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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

How the Media Turns Extremists Into “Moderates”

The credulity of the media is helping one of the GOP’s most extreme candidates rebrand herself as “the adult in the room.”

With Donald Trump having set the Republican Party on a hard-right path and appearing poised to be its standard-bearer for a third straight election, the question on the minds of many liberal pundits is whether there remains such a thing as a moderate Republican. Liberals are always on the lookout for this decent, pragmatic being, hunting them with the persistence of a cryptozoologist committed to finding the Yeti. 

Many seem to think they have found what they’re looking for in Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina and Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. Of the Republican candidates who actually have a prayer of contesting the GOP primary, Haley has made the biggest effort to differentiate herself from Trump. Unlike her opponents, who often cringe away from making slights at the Donald, Haley has been willing to openly call for her party to “leave the drama behind,” stating that January 6 was “a terrible day” while calling Trump “The most disliked politician in all of America.”

Haley’s talk is catnip in a liberal media environment haunted by the specter of a resurgent Trump.  She is painted as one of the lone sensible voices in a field of far-right maniacs. Over and over the word “moderate” comes up in coverage of her. When she announced her intention to run earlier this year—becoming the first to officially challenge Trump—Forbes said she was “providing a more moderate alternative to the ex-president in the race.” The enlightened sages in the New York Times said that Haley, in her performance in the first primary debate, was “pragmatic” and “generally reasonable” and named her “the most frank and levelheaded person onstage.” The Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker nicknamed her “Smarty” after the same debate, saying she “made me feel like I was in competent company.” She also lauded Haley for having the “courage to do what others, with the exception of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, refused to do: speak truth to Donald Trump’s power.” 

Even in publications that don’t fuss as much over the appearance of ideological balance, Haley is often treated as a preferable outlier within her party. In Slate, Jill Filipovic lamented that Haley is “attempting to bring reason to the GOP. Unfortunately, no one in the GOP is interested in reason,” and describes her as having “carved out a space for herself as the reasonable, honest, experienced candidate in a field of MAGA acolytes, religious ideologues, interchangeable nonentities, and narcissistic loudmouths.” (To her credit, she goes on to point out that Haley is not, in fact, moderate on abortion.) In The New Yorker, Antonia Hitchens wrote that on abortion and transgender issues, Haley “com[es] across as almost progressive compared with most other G.O.P. candidates.” 

Possibly the most glowing liberal profile of Haley comes from Mark McKinnon of Vanity Fair, who in late August 2023—after her debate performance—called her “the lone adult among the [GOP] candidates.” He wrote, “She has always struck me as someone with great potential, but is uncomfortable and awkward in the straitjacket of the current Republican Party.” McKinnon doesn’t actually point to many concrete policy differences in his essay, other than her supposed “thoughtful and nuanced opinions” on abortion (which he then turns around to describe as “vacillating”) and willingness to take “Trump to task for astronomical spending.” The main thing that makes her “the GOP’s last, best hope” in McKinnon’s eyes, though, is that “she said the most obvious and most important truth. Which is that Trump, given his steamer trunk of baggage, would be the worst possible nominee in the general election.” 

The consensus forming around Haley is one we’ve seen before: the lonesome “Resistance” hero who can wrestle back the spirit of the Republican Party from the so-called populist1 maw that is consuming it. Haley’s addition to the pantheon of good, decent, moderate Republicans follows the earlier sanctification of figures like John McCain, Liz Cheney, and Mitt Romney as voices of reason in a party gone mad. The word moderate, or others that suggest an anti-ideological or anti-partisan quality, was often thrown around to describe these figures, too, despite their decades-long records of unflinching conservatism—including a lust for foreign intervention, opposition to social spending, denial of climate change, and attacks on the rights of women and sexual minorities. But in an era where all issues were subordinated to the singular horror of Trump—not as a political actor but as a grotesque personality—opposition to him alone was enough for the media to elevate even the most hardened conservative ideologues into the avatars of a new political center.

Haley is the latest Trump critic to be given a moderate rebrand by the media. And it may be the shallowest attempt yet. Her policy platform, in most places, is extraordinarily difficult to distinguish from that of every other Republican. She attempts to differentiate herself from her opponents typically through a calming, stately affect that contrasts with the frantic bellowing of Trump and his fellow travelers. The media framing of Haley and other candidates as “moderate” helps to soften their vicious policy prescriptions and inure liberals who’d ordinarily be skeptical of them. As a result, liberals who despise Trump end up having a favorable view of someone like Haley—even though she often holds more conservative policy inclinations in many places.

The most glaring example of this is Haley’s insatiable desire to cut very popular social programs. Here’s what she had to say on Bloomberg News when asked about her plans for Social Security and Medicare:

You’ve got multiple candidates on that stage that said they wouldn’t touch entitlements…. Any candidate that says they’re not going to touch entitlements means that they’re basically going to go into office and then leave America bankrupt…. We change the retirement age to reflect life expectancy…. Sixty-five is way too low, and we need to increase that. We need to do it according to life expectancy.…

She later explained that she intends to maintain current benefits only for people in their “40s, 50s, 60s, or older, period.” Presumably, this means that anyone born after 1983 would have the retirement age raised. 

First off, Haley is actually incorrect about the retirement age. Though the Social Security Act of 1935 established 65 as the federal retirement age, a law passed by the Reagan administration in 1983 increased it to 67 for anyone born after 1960 (in the U.S. as of 2022, more than 3 out of 4 adults were born after 1960). Simply put, the retirement age is the age at which a retiree may draw full benefits. Retirement before this age will result in a reduced benefit. Of course, many Americans do not have the luxury of waiting until the full retirement age to draw benefits. As Social Security Works Executive Director Alex Lawson has explained, the “retirement age has nothing to do with the age at which you retire.”

But even if the retirement age were actually 65, to insist this is “way too low,” as Haley does, is astoundingly cruel. Who cares that workers over 55 are nearly twice as likely to get injured on the job and more than twice as likely to die on the job than their younger counterparts? Who cares that 95 percent of people over 60 have at least one chronic health condition? Those geezers need to get their asses back in gear!

Haley also wrongly assumes that life expectancy in America has an inevitable upward trajectory. The last few years have demonstrated that this is completely untrue. American life expectancy dropped by more than two years between 2019 and 2021, erasing 26 years of progress. While Covid obviously played a major role, the CDC estimates that it only accounted for about half of this decline—other major factors included overdoses, heart disease, chronic liver disease, and suicide. 

American life expectancy had already hit a plateau before the pandemic, leaving the U.S. to lag behind the continued rises in other developed countries. As of 2021, life expectancy was around 71 for Black Americans and 65 for American Indians and Alaskan Natives, several years lower than Americans of other racial backgrounds. The average life expectancy is as low as the mid-60s in some parts of the Deep South. Meanwhile, an analysis of deaths in California found a life expectancy gap of 15 years between the poorest Americans (i.e., those who are most likely to have little saved up for retirement and rely more on government benefits) and those in the highest income brackets. As of 2021, a quarter of males and 15 percent of females did not live past age 65 according to World Bank data.

Map: Jeremy Ney @ American Inequality, Source: CDC Death Records. via TIME.

Now, in the Bloomberg segment, Haley said that her approach to Social Security would be that “we don’t touch anyone’s retirement, or anyone who’s been promised in,” and that the retirement age would simply be raised. But as Lawson has explained, an increase in the retirement age will result in an “across the board” cut to benefits. One calculation in Bloomberg News from Teresa Ghilarducci, an economics professor at the New School for Social Research, found that raising the retirement age to 70 (as was proposed as part of a Republican bill in the House), would effectively serve as a “benefit cut of about 13% to 15% for people forced out of work and into retirement way before age 70.” And as Zeeshan Aleem, a contributor to MSNBC, writes:

[M]any retirement researchers point out [that] most Americans already take retirement benefits before they reach full retirement age, meaning they take reduced benefits because they need or want financial assistance sooner. Raising the retirement age would cut off a huge number of older Americans who are acutely vulnerable to poverty and desperate for a reprieve from punishing work.

Needless to say, raising the retirement age and cutting benefits is not a popular proposal: most Americans do not want their benefits cut. And it’s easy to see why. Americans are already struggling to retire at the current retirement age! According to a poll from earlier this month, increasing numbers of workers under 55 say they “don’t think they will ever retire,” many because they don’t think they can afford to. Between 1990 and 2022, the age at which Americans have been able to retire has increased across the board. This is to say nothing of the fact that workers’ wages have stagnated relative to inflation while their productivity has increased more than threefold since the 1980s. If anything, Americans are owed an earlier retirement than the one they’ve been getting. But Haley is acting like Americans have simply gotten greedy.

Haley has not given a specific number to indicate how much longer she thinks Americans should work. But considering that she thinks the retirement age is “way too low,” it doesn’t seem like there’s any way to slice that policy preference up that doesn’t amount to people spending a greater percentage of their lives in toil, and greater numbers working until they drop dead—or sinking into financial precarity, as millions rely on Social Security to stay above the poverty line.

Why must the elderly be required to sacrifice their hard-earned benefits? Haley says that this change is necessary to deal with the impending “bankruptcy” of Social Security. Let’s leave aside the case that the “national debt” is a vastly overblown threat (if you’re curious to learn why, check out The Deficit Myth by Stephanie Kelton). Even if you take the need for a “balanced budget” at face value and buy the narrative that America’s entitlement programs are on the verge of “bankruptcy,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out that last year’s trustee’s report from the Social Security Administration projects that the program can continue paying out retirement and disability benefits in full until 2035, after which it will still be able to pay for three-quarters of benefits. Meanwhile, Medicare will be able to pay 100 percent of hospital insurance through 2028. But afterward, “the share of costs covered by dedicated revenues will decline slowly to 80 percent in 2046 and then rise gradually to 93 percent by 2096.” The use of the term “bankruptcy” implies that the money for these programs will simply run out and seniors will suddenly be left with nothing. This makes it appear as if cutting entitlements is actually the more reasonable solution. But in reality, we’d only need to perform some modest tinkering with our budget priorities to get right back up to full payouts for both programs. 

One obvious candidate for cuts is the U.S. military. As of 2023, U.S. military spending accounts for around 3.1 percent of our total GDP, and though it is expected to decline slightly over the next 10 years, our spending is still greater than the next 10 largest military spenders in the world combined. Has Haley suggested even modest cuts to the defense budget (even as the Pentagon’s auditing agencies have discovered $25 billion of waste per year)? Of course not! She wants the U.S. to expand our war posture against China and Russia as well as continue our abundant military aid to Israel. At multiple points in her career, despite claiming the need for fiscal prudence, she has called for increased military spending. She praised Trump’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which gave the wealthiest Americans substantial benefits while adding an estimated $3.4 to $3.8 trillion to the national debt over 10 years. 

This is the person liberal media types consider a sensible moderate? Beyond Haley’s economic platform, most of her other positions are basically the same as the average Republican from 2023. She says she wants to send “special ops” to Mexico to fight drug cartels in a similar fashion to fighting ISIS and finish Trump’s (and now Biden’s) border wall. She constantly insults transgender people, including calling the maligned Bud Light spokesperson Dylan Mulvaney “a guy, dressed as a girl, making fun of women,” and has even blamed trans students in women’s sports for a rise in teen suicide. She said Ron DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” law “doesn’t even go far enough.” She self-describes as a “union-buster,” saying “I didn’t want to bring in companies that were unionized [to South Carolina] simply because I didn’t want to have that change the environment in our state.”2 She has implied that she’d support a federal ban on abortion in principle but has tried to worm her way out (and appear oh, so pragmatic!) by saying it could not feasibly pass in the Senate. She’s probably the single most hawkish candidate in the Republican primary in the realm of foreign policy as well. In addition to calling for the U.S. to send troops to Mexico, she wants to admit Ukraine to NATO immediately (which would obligate all members to fight nuclear-armed Russia directly), she wants U.S. troops to directly fight a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan (which would also bring us closer to nuclear conflict than at any point in world history), has made threats to punish countries that condemn Israeli settlements, and spent her tenure as U.N. ambassador building a case for a war with Iran.

From the way the media discusses her, you’d never know that Haley originally rode to power in 2010 by very publicly aligning herself with the right-wing Tea Party movement. This movement was, at the time, understood by liberals as a disturbing mutation of right-wing politics into something more economically radical and more culturally atavistic. Now it’s understood to be the obvious precursor to the cultlike mania of Trumpism. Despite being cast as a “moderate alternative” to Trump, Haley has actually gone after him several times for not being conservative enough about entitlements. During one debate, she pointed out that the national debt increased by $8 trillion during his four years in office and has repeatedly chided his (dubious) claims that he wants to protect Social Security, saying he’s not being “honest” about the need for cuts. But apparently, all it takes for the credulous rubes in the media to forget all that is for her to make some superficial critiques of Trump.

What makes it all the more frustrating is that we’ve seen the media fall for these same tricks before and turn archconservatives into reasonable alternatives to modern Republican insanity. John McCain got this treatment when he spoke out against Trump’s racist comments, withdrew his endorsement following Trump’s vulgar Access Hollywood tape, and ultimately served as the deciding vote against the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017 (certainly an act of courage, albeit one muted by the fact that he was dying of brain cancer and had nothing to lose politically). This earned him endless fawning from the media upon his deathbed as one of the lone voices of “decency,” “reason,” and, most importantly, “moderation” left in Republican politics. In one of the most embarrassing tweets of all time, Ana Navarro, a liberal commentator on CNN and The View, wrote that “the idea of Aretha Franklin and John McCain hanging out together in the Freshman section of heaven, kinda makes me smile.” It was one of numerous weepy-eyed tributes.

This was the same John McCain who spent his career opposing the right to abortion and even contraception for women. The McCain who enthusiastically championed every U.S. invasion possible and clamored for us to invade even more countries—including Iran. The McCain who introduced us to the odious proto-Trump, Sarah Palin, by nominating her as his vice-presidential running mate. The McCain who opposed the creation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (I wonder what Aretha Franklin would have thought of that), voted against a law banning workplace discrimination against LGBT people, and said of the Vietnamese, “I hate the gooks…I will hate them as long as I live.” McCain, the hero of the anti-Trump resistance who voted with Trump 83 percent of the time. 

Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney would receive the same media christening en route to her 2022 Republican primary loss. She became a media darling after voting to impeach Trump for his role in fomenting the January 6 Capitol attack and serving as one of two token Republicans on the subsequent committee to investigate the attempted insurrection, which led her to be censured by the RNC and kicked out of the state Republican Party. In The New York Times, Thomas Friedman wrote an entire op-ed arguing for Cheney to be Joe Biden’s running mate in 2024 as part of an Israeli-style “National Unity Government.” Alec Baldwin gave a weepy car monologue calling Cheney a “bipartisan hero” and compared her to Russian anti-Putin dissident Alexei Navalny. And even the Bernie Sanders-supporting former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich has suggested Cheney lead a “new sane Republican Party.” 

This was the same Liz Cheney who was sired by Iraq War architect and Bush VP Dick Cheney and who still pushes her dad’s bogus line that Iraq helped al-Qaeda perpetrate 9/11. The Liz Cheney who has called climate science “phony” (and takes photos of snow on her lawn to prove it’s not happening), dumped money into anti-union measures in Ohio, and even disavowed her own sister for being gay in pursuit of a Republican senate nomination. Somehow, the last bastion against the iron grip of Trumpism is someone who endorsed him in 2020 and voted with him 93 percent of the time.

How many times will the media keep falling for this? Endlessly, it appears. Since Haley’s coronation as the voice of reason, the media has already moved on to slathering Mitt Romney with accolades on his way out of the Senate. The guy who called the rich “makers” and the poor “takers” during the 2012 election and said he was “more of a hawk on immigration than Trump” in 2018 is now someone Mead Gruver and Jonathan J. Cooper of the Associated Press say “embraced moderate conservatism” while The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake credits him with “gathering the courage to arrest his party’s drift toward Trumpism.” And yet Romney voted with Trump on nearly four bills out of five. 

There are easy conclusions to draw from these examples—I am hardly the first to point out that many in the media are guileless creatures who can be easily fooled into thinking the words of politicians are equal in value to their deeds. Nor am I the first to point out how the media profits from manufacturing friction and conflict—seeing McCain, Cheney, Romney, or Haley publicly curse their party leader makes for eye-catching palace drama. And labeling certain Republicans as heroes and mavericks allows the media to refute accusations that they are biased against conservatives (as if conservatives would ever give them credit for listening to both sides) and may help them maintain access to Republicans for quotes and appearances—which is, of course, counter to the mandate that the media actually be adversarial toward those in power. 

But this has a sinister side-effect of scrambling the concept of ideology itself, to the point where one’s proximity to Trump—rather than the policies someone wants to implement—becomes a heuristic for whether one is “conservative” or “moderate.” 

It’s a framing that Republicans themselves have embraced—denouncing even the faintest Trump critics as “Republicans in Name Only” (usually abbreviated to “RINOs“). But when liberals adopt that same framing, it quietly shifts the window for their audiences regarding what is considered a reasonable, moderate position to hold. If it’s being drilled into people’s heads that the likes of Nikki Haley are considered by the press to be moderates—especially while the media is incessantly entreating us about the need to end polarization and find compromise—it can be easy to assume that her positions are also “moderate” by extension. So now, you suddenly think twice about your revulsion towards cutting Social Security or sending troops to Mexico. After all, you wouldn’t want to be some kind of radical partisan, would you? And if a “moderate” holds those positions, maybe there’s something to them!

It may sound silly to grant the media this much power over public perception. But liberal voters tend to be far more trusting of the press than others. And polling shows that this rebranding strategy works! While Republicans increasingly revile any perceived critics of Trump, being christened as part of “The Resistance” has made even the most doctrinaire conservatives popular among Democratic voters: In August 2022, right before her primary loss, 48 percent of Democratic voters had a positive view of Liz Cheney, compared with only a third of Republicans. Likewise, a solid majority of Utahans who self-described as “liberal” said they liked Mitt Romney. Seventy-four percent of Democratic voters said they supported John McCain in the year before his death (granted, the poll was conducted right after he rejected the repeal of Obamacare). Despite being an active member of the Trump administration, Haley somehow managed to receive support from 55 percent of Democratic voters back in 2018—when the media often portrayed her as one of the sensible “adults in the room,” despite the fact that she was usually on board with Trump’s policy agenda when it mattered.

Though polls as of early October show Haley in second place in a few early primary states, the actual likelihood that she will ascend to the presidency is, for the moment, quite slim given Trump’s stranglehold over the Republican Party (though that could change if he dies or is convicted of one of the many crimes he has been accused of). But even if Haley does not become the Republican nominee, she has accomplished something that may be more significant in the long run. By exploiting the media’s weakness for any and all Trump critics, she has found a way to further redefine the word “moderate” and make hard-right politics seem mainstream.

  1. We at Current Affairs would also dispute the application of the word “populist” to those in the Trump orbit. As Matt McManus argues, “Conservative ‘populism’ has never been about egalitarianism, but about mobilizing support for traditional hierarchies and giving those considered ‘worthy’ a taste of status and power.” 

  2. This is, again, in contrast with Trump, who at least attempts to appear pro-union—well, sometimes. For instance, just last month, he visited the United Auto Workers in Detroit. Obviously, we should take this with a grain of salt given how anti-labor his National Labor Relations Board and Supreme Court appointees have been. Trump has also recently attempted to “court blue-collar workers” at a visit to a nonunion factory in the midst of an ongoing auto workers’ strike. 

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