problem,” he went on.
“Twenty twenty-four is our final battle,” he said.
There are many possible real-world outcomes of the Trump project, but the two parts that never change are the vision of America as fallen without him, and Mr. Trump rearranging everything in his path into loyal and disloyal.
And here at the end is Ms. Haley. Not submitting to the ocean of Mr. Trump’s dominance over the party for even 20 minutes on Tuesday night had him livid in victory. After she said she’d raised $1 million in 24 hours on Wednesday night, Mr. Trump said her donors would be barred from getting in with him. The next day, The Dispatch reported that a Trump ally had floated making him the presumptive nominee now.
We all know why. It doesn’t even seem as if it’d be that hard or expensive for Mr. Trump to run the table on Super Tuesday against her! So who’s losing here? Could someone explain what the problem is? If she actually stays in the race until Super Tuesday, as she says she will, she is essentially volunteering for over a month of total wreckage — ads, claims, ridicule, the brutality, the darkness.
I used to think about Mr. Trump as having off-the-charts powers of revelation, trained toward illuminating weakness and artifice in people and institutions, like something out of a Greek play. But it’s interesting to think about Ms. Haley’s own campaign as one of revelation, beginning with how futile people seemed to think her campaign was, even when New Hampshire became competitive.
She says she’s not getting out; she says it’s time to fight. Politicians will often disappoint you, but who actually knows how this will end? Even it’s only for a month, even if it’s only for a few days, her unwillingness to give anybody the satisfaction of confirming what they expected of her might underline just how grim the terms of the Trump deal have become.