“Are you doing okay, Donald? You might need a mental competency test,” said Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley in a surprise appearance on Saturday Night Live last weekend.
“You know what? I did, I took the test, and I aced it, okay? Perfect score. They said I’m 100% mental,” replied SNL’s James Austin Johnson in his portrayal of former President Donald Trump.
The back-and-forth was met with rapturous laughter from the live studio audience. But many on the political right didn’t find it quite so funny. Nor have they enjoyed much, if any, of Haley’s criticisms of Trump, which have been growing in recent weeks.
Since Haley began to question Trump’s fitness for office, her in-party favorability has sagged significantly. One poll from her home state of South Carolina shows her favorability declining from 59% in September to 45% in January. Her favorability nationally stands at 28%.
Haley is the latest in a long line of GOP politicians whose favorability ratings have plummeted in the aftermath of a tussle with Trump. There are those who lost only favor, such as Utah Sen. Mitt Romney. The only Republican senator to vote to convict Trump during his first impeachment trial, Romney saw his favorability rating drop from 45% to 23% among Republicans after the trial. The same pollster put his approval among Republicans and Republican-leaning voters at 84% when he was the GOP nominee in November 2012.
Romney will not run for reelection when his term ends next year but would have faced a tough road to reelection if he had. This, too, is a tale as old as Trump’s political career. Exhibit A is Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who supported the second impeachment of Trump and opposed Trump’s “stolen election” narrative. In retaliation, pro-Trump members of the House removed Cheney from party leadership and eventually revoked her membership in the Wyoming Republican Party. During her 2022 reelection campaign, Cheney lost a GOP primary to a Trump loyalist in a landslide.
For those who wonder why Haley has not been more outspoken against Trump, this pattern is your answer. While Haley has made digs at his mental acuity (she said Trump has had a few “confused moments” lately) and at his temperament (she called his speech in New Hampshire a “temper tantrum”), she has pulled her punches on Trump’s many legal troubles – even while trying to steer voters in that direction.
When asked how she feels that Trump has been held liable for sexual abuse, Haley dodged the issue, saying, “I haven’t paid attention to his cases, and I’m not a lawyer.”
Yet Haley draws attention to his legal cases with repeated critiques of the amount of money Trump has spent defending himself. Haley called it “unconscionable” that Trump would spend $50 million in legal fees, citing this as the reason he has not held many rallies.
“Do you really think that he is going to win against Joe Biden when he is spending that much on legal fees?” Haley asked an audience in South Carolina. “He is not.”
Haley is walking a thin line, sure to avoid talk of Trump’s questionable business dealings or his involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection. She must only look at her Trump-torn predecessors to know that a large majority of the Republican base simply doesn’t want to hear it.
For these people, Donald Trump is a victim. He has been poked and prodded by the liberal elites and the mainstream media since his presidential candidacy was announced in 2015, they emphasize. Throughout his administration and after, he was met with intense scrutiny in what the man himself dubbed a “witch-hunt.”
“Trump’s supporters are so tired of him being hit by all sides all the time that they don’t even think twice about rallying to his side,” said Chuck Muth, a conservative activist and writer. “They are just true believers.”
MAGA Republicans, sometimes called “Cult 45,” a play on a popular song and a reference to Trump being the 45th U.S. president, feel a certain need to support their leader, who they feel has been unfairly targeted by the establishment.
Every indictment is a sham; every fact is a lie. “They are not going to listen to reason,” said Muth. “They’re not going to listen to facts. They’re supporting Donald Trump, and that’s it, period.”
Those who turn on Trump from within his own party often receive the worst treatment of all from his base. Were Haley to focus her attack on Trump’s legal battles, she would go from “Birdbrain” to traitor.
Haley’s former opponent, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, described the phenomenon as such: “You can be the most worthless Republican in America, but if you kiss the ring, he’ll say you are wonderful.”
Ironically, this comment was the perfect encapsulation of how Trump treated DeSantis after the latter pulled out of the race and endorsed Trump.
In the eyes of Democrats, the opposite of DeSantis’ statement rings true as well. To those on the left, you could be the most honorable Republican in the nation, but if you stand up to Trump, your career – and your reputation for integrity – will be as good as over if they have anything to say about it.
This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.
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