When Loyalty To Trump Trumps Trumpism
Jeff Sessions and Nikki Haley are two different Republicans taking a similar approach.
Did Donald Trump win in 2016 because of his celebrity or because he staked out positions on immigration, trade and foreign policy that set him apart from the rest of presidential field? Even as we prepare to vote on Trump again in 2020, assuming he survives impeachment, Republicans aren’t sure.
In the Week, I recently contrasted two Republicans whose political aspirations are deeply tied to Trump: Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who is running to regain the Senate seat he forfeited to become the president’s beleaguered attorney general, and Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and governor of South Carolina who has her eyes on the 2024 presidential campaign.
Sessions was for “Trumpism”—a more populist and nationalist variant of conservatism—before Trump. Much of the Trump immigration agenda and the senior aide most associated with it, Stephen Miller, came from Sessions’ office. “We pushed his immigration agenda, his trade agenda, and began to work to a more realistic foreign policy, that doesn’t get us in endless wars,” Sessions recently told Tucker Carlson on Fox News. “I think he was right about all three of those.”
Haley is very much a George W. Bush Republican. While she didn’t clap for Jeb! in 2016, she did endorse and campaign with Marco Rubio when the Florida senator was still admired by many Never Trumpers. Yet she left the Trump administration voluntarily and is well positioned for the next round of Republican primaries. And both she and Sessions are now hugging Trump tightly—Haley to gain credibility with the MAGA crowd that has been suspicious of her, Sessions to atone for his recusal in the Trump-Russia investigation. As I wrote over the weekend:
Both now treat Trump as the deciding factor, not Trumpism the movement.
This isn’t to say that millions of Trump’s most passionate backers would not cheer Sessions’ return to the Senate while many of them would be cooler to a Haley presidential candidacy. And in 2016, GOP primary voters had many choices if they wanted either orthodox Reaganite conservatism or Bushie establishment Republicanism. They still chose Trump, who railed against two decades of bipartisan trade deals, the shaky Washington consensus that tried to foist “comprehensive immigration reform” on an unwilling conservative base, and the Iraq war.
There are other vying to be Trump successors, such as Senator Josh Hawley, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Congressman Matt Gaetz, maybe even Don Jr. But the Sessions campaign and the Haley’s early trial balloons may be instructive.