Nikki Haley fires the first shot in the GOP's post-Trump war

Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyHaley: Political climate, media hysteria wouldn't allow Confederate flag to come down in SC today Goldman Sachs employees protest event featuring Haley after Confederate flag remarks Presidential candidates serving in the Senate must recuse themselves from impeachment proceedings MORE has fired the first shot in the Republican Party’s post-Trump war. It was a direct hit. Subtly but unmistakably, Haley has signaled that she will not side with those desiring to return the party to its establishment. 

Haley is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and former two-term South Carolina governor. In her new book, “With All Due Respect,” she argues that then-White House Chief of Staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE and Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonReport: Trump UK ambassador fired deputy for mentioning Obama in speech Overnight Defense: Ex-Navy secretary slams Trump in new op-ed | Impeachment tests Pompeo's ties with Trump | Mexican president rules out US 'intervention' against cartels Pompeo-Trump relationship tested by impeachment inquiry MORE tried to convince her to join them to thwart President Trump’s agenda. Haley wrote: They “tried to recruit me and said they were trying to save the country.” Tillerson denies the charge.  

In a town that thrives on controversy and is in the middle of an impeachment inquiry, Haley’s allegation may never be sorted out. But her explicit controversy hides her book’s bigger implicit one: Whither the post-Trump Republican Party? Will it collectively band together against Trump’s legacy, as Haley asserts Kelly and Tillerson tried to do against his presidency?

It is easy to forget with the current inter-party impeachment conflict over Trump that an intra-party conflict exists too. Perhaps more, and certainly no less than the Democrats, the Republican establishment sees Trump as an aberration and interloper.  

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Trump is more conservative than establishment, and more populist than either.  

Personally, he appears to fit the establishment profile: He was born to wealth and grew wealthier still; he was private, not public, sector-focused; and government seemed more a means than an end to his aspirations. His conservatism is a’ la carte: He opposes conventional trade policy; he is comfortable with unions; government solutions – even big ones – are fine; he is pro-defense, but anti-engagement; he is pro-tax cut, but also pro-spending.  

Trump is assuredly a populist — though not in its conventionally used pejorative. His is a literal one. When choosing between people and ideology, he consistently chooses the former. He is brash, outspoken, a braggart, larger than life, a bull in a china shop.  

Together, these traits explain why he has attracted so many people from outside the party — and why he has repelled so many from within the party. That unique ability to attract is what led him to improbably win the nomination and the White House; that unique ability to repel has left an establishment that still longs to rid the party of him.  

Establishment Republicans believe Trump to be just a momentary break in their political and policy continuum. In their minds, the party should revert to their control and their agenda. Then they will both purge the Trump interlopers and regularly beat a vulnerable Democratic Party now hostage to its left wing. That is what they imagine, and their imagination is the only place where this scenario exists.  

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To all but the Republican establishment, it is clear the party needed what Trump did. On their own, establishment Republicans likely would have lost the 2016 election to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMore than 200,000 Wisconsin voters will be removed from the rolls Trump is threatening to boycott the debates — here's how to make sure he shows up Trey Gowdy returns to Fox News as contributor MORE. They would not have seized the states needed to flip the electoral map. Inept though the Clinton campaign was, she likely would have inherited the status quo map and hung on against an establishment Republican.  

Trump crucially expanded the party’s geographic reach into the pivotal Midwest — and from there to the White House. Turning away from what Trump did would be to turn the party back from Cinderella to a presidential pumpkin.  

The weakness of Trump for Republicans is not what he did, but how he has done it. Trump is his own worst enemy. Excise his personality and leave his policies and he would be polling in the 60s and cruising to reelection. Keeping his “what,” but changing his “how” is Republicans’ key to future success.  

Nikki Haley is signaling that she gets this and will not let the establishment turn the party back without a fight. Her memoir is really her manifesto. It declares her loyal attachment to Trump against the internal party establishment opposition that sought to undermine his presidency. And its release comes at the opportune moment of impending impeachment — a similar undermining effort from Trump’s external opposition.  

Haley is a savvy and shrewd politician, made all the more so by appearing in her book not to be — instead casting herself as being simply loyal. Do not underestimate her. She is quite capable of seizing not just her party but the presidency. Claiming Trump’s basic agenda over the establishment’s is exactly how she could do both. 

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Also make no mistake, Haley's success would be Democrats’ worst nightmare. Personally, she is a woman, a minority, conservative, attractive, smart and articulate. Politically, she is a two-term governor with international experience, and she has the perfect Trump pedigree: Close, but not too close. She would cling to Trump’s base while cutting into Democrats’.

Haley has quietly served notice that she understands her own strengths and her party establishment’s weaknesses. She is a pivotal player who could have pivoted to go with the establishment and been top-tier there; instead, she is letting everyone know she did not and is still top-tier. She will keep Trump’s “what,” while changing his “how” and adding her own “wow.”    

J.T. Young served under President George W. Bush as the director of communications in the Office of Management and Budget and as deputy assistant secretary in legislative affairs for tax and budget at the Treasury Department. He served as a congressional staffer from 1987-2000.