By David Brooks
I have a bunch of friends and acquaintances who are Never Trump, maybe-Trump or kind-of-Trump Republicans. They’ve been looking around for the candidate they can support and give their dollars to, somebody who is an antidote to Donald Trump and who can win a general election.
We’ve had endless conversations about who this person might be. Many of these friends and acquaintances went through a Ron DeSantis phase. A few like the No Labels third candidate option. I’ve often found myself talking up Tim Scott with them. If Trump is a moral stain, I would say, Tim Scott is the kind, honest and optimistic remedy.
But Wednesday’s debate persuaded me that the best Trump alternative is not Scott, it’s Nikki Haley. Nothing against Scott, he just didn’t show the specific kind of power and force needed to bring down Trump. Haley showed more than a glimpse of that power.
Wednesday’s debate illustrated the cancer that is eating away at the Republican Party. It’s not just Trumpian immorality. The real disease is narcissistic hucksterism. The real danger is that he’s creating generations of people, like Vivek Ramaswamy, who threaten to dominate the G.O.P. for decades to come.
Ramaswamy has absolutely no reason to be running for president. He said that Trump is the best president of the 21st century. So why is he running against the man he so admires? The answer is: To draw attention to himself. Maybe to be Trump’s vice president or secretary of social media memes.
If Trump emerged from the make-believe world of pro wrestling, Ramaswamy emerges from the make-believe world of social media and the third-rate sectors of the right-wing media sphere. His statements are brisk, in-your-face provocations intended to produce temporary populist dopamine highs. It’s all performative show. Ramaswamy seems as uninterested in actually governing as his idol.
Republicans have been unable to take down Trump because they haven’t been able to rebut and replace the core Trump/Ramaswamy ethos — that politics is essentially a form of entertainment. But time and again, Haley seemed to look at the Trump/Ramaswamy wing and implicitly say: You children need to stop preening and deal with reality. She showed total impatience for the kind of bravado that the fragile male ego manufactures by the boatload.
Haley dismantled Ramaswamy on foreign policy. It was not only her contemptuous put-down: “You have no foreign policy experience and it shows.” She took on the whole America First ethos that sounds good as a one-liner but that doesn’t work when you’re governing a superpower. Gesturing to Ramaswamy, she said, “He wants to hand Ukraine to Russia, he wants to let China eat Taiwan, he wants to go and stop funding Israel. You don’t do that to friends.”
Similarly on abortion, many of her opponents took the issue as a chance to perform self-righteous bluster — to make the issue about themselves. She was the only one who acknowledged the complexity of the issue, who tried to humanize people caught in horrible situations, who acknowledged that the absolutist position is politically unsustainable.
She was the candidate brave enough to state the obvious truth that Trump took decades of G.O.P. fiscal conservative posturing and he blew it to smithereens. The other candidates assumed the usual conservative postures about cutting taxes and spending, but she introduced the reality: Under Trump, the G.O.P. added $8 trillion to the national debt. Where have you been the last seven years?
That was part of a larger accomplishment. She seems to be one of the few candidates who understands that to run against Trump you have to run against Trump. Many of the other candidates, especially Ron DeSantis, seem to have absorbed the pernicious Trumpian assumption that Republican voters are so stupid that they can be won over by hokum. DeSantis is a smart guy trying to run as a simpleton. Haley, by contrast, seems to believe that voters are intelligent enough to be treated as adults.
I’m trying to point to an overall pattern. When politics becomes entertainment, it’s very easy to create a land of make-believe in which you get high on your own supply. To follow Trump, you more or less have to say farewell to the actual world and live by the rules of the fun house carnival. Haley seems to have her feet still planted on the ground — able to face what Saul Bellow once called “the reality situation.”
My largest question about Haley is: Does she know what year it is? The most interesting exchange of the night was between Ramaswamy and Mike Pence. Ramaswamy, to his credit, was talking about the nation’s mental health crisis and the national identity crisis that lies beneath it. Pence waved all that talk about the loss of meaning and purpose as so much woo-woo, and argued that the real problem is that government is not as good as the people. Pence, like many in the field, is still living in the age of Reagan, or at the latest, the Tea Party. They haven’t reoriented their focus to the sorts of concerns that are most important to heartland voters without a college degree. They don’t understand why the old Republican orthodoxy was so fragile in the face of Trump. They haven’t faced the new realities that have emerged this century.
Has Haley? Too soon to tell. But if any of my friends and acquaintances want to stop Trump, this is their moment to give Haley her chance.
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David Brooks has been a columnist with The Times since 2003. He is the author of the forthcoming book “How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen.” @nytdavidbrooks
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