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Loud and Clear

It’s Official: Republicans Don’t Want Dignity

If even New Hampshirites convincingly chose Trump over Haley, then there’s no doubt that GOP voters prefer ugly authoritarianism.

Nikki Haley delivers remarks at her primary-night rally
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Nikki Haley delivers remarks at her primary-night rally in Concord, New Hampshire, on Tuesday.

No one can squint like a New Hampshire underdog, and as primary polls closed on Tuesday, supporters and staff in the conference center ballroom at Nikki Haley’s watch party in Concord were squinting hard, looking for signs that she would significantly overcome the double-digit deficit predicted by polls.

For decades, mavericks and underdogs like John McCain, Bill Clinton, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and a younger Donald Trump looked to New Hampshire as a state that can keep a dream alive, and for a moment, the pieces of a close race seemed to be in place. There were reports of record-high turnout across the state, and Haley took an early lead with less than 1 percent of the votes counted.

But this week, New Hampshire instead crushed a dream. Just 20 minutes after polls closed at 8 p.m., with results from key indicator precincts rolling in, the race had been called for Trump, who went on to win by 11 points. The race, as even the nation’s major newspapers are willing to voice, is all but over after its very first contest. Even in this moderate slice of New England, the Republican Party had voted enthusiastically for authoritarianism.

But Haley seemed unfazed as she took the stage, addressing an affectionate crowd of supporters that was not quite densely packed enough to rise to the level of throng. “New Hampshire is first in the nation,” she said. “It is not the last in the nation.” She pledged she would continue to compete for delegates, though the mountain she is now climbing is so steep that it might as well be upside down.

Before polls closed, Haley, whose criticism of Trump has been muted until recently, represented an off-ramp for Republican voters mired in a deeply unpopular MAGA movement, which is viewed favorably by only 24 percent of Americans (and unfavorably by 45 percent).

The unpopularity has to be at least in part due to the personality of Trump, who has degraded the standard political barb into something much uglier; instead of mud-slinging candidates, he (and some of his vanquished rivals, notably Vivek Ramaswamy) now more closely resemble shit-flinging apes. Haley’s ballroom crowd seemed wistful for a return to normalcy within their party.

“She would bring a sense of decorum back to the White House,” said John Doane, a Massachusetts voter. Brittany Martinez, 32, a California native who works for conservative causes, said Haley’s positivity and sense of personal honor had drawn Martinez into a role supporting her candidacy throughout the primary process.

Haley has been a rare candidate in her ability to draw big funding from political polar opposites. Democrat bigwigs like Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn, gave her $250,000 in funding, while libertarian activist Charles Koch gave her $4 million. The donors are united not in a love of Haley but in an aversion to Trump.

But like so many of Trump’s political victims, Haley has reaped what she’s sown by tying her public comments about Trump to her own political fortunes. When Trump has been down—early 2016, and post-insurrection—she has critiqued him for his anger, for his failure to disavow the Ku Klux Klan, and for his irresponsibility. But when he has been up, her messaging has changed to praise.

Myopically speaking, the primary was a ho-hum affair. The polling front-runner backed by most of the Republican establishment handily won. But widen the lens just a bit, and the New Hampshire primary is confoundingly full of shocking precedent and ill omen.

For example, it was another slipped notch on the ever-tightening belt of institutional influence on American society. Voters have always looked to media outlets to broker fair debates among political rivals; New Hampshire’s only two debates were canceled when Haley and Trump declined to participate, and neither seems to have been punished by a voting public who eight years ago would have howled at their cowardice.

It also represents a new low for the Republican base. It can be easy to think of Trump’s current front-runner status as a continuation of his 2016 campaign, but let’s not forget that Republican electoral losses in three consecutive national elections plus the January 6 insurrection combined to cause a significant lull in his popularity within the party.

In late 2022 and early 2023, 58 percent of Republicans disavowed the “MAGA” label, DeSantis trounced Trump in a hypothetical head-to-head, and just 28 percent of Republicans valued Trump above the Republican Party.

But the willingness (or eagerness) of the far-right wing of the GOP to punish its own moderates has allowed it to purify itself of diversity of opinion, and that has made it easier for Trump to bully his way back into the limelight. The fact that Trump and his minority of loyalists have triumphed over moderates even in New Hampshire demonstrates that his dangerous drift toward authoritarianism has been completely normalized within the Republican power structure.

This stands in stark contrast to 2016, when no one knew quite what to make of Trump the candidate. He had changed his political affiliation five times since 1987, including an eight-year stint as a Democrat that ended in 2009. He was a Rorschach test; he replaced his predecessor’s message of hope and change with doom and gloom, but the ambiguousness proved to be just as alluring.

Times have changed. This week, hundreds of thousands of New Hampshirites with full knowledge of his autocratic and violent methods were eager to return him to the White House.

The Republican Party of 2015—those straight-faced rascals who merely wanted to line the pockets of the rich at the expense of the poor—is dead; Trump’s parasitic MAGA movement has feasted on its flesh from within, like a larva wriggling around in a crumpled shell of elephant skin.

A lusty New Hampshire turnout also undid a week of Iowa-inspired headlines that America was returning to a state of lethargic disinterest. Instead, it seems the change in Iowa was one of climate, not politics.

In 1996, TNR campaign correspondent Michael Lewis famously wrote that indifference to politics defined the era, when the majority of Americans sat out the presidential election. “No issue or cause, it seems, is too great to be ignored,” he wrote. Twenty-eight years later, there’s been an inversion: Engagement is at a high, and no issue is too petty to inflame the nation—whether that be the genderedness of Hasbro’s Mr. Potato Head toys, the use of low-flow toilets to conserve water, or the dangers of gas stoves.

These sorts of issues have huge swathes of frenzied Americans calling for blood. As measured by votes, this has been very good for democracy. In 1996, just 96 million people—49 percent—of the voting population turned out for the general election. In 2020, it was 160 million, or 63 percent.

New Hampshire regularly tops the nation in primary turnout, and this year it set new records. Though the Republican ballots had just two viable candidates, the turnout of roughly 300,000 compared favorably to 2016, when 288,000 registered Republicans weighed a much larger field. (In 2020, when Trump faced no serious opposition, 157,000 Republicans voted.) But the high voter interest indicated by Tuesday’s primary no longer holds the promise it would have in 1996.

The maddening thing about America’s renewed and impassioned political engagement is that it only intersects with the millstones slung around our country’s neck occasionally, almost by accident. Why bother writing your congressional representative to advance campaign finance reform, or to bring pharmaceutical companies to heel, when you can instead get twice the emotional satisfaction at a fraction of the effort by venting your choler at imaginary pedophiles on social media?

Though Haley has given every sign she will continue her campaign into her home state of South Carolina (where polls put her as much as 40 points behind Trump), those who hope to stop Trumpism from reclaiming the White House can no longer look to the Republican Party to clean its own house. Though there will be noise over Haley’s continued candidacy and Trump’s eligibility and criminal status, the real question will most likely come in November, when Trumpism will—for the fourth time in a row—be on the menu.