By Frank Bruni
Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.
I wish it were as simple as that one Republican debate.
I wish the Nikki Haley onstage in Milwaukee last week — who called out Donald Trump for his profligate government spending, who implored her fellow Republicans to approach the issue of abortion more sensibly and less sadistically, who made a meal of Vivek Ramaswamy — were guaranteed to be the Nikki Haley on the campaign trail next week, next month or next year.
But I have this thing called a memory, and as one of my favorite classic rock bands pledged, I won’t get fooled again. Past Haley, present Haley, future Haley: They’re all constructs, all creations, malleable, negotiable, tethered not to dependable principle but to reliable opportunism. That’s the truth of her. That’s the hell of her.
I say “hell” because what she displayed on that debate stage was the precise mix of authority and humanity that fueled her political rise, made her a political star and stirred speculation that she might be the country’s first woman president. I understand why so many observers got so excited. Haley was exciting.
She has undeniable smarts and formidable talent, as Vivek Ramaswamy learned. She treated his so-called foreign policy as so many nonsense words scrawled with crayon in a toddler’s coloring book. Then she tore the pages of that book to shreds, doing to it in mere seconds what she has done to her own reputation over the past seven years.
I could trace all her zigs and zags since early 2016: her initially ardent opposition to Trump’s candidacy, her speedy capitulation, her stint in his administration as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and so on. But they were covered in an excellent essay in The Times by Stuart Stevens early this year, and a span of mere months, from December 2020 to April 2021, tells the saga of her signature spinelessness just as well.
That December, she sat down with the journalist Tim Alberta, then with Politico, for one of several interviews for an epic profile of her that he was writing. For a month Trump had been denying the results of the presidential election, spreading his conspiracy theories, undermining the peaceful transfer of power and doing profound damage to the country. And while Haley let Alberta know that she had the president’s ear and had called him in the middle of it all, she made equally clear that she hadn’t felt a smidgen of responsibility to talk some sense and decency into him.
“Here was Haley, someone with a reputation for speaking candidly to Trump, someone who had the courage as governor to remove the Confederate flag from her state capitol, admitting that she hadn’t bothered to challenge him — even in private — on a deception that threatened the stability of American life,” Alberta marveled. “Why not?”
Haley answered Alberta: “I understand the president. I understand that genuinely, to his core, he believes he was wronged.” For Haley, that absolved her of any patriotic duty and Trump of any blame for the havoc that he was wreaking. The guilty parties, she told Alberta, were the lawyers abetting his delusions. Astonishingly, she seemed not to grasp that she was abetting right alongside them.
Her rationalizations “were so strained that they called into question her own judgment,” Alberta wrote. “This was a test for Haley, an early opportunity to define herself on a question of great national urgency. And she was failing.”
But wait. Along came the insurrection of Jan. 6, and Haley suddenly snapped to. She talked to Alberta on Jan. 12. She told him she was “disgusted” by Trump’s treatment of Mike Pence. “When I tell you I’m angry, it’s an understatement,” she said.
Trump, she seethed, “went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him. And we can’t let that ever happen again.” A belated epiphany. An inspiring vow. Cue the orchestra.
Stop the music. By April, her ire was embers and her vow a puff of smoke. At a public appearance in Orangeburg, S.C., she told The Associated Press that if Trump decided to run for president again, she would support him and would not seek the Republican Party’s nomination herself. (Ha!)
He was still publicly excoriating Pence, but she was singing a new song about that. “I think former President Trump’s always been opinionated,” she said, as if that were just a cute little character quirk.
What had changed since January? The Senate had acquitted Trump of the charges that led to his second impeachment. Many other Republican leaders had moved on from any denunciations of his actions on Jan. 6. And his hold on the party’s base had proved enduring.
So Haley’s “shouldn’t have followed him” yielded to her falling in line — for the time being.
When I tell you that’s pathetic, it’s an understatement.
Frank Bruni is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, the author of the book “The Beauty of Dusk” and a contributing Opinion writer. He writes a weekly email newsletter. Instagram • @FrankBruni • Facebook
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