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Republican 2024 candidates are selling cruelty, not competence

Nikki Haley's CNN town hall was the latest forum to pitch potential primary voters on the GOP's only product: grievance.

Like many politicians, former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley began her career in business before running for office. Among the many overlaps between the two fields, both require selling the public on a given product. Exactly what that product is depends on the politician, their party affiliation and the potential buyers they wish to reach.

In running for president, Haley is on one level pitching herself, as we saw in her CNN town hall in Iowa on Sunday evening. She wishes to be seen as a viable candidate, one that donors should invest in, that volunteers should endorse to their neighbors, and that Republican primary voters should support at the ballot box. As a Republican, Haley is also selling herself as a representative of those primary voters — which means showing that she knows her audience.

Case in point: When CNN moderator Jake Tapper asked her to define “woke” — a buzzword on the right that even Trump has tired of defending — she decided to focus on the issue of “biological boys playing in girl sports.” She went on to call it the “women’s issue of our time” and pondered, “Are we supposed to get our girls used to the fact that biological boys are in their locker rooms? And then we wonder why a third of our teenage girls seriously contemplated suicide last year.”

It’s an abhorrent line of thinking. There are myriad reasons to be concerned about the teen suicide rate. But to link an upswing in ideation to cis girls supposedly being forced to share locker rooms with trans girls is ghoulish, and without evidence.

What makes the current primary season so troubling is how the Republican Party has rebranded itself in recent years to center grievance to the exclusion of other offerings.

It’s also sadly entirely in line with the arc of the modern GOP. That Republicans love peddling grievances is not a new development. When Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, ran for president, his pitch to voters was centered on competence, in line with the once ascendant business-dominated wing of the party. Underneath the hood though, Romney was still riding the backlash to President Barack Obama’s role as the first Black president. He was still selling GOP donors on the sentiments brought to light in leaked comments that “47% of the people who will vote [for Obama] are dependent on government, who believe that they are victims.”

Likewise, in the immediate post 9/11 years, candidates up and down the ballot sold Americans on being able to offer security in an unsafe world. That pitch necessitated framing immigration as primarily about border security and keeping America safe from threats, including drug cartels and terrorists sneaking into the country. That both of those groups were primarily brown foreigners made the case extra potent for many Republicans, tapping into fears that festered for years, until we’ve reached the point where the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory is now mainstream.

Haley attempted to position herself as the sensible moderate on trans issues on Sunday, adding that “we do need to be humane” about trans kids. But that’s not a line that fires up the crowds. Even when she spoke out about her past leadership, including when she convinced lawmakers to take down the Confederate flag over the South Carolina statehouse in 2015, it was packaged as a grievance. Haley lamented that “the national media” for some reason wanted to make the shooting at Mother Emanuel church — where a white supremacist killed nine Black attendees — into being “about race.” The idea that race had anything to do with the shooting was offered up as just one more example of why Republican voters should be angry at how liberals are ruining things.

What makes the current primary season so troubling is how the Republican Party has rebranded itself in recent years to center grievance to the exclusion of other offerings. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is the prime example of this shift. Driven by his obsession with cultural flashpoints, his state’s crackdown on transgender rights and what it’s deemed “critical race theory” has been accepted as a template for the rest of the national party. On the stump, he has reflected the views of the extremely online segment of the GOP base, denouncing the so-called “Woke Mind Virus” and pledging to “destroy leftism” in this country.

In responding to what they perceive as the masses’ demands, Haley and other would-be GOP nominees also shape the market for their cruelty.

While few may match his zeal, most of the other candidates in what’s quickly becoming a bloated field won’t deviate too far from DeSantis’ sales pitch. Former Vice President Mike Pence, a more old-school culture warrior than DeSantis, won’t exactly be using his recently filed candidacy to revive the compassionate conservatism model from the George W. Bush era. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., may sell himself as a uniter, but when NBC News asked if he would back a federal ban on trans athletes, he equivocated, saying that he would “support making sure that women compete against women and men compete against men.” Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is positioning himself as an anti-Trump tank, but that stance doesn’t force him to contradict the product everyone else is selling.

And then, of course, there’s former President Donald Trump. When he first ran for president, Trump himself was absolutely the main product being hawked. According to several reports, the 2016 run was more about branding that winning the White House. But while his status as a celebrity billionaire gave him vast name recognition, the undercurrent of anger and discontent he tapped into — whether by mistake, because of who he surrounded himself with or because that’s just who he is — electrified his run. That same current has animated the party in the years since, giving rise to the current crop of candidates trying to hit the same vein of disgruntled resentment that he has so potently mined.

It would be easy, then, to blame the voters who candidates are trying to win over. But as in the business world, this is not a one-way transaction. In responding to what they perceive as the masses’ demands, Haley and other would-be GOP nominees also shape the market for their cruelty. Likewise, by trying to stitch together anti-trans rhetoric with concern for teen girls, Haley is further impressing upon viewers that trans rights are a thing to be feared and suppressed.

It’s a cycle that grows in strength as it builds and builds, until that energy can’t be contained anymore. We’re already seeing it escape into the wild as conservatives lash out against Pride displays in stores and states begin restricting gender-affirming care to adults. After this much priming, it will be hard for any Republican candidate to do anything but keep scrambling for enough support to become the standard-bearer for these oppressive policies. But few, if any, will attempt to change the product on offer to voters; for most, including Haley, the potential reward is worth the price of putting others in harm’s way.