Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Politically Obtuse Plutocrats

All Wall Street wants is a good hypocrite — someone who can convince the Republican base that he or she shares its extremism, but whose real priority is to enrich the 1 percent. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently, yes.

If you’re not a politics groupie, you may find the drama surrounding Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, puzzling. Until recently, few would have considered her a significant contender for the Republican presidential nomination — indeed, she arguably still isn’t. But toward the end of last year, she suddenly attracted a lot of support from the big money. Among those endorsing her were Jamie Dimon, the head of JPMorgan Chase, a new business-oriented super PAC called Independents Moving the Needle and the Koch political network.

If this scramble sounds desperate, that’s because it is. And it looks even more desperate after Haley’s recent Civil War misadventures — first failing to name slavery as a reason the war happened, then clumsily trying to walk back her omission.

But there is a logic behind this drama. What we’re witnessing are the death throes of a political strategy that served America’s plutocrats well for several decades but stopped working during the Obama years.

That political strategy was famously described by Thomas Frank in his diatribe “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” which drew criticism from some political scientists but nonetheless seemed to capture a key political dynamic: Wealthy political donors wanted policies, especially low taxes on high incomes, that were generally unpopular; but they could get these policies enacted by supporting politicians who won over working-class white voters by appealing to their social conservatism, then devoted their actual energy to right-wing economics.

Thus in 2004, Republicans mobilized socially conservative voters in part by organizing referendums banning gay marriage; then, having won re-election on social issues and the perception that he was strong on national security, President George W. Bush proceeded as if he had a mandate to privatize Social Security. (He didn’t.)

This strategy didn’t always succeed, but it worked pretty well for a long time — until the G.O.P. establishment lost control of the base, which wanted genuine extremists, not business-friendly politicians who just played extremists on TV.

If I had to identify the moment it all went wrong, I’d point to a largely forgotten event: Eric Cantor’s shocking June 2014 primary defeat by an obscure Tea Party challenger. Cantor, the House majority leader, was so deeply embedded in conservative economic ideology that he once marked Labor Day by celebrating … business owners. By booting him, Republican primary voters in effect signaled that they no longer trusted that kind of figure.

And then, of course, the 1 percent-friendly establishment was unable to block the rise of Donald Trump who, whatever else you may say about him, is the real thing when it comes to extremism. But Trump was more a consequence than a cause of the Republican unraveling.

At the beginning of 2023, however, the big money thought it had found a way to resurrect the old strategy. Wall Street, in particular, believed that it had found its next George W. Bush in the form of Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who was supposed to offer a Trump-like appeal to the Republican base while in reality being mainly a defender of elite privilege. The campaign contributions data reveal just how all-in Wall Street went for DeSantis. Even though his campaign is now in free fall, the financial industry has given far more to DeSantis in this election cycle than to anyone else, including President Biden.

But it was all wasted money. Part of the problem is that DeSantis turns out to be a terrible politician. At the start of 2023, betting markets considered him the Republican front-runner; now he’s a punchline.

Beyond that, DeSantis wasn’t playacting at being a cultural and social extremist. Who gets into a gratuitous fight with Disney or has his handpicked surgeon general crusade against Covid vaccines?

Hence the last-minute pivot to Haley. But the slavery contretemps reveals why this pivot has very little chance of succeeding.

Haley went off the rails basically because she was trying to avoid antagonizing the G.O.P. base, which hates anything that hints at social liberalism. A politician who admits that slavery caused the Civil War, or that climate change is a real threat, or that Covid vaccines are safe, just might be a little bit, you know, woke. Yet the big money doesn’t want politicians who are genuine extremists. Haley failed to walk that tightrope; probably nobody could.

What’s so striking to me is the political obtuseness of big money. Any moderately well-informed observer could have told big bankers that a MAGAfied Republican Party isn’t going to nominate anyone who might make them comfortable. Someday, perhaps, reasonable people will once again have a role to play within the G.O.P. But that day is at least several election cycles away.

For now, rationality has a well-known Democratic bias. And throwing money at Nikki Haley won’t change that.

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