The Ballad of Ron and Nikki
Their candidacies only existed as mental crutches for the non-MAGA rump of the Republican party.
A.B. and I will be on YouTube later today talking about [gestures broadly] all of this.
We’re gonna bring the darkness.
1. Who Could Have Predicted It?
The 2024 Republican primary campaign was one of the most illustrative examples of motivated reasoning I’ve ever seen.
It was obvious—dating back to at least January of 2021—that Donald Trump was overwhelmingly likely to be the nominee, barring an Act of God.1
“Obvious” because the chain of logic was unassailable:
The vast majority of Republicans—both elites and voters—testified to the fact that Donald Trump was the greatest president of the modern era.
This same majority of Republicans testified to the fact that that Trump was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election and had been cheated out of office by a vast, Democratic conspiracy.
Trump’s rivals for the nomination agreed with both of these propositions.2
Trump was running for president.
There is no world in which it is possible to defeat a man running for president if (a) voters love that man; (b) both you and the voters say that man was the greatest president ever; and (c) both you and the voters say that this man was cheated out of the presidency by the enemy.
So why did so many people talk themselves into believing that DeSantis would, or that Haley could, beat Trump?
In the case of DeSantis, he was the champion of the anti-anti-Trump caucus: The people who disliked Trump but could not bear to be cross-wise with the Republican base.
Did these people honestly believe that DeSantis could win? I don’t know about that. What I do know is that these people were desperate not to have to defend Trump again. In order to avoid that obligation, they needed a place to park their allegiances.
And Ole Puddin’ Fingers was standing right there.
He offered them a way to say they were not for Trump while plausibly maintaining a connection to the MAGA base.
In short: The DeSantis boomlet was never about Ron DeSantis. It was about the last gasp of the non-MAGA party elites maneuvering for themselves.
These people will now buckle under and be publicly for Trump while privately hoping he loses. Ron DeSantis allowed them to cut the duration of this unpleasant job from a deathly 4 years to a brisk 10 months.
They thank him for his service.
The Nikki Haley “momentum” narrative was motivated reasoning for a different group: Republicans who have dreaded leaving the party, but now might do so anyway.
As Tim says, there was never a chance that a Haley coalition could succeed. It was a nonstarter. But there’s a non-trivial number of Republicans who are loath to see themselves as Democrats. These people have been desperate to avoid another Trump reckoning and were looking for any reed on which to hang their cloak of tribal heritage. No matter how thin.
When Haley’s campaign ends, these people will have to make a choice. Most of them will stick with Trump’s Republican party. But some percentage of them will give up the ghost and acknowledge that, as on questions of both morality and policy, they are closer to the Biden Democrats than the Trump Republicans.
The outcome of this election may be determined by the size of that percentage.
We will make mistakes around here: For instance, I predicted that DeSantis would drop out on Wednesday, January 17. He hung in for four more days. Probably just to spite me.
So we’re not perfect seers. But one thing we never do here is motivated reasoning.
I take only shameful joy in the defeat of either DeSantis and Haley. It would have been great for America if they’d been able to beat Trump. I wanted one of them to win. Trump winning the nomination brings us an inch closer to the authoritarian abyss.
But desire is not a substitute for analysis. Where other publications start by looking for the outcome they prefer and then reasoning backwards to predict why it will happen, everything we do at The Bulwark is eyes wide open.
In fact, I mostly start from the opposite assumption: I take the outcome I prefer, assume that it can’t possibly happen, and work forward from there.
I’m kidding! (Sort of.)
Point is: If you only relied on The Bulwark for political analysis, then you knew exactly what the score was throughout this entire coronation process.
So if you’re new here, join us every day. You can get most of what we do in your inbox, every day, for free. And if you’ve been toying with the idea of becoming a Bulwark+ member, I hope you’ll consider taking the leap today. We’ll give you the first 30 days free so you can see how great it is.
Another reason to support us is because unlike most of the media we care about truth. In fact, we’re kind of obsessed with it. Keep reading, because I’ve got a righteous smackdown coming . . .
2. Taking Lies Seriously
Pretend you needed an operation and when you went to the surgical consult the doctor mentioned that he believed the Earth was flat.
Would you let that doctor operate on you? After all, his belief in a flat Earth doesn’t have anything to do with his skill as a surgeon.
But—for me, at least—it would be hard to prevent that belief from coloring my trust in anything else he said. I would find another surgeon.
If someone believes something that is incredibly, obviously, untrue, then it is not clear that you should trust their judgment on anything else.3
After DeSantis dropped out on Sunday, Nikki Haley was interviewed on CNN. Haley was asked if she will support Trump if he wins the nominations. Her reply was:
“It’s gonna be me.”
This is like saying you believe the earth is flat.
Nikki Haley finished third in Iowa. She’s about to get crushed in New Hampshire. She trails Trump nationally by 55 points. She is not going to be the nominee.
And yet, sure as I’m standing here, Nikki Haley is going to continue to give her opinions about the state of the economy, the state of crime in America, on foreign affairs, etc.
Why should anyone take any of that analysis seriously?
More to the point: Why should the media present her analysis on any of these questions as if it is worthy of consideration?
I can hear the objections: What is she supposed to say? “I’m getting schlonged and I know I’m toast. Vote Haley!”
Well here is something she could have said:
We’ve got great energy here and I feel confident.
I don’t care about the polls, I’m listening to real voters and I like our chances.
We’re right where we want to be and we’re coming for you, Mr. Trump.
All of those statements would have been malarky, but none of them would have been positively falsifiable.
But Haley didn’t do any of that. She said, “It’s gonna be me.”
And the fact that our media is so debased that there is no penalty for this statement, no world in which it will ever be held against her in the future because it is either a lie or an example of her untrustworthiness as an analyst, is part of why we are where we are.
Here is my dream:
At some point in the future, Nikki Haley will be on CNN making the case for Donald Trump’s election over Joe Biden. She says something like, I don’t like the tweets, but America can’t take four more years of this horrible economy.
The interviewer responds by saying,
With all due respect, Ambassador Haley, on January 21, you insisted that you were going to be the Republican nominee, and you were totally, catastrophically, wrong about that. So why should we trust your analysis of the American economy—especially when it flies in the face of all economic indicators? Are you better at understanding complex macro-economics than you are about understanding the political dynamics of your own campaign?
Haley isn’t the only one. Last March, Chris Sununu gave the following piece of analysis about Donald Trump’s chances in the Republican primary:
“He’s not going to be the nominee; that's just not going to happen.”
This was a definitive statement and one that contradicted all available indicators. Why does he never have to answer for it?
Governor, you insisted that Donald Trump would not be the Republican nominee and that this was something that was “just not going to happen.” You were spectacularly wrong about that. Could you also be wrong about the state of the American economy? Why should anyone trust your analysis of the economy when you couldn’t even understand what would happen in a Republican primary where Trump led wire-to-wire?
Of course, these fantasies are unthinkable because that’s not how political TV works. People get to say anything they want, and no one takes any of it seriously.
It never goes on your permanent record.
When we talk about how the media needs to change in response to the reemergence of authoritarianism in America, this is one of the obvious areas for improvement: Stop treating basic lies as normal. Start holding political actors accountable for false statements.
Or maybe it’s as simple as:
(1) Treat the statements of political actors as if they are part of their permanent record. And then,
(2) Make it a priority to confront political actors every single time about their lies. Even the “little” lies.
The American media has spent a generation letting politicians lie about every stupid little thing, and the net effect was to make an authoritarian Big Lie possible.
3. About the “Biden Crime Problem”
I am sorry, but the “Biden crime problem” wasn’t actually a “crime” problem. It was a murder problem. And the spike in murders began in 2020 when Donald Trump was president.
But it turns out that, like COVID, “crime” was a problem that began under Trump and that Biden has basically fixed:
In the chaotic early months of the Covid pandemic, when the U.S. was also going through the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, violent crime rose across the country. Murders in 2020 increased at the fastest rate since national statistics began in 1960. Other crimes, like shootings and car thefts, also increased.
The surge in violence left some experts worried that the U.S. might be entering another era of high crime, similar to that of the 1960s through the ’90s.
But the data over the past year has offered a much more optimistic picture. The number of murders in U.S. cities fell by more than 12 percent — which would be the biggest national decline on record. The spike that started in 2020 now looks more like a blip, and the murder rate is lower than it was during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. The recent data also suggests that the violent-crime rate in 2023 was near its lowest level in more than 50 years, as Jeff Asher, a crime analyst, wrote for his newsletter.
Read the whole thing. But don’t expect anyone in journalism to push back against Republican politicians who talk about “crime” in Biden’s America.
It was also obvious that criminal indictments would not count as Acts of God and would at worst freeze the race while he was leading and at best increase his standing with Republican voters.
That’s the logical extension of Republican voter reaction to January 6. If Republicans supported January 6—and by a broad margin, they did—then they were not going to turn on Trump because of indictments emanating from Deep State Radical Democrat Socialists.
Or at least tried to make sure that no one could prove, definitively, that they disagreed.
Not unlike in a court of law where if you can prove that a witness has lied about one thing, it should impeach their credibility on every other aspect of their testimony.
Except in New Hampshire, where Sununu bragged that the economy was “roaring.” Somehow New Hampshire manages to have the greatest economy in the history of the world while the rest of America is living through Dust Bowl days.
It’s a miracle!