Last laugh for Trump as Nikki Haley changes her primary colours

Announcement of intention to vote for Trump will stand as a betrayal of those who voted for her in Republican contest

Donald Trump is much too restless an individual to willingly sit as an audience member through a Washington political talk but some part of him must have wished he could have transported himself to the Hudson Institute on Wednesday afternoon to witness its new chair, Nikki Haley, tell the room – and the world – that she will be voting for him in November.

The Donald has, over his years on the public stage, mastered the art of the smug grin and wherever he watched the news, he would surely have permitted himself his biggest told-ya-so smirk when “Birdbrain” – as he repeatedly called her during the bitter closing weeks of the Republican primary – folded like all his other would-be rivals and adversaries.

The cynics and the world-weary among the commentariat shrugged and declared it no surprise: that it was the inevitable conclusion in a long line of ambitious politicians who will always opt for pragmatism over principle.

At best, it was just another example of the willingness of same-party rivals to contort themselves once the primary battles had ended and to put differences aside for the good of the party – and themselves. At worst, it is the final proof of what many consistently argued: that she stood for nothing.

Haley is 52: she has a full quarter of a century ahead before she even reaches the age Trump is today. She could easily wish-envisage a scenario in which she would be a thriving elder stateswoman of American politics, with the entire Trump era remembered as a unique quirk in US history. Or she could, 25 years hence, recall the early summer of 2024 when she had the opportunity to stand in that room in Washington and double down on everything she had said about her former boss in the snows and cold of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Those were the weeks when – however briefly and belatedly – she distinguished herself in a limp Republican primary campaign as the only person with the gumption to criticise Trump with words she knew would irritate and infuriate him. The 2024 Republican primary race will be recalled only for its spectacularly brutal weather in Iowa and the embarrassingly suppliant meekness of the men who would be president – Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy, who suffered dismal voting returns and merciless taunting from Trump before quitting and obediently endorsing him.

Haley, though, attracted enough votes to at least carry the fight through to her home state of South Carolina and spoke of Trump in a way few Republicans dare nowadays: “He is thin-skinned and easily distracted.” “He’s just toxic.” “When he lies, it’s because he feels insecure.” “He’s not qualified to be the president of the United States.”

She got under his skin, never more so than on the night of the New Hampshire primary results when, defying tradition, she took to the podium before the victor and spoke as though she had claimed victory.

This is the candidate for whom she will cast her vote in November, on the grounds that the alternative, Joe Biden, is “a disaster”. Haley can and will justify this if she positions herself for another run in four years’ time. It’s just that if her rival wins, nobody can be quite sure of what the American political landscape will look in four years.

And even though Haley can distance herself from her caustic criticisms in January and February and write them off as part of the cut and thrust of a gruelling election campaign against an opponent who trades in personal insult, her announcement of an intention to vote for Trump will stand as a lasting betrayal of the many thousands who voted for her in those early primaries and who continued to vote for her even after she had suspended her campaign days after Trump swept South Carolina.

It was clear, after that display of Trump popularity, that she had no path forward and had been branded a Republican outcast by the presumptive nominee.

But it was hard not to remember the Iowans and New Hampshire voters packed into the school auditoriums and community halls and cafes on bleak Tuesday nights and Sunday mornings to witness Haley’s rolling crusade through the heartland and who listened to what she had to say with a fervency. They were the visible representatives of a significant minority of Republican voters left bewildered and disillusioned by the direction with which Trump and his acolytes have taken the party and who saw in Haley someone with the potential to haul their party back from its metamorphosis.

Haley did at least allude to them in her guarded support, warning that Trump would “be smart to reach out to the millions of people who voted for me and not just assume that they’re going to be with him.”

What she may be missing is that they could never be with him, which is precisely why they believed in her.

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