As she tries to upset Republican front-runner Donald Trump in New Hampshire, Nikki Haley is essentially posing this question to Granite State voters: Aren’t you sick of the Trump circus?
And as they rally for their champion, MAGA world is offering this answer: Not in the slightest. He’s the greatest show on earth.
That, anyway, was my Wednesday takeaway after watching Haley at an every-seat-taken evening event in Rochester and talking with Trump supporters waiting outside for hours in the mid-20s chill for Portsmouth venue doors to open, whereupon they would wait another three-plus hours for their candidate to appear.
Haley, former United Nations ambassador and former South Carolina governor, offered a garden-variety conservative agenda: Reduce federal spending to pre-COVID levels; cut middle-class taxes; raise the Social Security and Medicare eligibility age for those in their 20s; offer school choice; build a border wall; and implement an e-verify system so undocumented migrants can’t find work. Internationally, she would support Ukraine with armaments, stand by Israel, and end “normal” trade relations with China unless China cracks down on fentanyl.
But don’t miss her underlying message: This race is a contest between a capable political adult who can get that done and a cyclone of chaos and controversy who can’t.
Noting that Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight elections, she declared that the only way the party will again command such a majority is “if we elect a new conservative generational leader and put the negativity and the baggage behind and focus on the solutions of the future.”
With Trump, “rightly or wrongly, chaos follows him and … you don’t defeat Democrat chaos with Republican chaos,” she said. As supporting evidence, Haley noted that polls show Trump locked in a margin-of-error race against Joe Biden, while “I defeat Biden by up to 17 points.”
In the face of an array of attacks from Trump, she counterpunched in a way that buttressed her political adult versus man-child theme. Accusing Trump of throwing “a temper tantrum” in which he distorted her positions, she contended that, for her, the contest wasn’t personal but rather about policy. She then noted that Trump had proposed raising the Social Security retirement age to 70 (true, though that’s not his current position) and that as president he had supported raising the federal gas tax by 25 cents a gallon (true as well).
“Those are things he needs to answer for,” she said, then added: “Oh, that’s right, he won’t get on a debate stage.”
Those arguments played well with the audience in Rochester.
Candace Sleeman of Weare, a retired data scientist, said she had twice voted for Trump but wouldn’t again, not with his “just going after his enemies and ripping American democracy apart.”
But to interview the crowd waiting hours in Portsmouth was to step into a world of unadulterated Trump devotion and widespread belief in conspiracy theories, including a shadowy Deep State “they” that was forever trying to thwart and undermine the former president.
“To me, [Trump] is the only person on our side, the people’s side,” said Karen Oliveri, a Republican from Hampton. “And I liked him because he was fighting the Deep State.”
Sherry Carignan of Derry told me she was excited about Trump’s light-on-details proposal to build 10 new cities on federal land. “We need something big,” she said.
Those who were aware of the sexual abuse civil verdict against Trump said E. Jean Carroll’s claim that Trump had raped her was concocted, another part of the effort to get him.
“I think it’s a lot of baloney,” Carignan said, adding that she wouldn’t believe any of the sexual misconduct allegations “until I see something stick.” I noted that this had stuck, given that a jury had found Trump liable for sexual abuse. “I’m not going to take your word for it,” she said. “I’ll need to see that.”
Robert Buck of Dover said he hoped that if Trump becomes president again, he will pursue election integrity. “If we had been meant to vote by mail, we would have been voting by mail throughout the entire history of our Postal Service, since the days of the Pony Express,” he said.
To a person, those I interviewed insisted the 2020 election had been stolen from Trump. “They used secretaries of state, they used attorneys general, they used election officials, they used campaign workers,” one man told me.
As to the Jan. 6, 2021, storming of the US Capitol, several insisted the people who had actually led the mob were FBI plants or antifa.
“It wasn’t the Trump people,” Oliveri said, allowing that some might have been forced to say they were in court “or they probably would have gotten their life taken.”
MAGA world, alas, is a place where facts aren’t stubborn things but rather trifling inconveniences quickly brushed away. And that’s part of what Haley must contend with as she battles Trump.