Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the Study of the Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s” and co-hosts the podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Picking through the rubble of the 2016 election, journalists not only peered deep into the rural red counties of Trump country and the ragged remains of the Clinton campaign, but also turned inward, toward themselves.
There had been so much newsprint acreage devoted to Hillary Clinton’s emails and so many hours devoted to wall-to-wall coverage of Donald Trump’s rallies; a wave of recriminations from readers and colleagues alike rained down on the press, which, the argument went, had badly fumbled its campaign coverage and contributed to Donald Trump’s victory. It was time for a reckoning.
And yet for all the soul-searching, as we approach 2024, it’s clear that not much has changed — for Trump or for the journalists who cover him. As the GOP primary debates unfold and the race heats up, we have gotten a sense of how little has been learned from 2016.
Coverage of the candidate’s recent use of the word “vermin” and his unhinged Truth Social posts keep Trump center stage, reinforcing polls that show Trump’s overwhelming lead against his primary competitors. Talk of policies and the stakes of another Trump presidency — which has attracted increasing attention — still take a backseat to the same horserace approach we had supposedly reckoned with so thoroughly.
The stories generate a lot of heat, but not much light. And if this style of reporting dominates as the 2024 campaign moves into the general election, Americans will be unprepared for the election ahead.
That’s because we have a political press that has learned to talk a lot about the endangered state of US democracy without providing voters with the stories and information they need to make sense of the 2024 elections.
Voters don’t just vote with the future of their form of government in mind: they vote on what they perceive to be the personality, policies, and politics of the candidates. Coverage of the Republican primaries —and of Trump’s most viable primary competitor— reveals just how much the current approach obscures the bigger stakes and developments while often delivering little more than inside baseball and tenuous predictions about the campaigns.
The experience of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is instructive. In the primary debates, which Trump has skipped, she has emerged as a candidate with a set of policy prescriptions and approaches that at times sharply diverge from Trump and the other candidates on stage. More hawkish in foreign policy, more skeptical of anti-abortion absolutism, less interested in notions of economic populism, Haley might stand in for the George W. Bush/Paul Ryan wing of the party, presumed to be a nearly-extinct part of the Republican coalition since the rise of Trump.
That view is reinforced by news that broke Tuesday: Haley has received the endorsement of Americans for Prosperity Action, a SuperPAC founded by David and Charles Koch. The New York Times, in reporting the endorsement, went all in on the campaign strategies and electoral positioning, discussing Haley’s position in the polls, the SuperPAC’s deep pockets and the desire to “turn the page” on the Trump era. But nowhere does it talk in depth about policy or what the Koch brothers’ organization represents within the Republican coalition. The Times did mention foreign policy, noting Haley’s criticism of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, advocacy for military strikes in Iran and her hawkish support for Ukraine aid.
But there’s so much more to say. The Koch brothers have long represented the corporate wing of the party, pushing for policies that benefit big business and the wealthy: low taxes, low wages, open immigration, free trade, and the like. And those interests shape their support of Haley. It’s information that campaign reporters did not have to look far to find. The endorsement discusses Haley’s education and health care policies, and hints at her anti-union, pro-industry stances.
What makes Haley interesting in this race is not, in fact, her position in the polls but her position in the party. She not only represents a once-dominant faction of the GOP, but also shows us how that wing of the party has accommodated to the Trump era.
Haley was, after all, Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, an interesting position for someone who so sharply diverges from Trump’s ostensibly non-interventionist foreign policy. She has adopted a harder line on immigration — something the Koch brothers would once have frowned upon — and has leaned hard into anti-trans rhetoric and policies. She has framed the Trump indictments as political prosecutions and sources of unnecessary drama, the latter an indication of her wariness about attacking Trump too hard.
That clarifies something about Haley, who otherwise has been a kind of silly-putty figure in the race, someone upon whom Trump-wary Republicans and independents can impress their own preferences. Haley emerges as a moderate, defined by her decision to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol after the racist massacre in Charleston in 2015, or as a budget-balancing wonk, defined by her willingness to entertain Social Security and Medicare cuts. Or maybe it’s Haley, the standard-bearer for a more inclusive Republican Party, defined by her identities as a woman and Indian-American. But none of those fully captures the real Haley’s politics or policy preferences.
Contextualizing both the endorsement and Haley’s policy positions can help us see how Republicans who disagree with Trump have accommodated him without jettisoning many of their broader political commitments.
It not only tells us something about the composition of the party and its voters, but it clarifies some of the developments of the Trump era: the supposed economic populist president who instituted deep tax cuts for the wealthy, attempted (and is still attempting) to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and who met