Opinion: Nikki Haley keeps losing — and revealing something important about Trump and Republicans

Photo/Matthew Defeo/The New York Times / Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and a Republican presidential candidate, greets supporters during a campaign event in Centennial, Colo., on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. Following her streak of losses in the quest for the 2024 Republican nomination, including in South Carolina, Haley has only cranked up her attacks on former President Donald Trump and his transformation of the GOP.
Photo/Matthew Defeo/The New York Times / Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and a Republican presidential candidate, greets supporters during a campaign event in Centennial, Colo., on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. Following her streak of losses in the quest for the 2024 Republican nomination, including in South Carolina, Haley has only cranked up her attacks on former President Donald Trump and his transformation of the GOP.

Celebrating his victory in the South Carolina primary Saturday, Donald Trump declared, "I have never seen the Republican Party so unified as it is right now."

It was an indisputable victory for Trump, particularly given that it was in the home state of his last remaining rival for the nomination, Nikki Haley, a twice-elected, popular former South Carolina governor. Barring some shocking development, it's a foregone conclusion that Trump will be the nominee.

But the GOP is not unified, never mind like never before. It's actually as divided as it was in 1992, which was not a great year for Republican unity.

That was the year that Pat Buchanan challenged President George H.W. Bush for the nomination. Buchanan got just under 38% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, and it was widely regarded at the time — and ever since — as a devastating rebuke and a sign that the GOP was in deep disarray.

Buchanan stayed in the race until the end despite failing to win a single primary, much as Haley is threatening to do now. The challenger contributed to Bush's subsequent defeat in the general election, and his candidacy established a lasting Buchananite faction within the party.

Now, Trump isn't an incumbent, but countless observers (including me) have made the point that he's running as a quasi-incumbent. Trump has 100% name identification, and the party's infrastructure has largely acted as if he were still its leader.

More important, Trump falsely claims that the 2020 election was stolen, and many Republican voters believe him. Much of right-wing media and many elected GOP officials, including most of Trump's primary opponents, refused to acknowledge that he lost. This prevented the party from turning the page on Trump or having a healthy debate over whether to move on from Trumpism.

Normally, when a party loses, its opposing faction gets a shot. That couldn't happen in this case. As a result, Trump operates as an incumbent — a very weak incumbent.

But while the internal party reckoning that comes with a loss can be delayed, it can't be denied. Over time, the opposition girds for its turn in power. Indeed, when Trump was elected in 2016, many — including Buchanan himself — hailed his victory as a long-postponed vindication for Buchananism.

There's a key difference, however, between 2024 and 1992. Buchanan's campaign was about issues — immigration, trade and foreign policy chief among them. Today, with the partial exception of support for Ukraine — opposition to which is largely a proxy for supporting Trump and his Russophilia — Republicans aren't badly divided over any issue other than Donald Trump himself.

In the old days, Republicans who were moderate on abortion, defense or taxes were often dubbed "RINOs." Today, the term is reserved almost exclusively for Republicans who are insufficiently loyal to Trump.

Trump has vacillated on abortion, fidelity to the Constitution and other former conservative litmus tests without paying a price among self-described conservatives. Moreover, the need to paper over his myriad character defects invites a kind of pathological defense of the man in full that has erased the "character issue" entirely. Indeed, it's fair to say that many voters who describe themselves as "very conservative" mean they're very supportive of Trump.

Similarly, Haley enjoys strong support among self-described moderate Republicans. But on the issues that once defined the party, she's a conservative.

Haley's determination to stay in the race probably won't lead to her being president one day. But if the GOP is ever going to have a traditional conservative as a standard-bearer again, it will be because she helped preserve a safe space for them within the party.

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