Has Donald Trump taken up meditation as his new year resolution? Is he mainlining sedatives? Did a demon snatch his soul and replace it with that of a reasonable person? I ask because the unthinkable has happened: Trump has responded to the idea of one of his former acolytes challenging his 2024 ambitions in a calm and measured manner, instead of with his usual insults.
The acolyte in question is Nikki Haley, a former South Carolina governor and Trump’s US ambassador to the UN. There are mounting rumours that Haley is exploring a potential run against Trump in 2024 – a fact that doesn’t seem to bother her old boss very much. Speaking to reporters on his plane on Saturday, Trump said Haley had called him up to chat about running and he’d told her: “Go by your heart if you want to run.” To be fair, he couldn’t resist a little dig, noting Haley had “publicly said that ‘I would never run against my president – he was a great president.’” Still, he magnanimously told her she “should do it”.
Trump wasn’t quite as high-minded about another of his former disciples who also has his eye on the White House. During the same press session, Trump attacked the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, accusing him of trying to “rewrite” history as regards his Covid response. “When I hear that he might [run], I think it’s very disloyal,” Trump said, according to Politico, adding: “He won’t be leading. I got him elected. I’m the one that chose him.”
Why is Trump bothered about DeSantis and blase about Haley? It’s not sedatives or soul-swapping demons at play, I reckon – it’s misogyny. My guess is that Trump thinks Haley has zero chance of the top job so he’s happy to humour the little lady. DeSantis, meanwhile, is far more of a threat.
To be fair, the polls support this thesis. Three national polls released in January show Trump leads the field in a hypothetical 2024 Republican presidential primary, but DeSantis is firmly in second place. Haley, meanwhile, is polling at 3% – way behind Trump’s range of 48-55%. Still, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from recent years, it’s that polls should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. Just because it currently seems that Haley has little chance of winning the Republican nomination doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Remember how many people wrote Trump off in 2016.
Haley, for her part, seems to think she’s in with a shot. In a recent interview with Fox News she noted that she’s “never lost a race … Stay tuned.” Meanwhile, one Republican told the Hill that the former governor “has decided her time is now and she’s about to take the gloves off when it comes to Trump, DeSantis and [Mike] Pompeo”. The gloves have already been slipping. Haley, 51, recently tweeted a clip from her Fox News interview during which she said, in a blatant reference to Joe Biden and Trump’s ages, that she thinks “it’s time for new generational change. I don’t think you need to be 80 years old to go be a leader in DC. I think we need a young generation to come in, step up and really start fixing things.” Look, I agree with the rabidly rightwing Haley on absolutely nothing but if she wants to define 51 as “young” (which it objectively is in the geriatric US government) I’m all for that.
Also in Haley’s favour is that she has always cynically used the fact that she’s an Indian-American woman (her birth name is Nimrata Randhawa) and the child of immigrants to deflect from bigotry in the Republican party and seem palatable to some liberals. Simultaneously, however, she’s adept at throwing meat to the rightwing base and wading into culture wars. “CRT [critical race theory] is un-American,” she tweeted on Monday, for example.
So could Haley be the first female president of the US? Again, I wouldn’t write it off. She’s smart, ambitious and apparently devoid of any sort of moral compass: all the qualifications you need to get to the top in politics.
Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist