Nikki Haley is abandoning young Republicans like me

My generation will not follow her back into the arms of Donald Trump. We’re looking for a leader with the courage to speak hard truths.
Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley on May 22 in Washington, D.C. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley on May 22 in Washington, D.C. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Republicans in their 20s have seen few examples of political courage within our party. A few months ago, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley said Donald Trump is “not qualified” to be president of the United States.

Yesterday, she endorsed him anyway.

Flipping on campaign attacks is nothing new, especially among former presidential campaign rivals. But Haley’s criticism cut deeper than the usual fare. “Trump is going to side with a madman [Putin] who’s made no bones about the fact he wants to destroy America,” she warned.

Haley could have endorsed Trump the day she dropped out of the race. Instead, she took a principled stand and withheld support. Her stock grew. Millions of Americans cast their ballots for her zombie campaign because it meant something.

How quickly that can change.

Credit: Courtesy photo

icon to expand image

Credit: Courtesy photo

Haley is abandoning the growing faction who stood with her, many of them Gen Z and millennial Republicans like me. In Michigan, she won almost 27% of the primary vote. She received 13% of Georgia’s Republican support. Pennsylvania Republicans gave her almost 17% in their nominating contest. This bloc is part of the silent majority who tip elections in critical swing states.

I hope my generation learns a lesson from this. We have to put our trust in principles, not politicians. We don’t know what motivated Haley’s reversal. But given her warnings about a second Trump term, it’s clear Haley is putting her career and her own interests over the good of the country. There is a generation of Republicans who are growing up with this as a norm.

In 2016, then-House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., tepidly criticized Trump. He could have used his position to push for a stronger presidential nominee. On the evening of Jan. 6, 2021, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the mob was “provoked” by Trump, but then he failed to vote for Trump’s impeachment. Countless elected leaders initially criticized Trump only to tacitly validate his worst impulses over the past few years. There is a courage deficit in the GOP. Young Republicans are watching.

C.S. Lewis wrote that “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Our politics won’t get better until we have leaders with the fortitude to stand up for their beliefs, even when it is unpopular with the farthest corners of their base. And, because there are so few national figures speaking out, we need leaders with the courage to stand alone when necessary.

That’s why the recent action by Georgia’s former lieutenant governor Geoff Duncan, a Republican, is so remarkable. A lifelong conservative, he announced his support of President Biden. In his own words, he is “voting for a decent person I disagree with on policy over a criminal defendant without a moral compass.” We need more of this. It is politically risky. These types of cross-party endorsements can be career-enders in the short term. But it’s what young voters want.

In a recent Sine Institute American University poll, 44% of young Americans said the most important quality of an elected leader is being motivated to serve others, not their own self-interest. Bold steps by leaders like Duncan, even actions once considered taboo, such as endorsing a candidate of a different party, can win you an energized new constituency, especially among young voters.

We saw this not too long ago with Haley. Her support grew each day she refused to back Trump. She was building a new faction that was excited to have a leader. It might not have been enough to win her the presidency in 2024 or maybe even carry her to victory in 2028. But she was planting the seeds of a new voter bloc that would take root and play an outsize role in shaping Republican politics post-Trump.

Though Haley’s endorsement means she is abandoning these voters, it doesn’t mean they are going away. I talk to Haley primary voters and young Republicans all the time. We are motivated not to her positions but to the party after MAGA that she represented. We will not follow Haley back into the arms of Donald Trump.

Our votes are up for grabs in November. We vote based on principles, not the recommendation of self-interested politicians.

We’re looking for a leader with the courage to speak hard truths. We want a leader who will do what is right, even when it is unpopular. We want a uniter who can heal this country’s divides.

Biden has an opportunity to pick up Haley voters, despite her endorsement. And young Republicans have an opportunity to be the courageous leaders our party and country so desperately need.

Reed Howard, an Emory University graduate, is a former local Republican elected official.