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Trump’s Vice President Won’t Be a True Believer

Trump’s Vice President Won’t Be a True Believer
Trump’s Vice President Won’t Be a True Believer

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Nikki Haley has finally uncloaked her endgame: She wants to be Donald Trump’s running mate.

From the start of the 2024 Republican coronation, everyone’s motives were obvious except for Haley’s. Mike Pence wanted a postscript. Chris Christie wanted to sound an alarm. Doug Burgum wanted a Cabinet post. Vivek Ramaswamy wanted a TV show. Ron DeSantis—bless his heart—was the lone candidate running because, at least in early 2023, he thought he could win the nomination. Tim Scott was the guy running to be Trump’s vice president. And Haley? What was her angle?

The MAGA wing of the party hated her. Trump found her to be alternately droll and pathetic. She hadn’t run a campaign in almost a decade. Even though she had served in Trump’s administration, Haley wasn’t part of the new MAGA establishment. She was, like Mitt Romney and Pence, a throwback, a figure from the party’s past. The only thing she stood to gain was a chance to remind corporate boards and trade associations that she was a bona fide, certified Good Republican who still drew breath and was available for weddings and bar mitzvahs.

And yet, despite all of that, today Haley should be considered the front-runner for Trump’s VP slot.

It’s not an obvious case. In fact, on the surface, Haley makes zero sense as Trump’s vice president. Trump’s big takeaway from his first term was that having normal Republicans in positions of power was a liability.

James Mattis, John Kelly, Jeff Sessions, Bill Barr—all of them hindered Trump’s ability to operate as he desired. Pence had the temerity to refuse Trump’s command to stop the counting of Electoral College votes.

Trump has learned from these betrayals. He has driven out of the party nearly every Republican officeholder who supported his impeachment—even when this cost the GOP seats in Congress. He is preparing the way for a massive purge of civil-service workers from the federal government and assembling a cadre of thousands to replace them. These are people who have been screened for their loyalty to the President-God-King.

So why would he give Nikki Haley—who is legendarily inconstant—a role in his second administration? Especially as the vice president, who cannot be fired or replaced? (Double especially because Trump knows firsthand how the vice president can ruin a coup.)

Let’s take it as a given that Trump neither likes nor trusts Haley—that if he loses, he’ll want someone willing to fight to the last man to overturn the election, and that if he wins, he will want someone supportive of an attempt to get a third term.

And Trump believes that, because of principle or ambition, Haley wouldn’t do either. She’d kneecap him.

But there is another side to Trump: a pragmatic and cunning willingness to do what he must in order to survive.

That’s why he picked Pence in 2016. Trump realized that he needed to shore up his support from midwestern evangelicals, who weren’t yet fully with him.

That’s why he abandoned his desire to pull American forces out of Afghanistan in the waning days of his presidency. He understood that the remaining hawks in the Republican Party would mutiny, and he needed to keep them on board for 2024.

And that’s why he has already backed away from the Republican Party’s institutional position on abortion. Trump understands that Republican abortion politics lose the overwhelming majority of the country. So he’s getting out from under them.

From Trump’s perspective, his biggest weakness against Joe Biden is women. His numbers with women voters in 2020 were macabre: Biden’s share was 11 percentage points higher than Trump’s. Polling suggests that the reversal of Roe has exacerbated this problem for Republicans across the board.

Trump might reasonably guess that having a woman on the ticket—especially a woman who has also put distance between herself and Dobbs—is a necessary condition for victory. And if he does come to that conclusion, then history suggests that he’ll do what he needs to.

It seems clear that Haley wants the job. Like most of the other Republican candidates, she has said that she will endorse Trump no matter what. She has also said that, if elected, she’d pardon Trump. Most important: She has refused—over and over—to rule out being Trump’s vice president.

The MAGAs are already wary of her. Last week, Steve Bannon told a podcaster:

One of the fights we’re going to have, a big fight, it will take place in the spring, will be—they’re going to try to force Nikki on the ticket … They’ll say Trump needs a woman—Nikki—on the ticket. She balances things. And she can bring together that 15 percent of Never Trumpers in the Republican Party. We’re going to have to have that fight.

Bannon is right that the conservative establishment will definitely want Trump to take Haley. That’s where the Wall Street Journal editorial page and National Review will land. It’s where Kevin McCarthy already is. And it’s probably what Trump’s campaign leads, Chris LaCivita and Susie Wiles—who have run the most professional and disciplined Trump operation to date—will want.

But Bannon is wrong about how much of a fight MAGA will actually put up over Haley. If the past three years have taught us anything, it’s that Trump’s base will affirm whatever he does—whether it’s launching an NFT scam, securing a $2 billion Saudi “investment” for his RINO son-in-law, or putting an unreformed neocon squish on the ticket.

And Haley seems to understand that she needs to meet MAGA where it is. Consider Haley’s slavery-didn’t-cause-the-Civil-War saga, in which she showed sympathy for the Lost Cause, became the main character on the internet for 72 hours, and then doubled down, refusing to give Democrats or the media any satisfaction.

That wasn’t a gaffe. It was an audition.

The MAGA base will want Trump to pick someone totally and completely dependable. A true believer, like Kari Lake or Kristi Noem.

But Trump has made it this far by knowing when to drop kayfabe and be coldly rational. He understands that his primary concern is his criminal prosecutions. He likewise understands that the only way to be certain he remains free is to regain the presidency.

If he determines that Haley is the person who gives him the best chance to win, then he’ll pick her and worry about everything else later.

Bannon and the rest of the new MAGA establishment won’t be happy. They’ll want one of their own. But never forget that although Trump’s people tend to be true believers, Trump himself isn’t. He’s a survivor.

And survivors do whatever it takes.

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