Once Critics of Trump, These Republicans Are Now Playing by His Rules


There was a time when Nikki Haley thought an “unstable and unhinged” person should not be president. But that was February. Now she says she will vote for Donald J. Trump — just three months after warning that he would be “an unsafe president.”

She is hardly the first losing candidate to reverse course and support the rival who beat her for a party nomination. Flip-flopping has a long if uninspiring history in American presidential politics. But rarely have the flip-flops been as stark and head-snapping as those prompted by Mr. Trump.

Ever since he vaulted to the leadership of the Republican Party eight years ago, the same Republicans who once deemed him a “kook,” a “pathological liar” and a “delusional narcissist” nonetheless have come around to endorse handing him the nuclear codes. Even many of those who called him out for trying to overturn an election that he lost are now willing to entrust him again with the future of American democracy.

Given Mr. Trump’s enduring popularity with the party base and willingness to punish apostates, the lesson of recent years has been that nearly everyone hoping for a future in Republican politics feels the need to swallow any past criticism and fall in line. Even some Republicans no longer aspiring to hold public office have buried their apprehensions to stay with the choice of the party’s voters.

The disparity between their onetime judgments and their eventual public postures has been scorned by none other than Ms. Haley — that is, Ms. Haley, the Trump critic, before she became Ms. Haley, the Trump voter.

“Many of the same politicians who now publicly embrace Trump privately dread him,” she said while competing with him for the Republican nomination this year. “They know what a disaster he’s been and will continue to be for our party. They’re just too afraid to say it out loud. Well, I’m not afraid to say the hard truths out loud. I feel no need to kiss the ring.”

There has been plenty of puckering as of late. The parade of ring kissers testifies to the power over the party that Mr. Trump has achieved despite multiple criminal indictments, civil judgments and other scandals, a kind of power that no other figure has exhibited in modern presidential politics.

Among those who beat Ms. Haley to the punch in backing the former president are Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader who once denounced Mr. Trump as “disgraceful” and blamed him for the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol; former Attorney General William P. Barr, who used an earthy profanity to describe Mr. Trump’s lies about the 2020 election and said that federal prosecutors had mounted “a legitimate case” against him; and Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, who called Mr. Trump “a loser” and joked that if the former president were locked up in a mental institution, “he ain’t getting out.”

Many of those now angling to join Mr. Trump on his ticket have engaged in selective amnesia in hopes that he, too, will forget their past comments about him. Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, for instance, once exclaimed “my God, what an idiot” in reference to Mr. Trump and suggested that he could be “America’s Hitler.” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, while running against Mr. Trump in 2016, called him a “con artist” who was too “dangerous” to be president. Representative Elise Stefanik of New York once called Mr. Trump a “whack job” who was “insulting to women.”

Only a relative handful of prominent Republican leaders who have broken with Mr. Trump have refused to come around, most notably his own former vice president, Mike Pence, who said, after dropping out of the race himself, that he “could not in good conscience” endorse his onetime running mate. Others include former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a longtime friend of the former president; former Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin; former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who, like Mr. Pence and Mr. Christie, lost a nomination bid to Mr. Trump this year; and former Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, his most dedicated Republican critic.

There is, of course, a long tradition of eating one’s words after the end of a nomination battle. Lyndon B. Johnson sought to win the 1960 contest for the Democratic nomination by whispering about John F. Kennedy’s affliction with Addison’s disease, only to become his running mate, assigned to testify to the younger man’s capability of handling the presidency.

George H.W. Bush had to take back his assessment of Ronald Reagan’s “voodoo economics” after losing the Republican nomination to him in 1980 and becoming his vice-presidential pick. Eight years later, Robert J. Dole called Mr. Bush a liar during their primary battle, then endorsed him after losing. Eight years after that, Newt Gingrich, who had denigrated Mr. Dole as the “tax collector for the welfare state,” endorsed him as “a close personal friend.”

Hillary Clinton backed Barack Obama in 2008 after telling Democratic voters that he was not capable of handling a hypothetical 3 a.m. phone call announcing some sort of national crisis. She was not the only one that year who took back criticism of Mr. Obama. Joseph R. Biden Jr., then a senator, had pronounced the younger man “not yet ready” for the presidency, only to turn around to join his ticket and tell the country that, in fact, he was ready after all. Twelve years later, Kamala Harris attacked Mr. Biden’s record on race, then endorsed him “with great enthusiasm.”

All of that, though, seems quaint compared with the brazen contortions that Republicans have made to move beyond their criticisms of Mr. Trump. They did not just disagree with his policies or qualifications; they assailed his integrity, his character, his honesty, even his sanity, in ways rarely seen in modern times, the kind of criticisms that have proved much harder to explain away when they later embraced him.

During the 2016 contest, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called Mr. Trump “crazy” and a “kook,” and a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” who was “unfit for office.” After Mr. Trump won the nomination, Mr. Graham declared that his party had gone “batshit crazy” by anointing “the most flawed nominee in the history of the Republican Party.” He then turned around and became one of Mr. Trump’s chief allies, chiding the news media for labeling him “some kind of kook not fit to be president” — the same language that he himself had used.

Few have flipped back and forth more than Ms. Haley. As the governor of South Carolina in 2016, she dismissed Mr. Trump as “everything a governor doesn’t want in a president,” then endorsed him once he won the nomination and went to work for him as his ambassador to the United Nations.

After the Jan. 6 uprising at the Capitol, she denounced Mr. Trump, saying he “let us down” and “we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him.” She later sought to make up with him by visiting him at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and praising him for building “one of the hottest economies in American history.”

During her campaign for this year’s nomination, she became the critic again, eventually the last one standing during the primaries. She released an ad predicting that another Trump presidency would be “just more chaos.” She said that he was “not qualified to be the president of the United States” and that he had “gotten more unstable and unhinged.”

“An unhinged president is an unsafe president,” she said at another point. “And if you’ll go talk about those men and women who served us,” she added, referring to derogatory comments he made about members of the military, “you don’t deserve to be president.”

This week, however, she went back to saying that he did deserve to be president after all, at least over Mr. Biden. As others have, she rationalized her decision by arguing that Mr. Biden was worse, in her case citing his handling of immigration, spending and foreign policy.

“Trump has not been perfect on these policies — I’ve made that clear many, many times,” she said. “But Biden has been a catastrophe. So I will be voting for Trump.” No matter how unhinged she considers him.

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