Nikki Haley never had a chance — as Republicans’ bonkers candidate for North Carolina governor shows

Wednesday morning, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley did everyone a solid by being brief in her remarks as she dropped out of the Republican presidential primary race. She declined to endorse Donald Trump, who beat her handily once again on Super Tuesday, but did suggest that Trump could “earn the votes of those in our party and beyond it who did not support him.”

The conciliatory tone was no surprise. A common gripe against Haley is that she started criticizing Trump directly far too late in the race. For most of 2023, Haley avoided calling Trump out for his deranged behavior, only making half-hearted assertions that she was a steadier hand. After he gave a speech where he, at length, confused Haley for former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., she finally uncorked a little. She started offering more full-throated denunciations of the “chaos” Trump brings. Implicit was an electability argument: Her more reasonable-appearing demeanor meant she had a much better chance at defeating President Joe Biden in November. Many a pundit argued this pitch would have worked on Republican voters if she had only started making it sooner. 

Trump’s chaos is what MAGA craves.

The big problem with this argument is it assumes that winning elections is a major priority for MAGA voters.

Trump’s chaos is what MAGA craves — and it’s far more important to them than winning elections. One has to look no further than Haley’s neighboring state of North Carolina to show how much MAGA prioritizes fascist buffoonery over effective politics. There, Republicans nominated Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson as their nominee for governor despite the fact that Robinson calls gay people “maggots” and posted, seemingly approvingly, a quote from Adolph Hitler on his Facebook page. Robinson has denied that he was praising Hitler, but since it was echoing a common far-right refrain that it’s not “racist” be “proud” of your own race, people are rightfully skeptical of his denials. 

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Except for white Christian men, there doesn’t appear to be a group that Robinson hasn’t heaped hate upon. He’s called for the arrest of trans people. He’s accused women who get abortions of “murder.” At a 2020 event before the Republican Women of Pitt County, he declared, “I absolutely want to go back to the America where women couldn’t vote.” He has demanded that women be “led by men.” He called school shooting survivors “prosti-tots.” He endorses pretty much every conspiracy theory, but especially ones that are really racist against Black people: Barack Obama is a Marxist who faked his birth certificateBeyoncé is “satanic,” and police shootings are a media hoax. He complained that “Black Panther” was “created by an agnostic Jew and put to film by satanic marxist.” He’s implied the Holocaust was faked. There’s just so much hate that it’s numbing to list it all. 

As Robinson’s firehose of hate shows, the whole point of MAGA is to find self-esteem by denigrating everyone else.

Just as telling may be what Trump said when he endorsed Robinson. He declared that Robinson is “Martin Luther King on steroids” and “better than Martin Luther King.” Trump, who enjoys dunking on people who publicly support him, sneered that Robinson didn’t like the comparison. “I wasn’t sure was he angry because that’s a terrible thing to say or was he complimented.” Robinson’s displeasure was no doubt due, in part, to his hatred for the former civil rights leader, whom he calls a “communist.” In part, it’s likely because he recognized Trump wasn’t complimenting him at all. The comparison was intended as an insult to King. It’s part of a growing willingness on the MAGA right to trash King, such as Charlie Kirk at Turning Points USA saying King “was awful” and “not a good person.” 

Trump deriding King really gets at the heart of what Haley doesn’t get about MAGA voters: They aren’t in this to make friends or build community. If they were, they wouldn’t nominate someone like Robinson, who is bound to turn off swing voters. Instead, MAGA is a nihilistic movement focused on destruction. It’s not even that they can argue against King’s beliefs in any meaningful way. Attacking King is just about being as dickish as possible, for its own sake.  

Derek Thompson of the Atlantic recently wrote about the political science explaining how many voters, especially those in the MAGA movement, want chaos for its own sake. “[T]he need for chaos emerges from the interplay among ‘dominance-oriented’ traits (i.e., a preference for traditional social hierarchies), feelings of marginalization, and intense anger toward elites,” he writes. This is all scientific jargon for the anger arising when white men, who were raised to believe they are entitled to more privileges than everyone else, see their unfair advantages challenged. 

One of the researchers Thompson interviewed compares it to someone playing a game that has always been rigged in their favor. When the rules become a little more fair, they start losing games. They could, of course, actually learn to play the game and get better at it, rather than simply expecting everyone else to let them cheat. Instead, as the researcher explained, “In a rage, you turn the whole table upside down, and the pieces scatter and shatter.” They would rather destroy the game than play without unfair advantages. Or, as I often like to say, MAGA is a support group for mediocre white men. 

They would rather destroy the game than play without unfair advantages.

In her concession speech, Haley praised America as a land of opportunity and said, “At its best, politics is about bringing people into your cause, not turning them away.” 

In practice, Haley rarely lived up to her own rhetoric. But one can see why she says such things, as these inclusive sentiments appeal to most people. But for the burn-it-all-down crowd that is MAGA, this is everything they reject. They don’t want to bring people together. As Robinson’s firehose of hate shows, the whole point of MAGA is to find self-esteem by denigrating everyone else. Nor do they love America, despite waving a bunch of flags around. In his victory speech, Trump described the United States as “a third world country” that’s “overrun with migrant crime” and “choking to death.”  He claimed the U.S. is so terrible that “the world is laughing at us” and “taking advantage of us.” 

The relentless whining doesn’t reflect reality, of course. In real America, crime is low, employment is high, and the world’s respect was restored when Biden was elected. (Though we could lose that respect if Trump wins, bringing shame upon us once again.) Trump is a liar, of course. But his lies resonate with his audience not because they feel the U.S. is losing, but because he speaks to their more personal fears of being unable to keep up in a society where the boot on the neck of women and minorities is ever so slowly being lifted. Projecting their own anxieties onto the country also creates the rationale for what they ultimately want, which is to tear democracy down to the ground and replace it with a MAGA dictatorship that will restore their unearned privileges by fiat. 

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