Trump the sinister playground bully in New Hampshire victory lap

The cruelty is the point.

As Joe Biden acknowledged on Tuesday night, Donald Trump now has the Republican presidential nomination sewn up. But like a Roman emperor or mob boss, Trump used his victory speech in New Hampshire to humiliate his former opponents – and make sinister threats against his last primary rival.

Related: Trump v Biden rematch increasingly likely but Haley undaunted: key takeaways from New Hampshire primary

The former US president had followed up his record win in the Iowa caucuses with victory over Nikki Haley, his former ambassador to the UN, with a double-digit triumph in less favourable political territory. As Republican politicians and donors scramble to jump aboard the Trump train, it is clearly game over for the Never Trumpers.

Trump could have been magnanimous in victory and congratulated Haley on a race well run. Instead, he was palpably irked by her refusal to drop out of the race. Petty and vindictive, he became a playground bully punching down for the benefit of an audience that glories in metaphorical violence.

Addressing a crowded hotel ballroom in Nashua, he gave Haley a dark warning: “Just a little note to Nikki. She’s not going to win. But if she did, she would be under investigation by those people in 15 minutes, and I could tell you five reasons why already.

“Not big reasons, little stuff that she doesn’t want to talk about, that she will be under investigation within minutes, and so would Ron [DeSantis] have been, but he decided to get out.”

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There were echoes of the political operative Lee Atwater or Roger Stone’s dirty tricks campaigns, or the Trump senior campaign aide Chris LaCivita’s Swift Boat veterans takedown of John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. It was also redolent of Trump’s own vicious attacks on Senator Ted Cruz’s wife and father (whom he baselessly linked to the John F Kennedy assassination) in 2016.

But Trump has plenty of humiliation to serve around, even to people on his own side. He invited his former opponent Vivek Ramaswamy to speak but only “if he promises to do it in a minute or less” (admittedly, given Ramaswamy’s fiendishly irritating debate performances, many will take Trump’s side on that one).

Then there was Senator Tim Scott, another ex-rival who has already debased himself with a fawning endorsement of Trump. With his unerring ability to get under people’s skin, he said to Scott that, since the former South Carolina governor Haley appointed him to the Senate, “You must really hate her.”

There was an awkward silence in the room and a rare grunt of dissent from someone. To rescue the situation, Scott stepped forward to the lectern, looked at Trump and grovelled: “I just love you!” The crowd exhaled in relief. Scott was the hapless father in The Godfather who had accepted: “For justice, we must go to Don Corleone.”

Like Chris Christie in 2016, Scott has surrendered his principles to the inevitability of Trump. Haley now stands alone in a Republican party that belongs to him. Did she ever have a chance? Perhaps she could have done more to make it a choice rather than a coronation.

Haley could have emphasised her spouse’s military record and gone after Trump on his description of fallen solders as “losers” and “suckers”. She could have celebrated her identity as a daughter of Indian immigrants to contrast herself with Trump’s bigotry, nativism and racism. She could have played up her gender and what masterstroke it would be for Republicans, not Democrats, to produce America’s first female president after nearly 250 years.

She could also have been more forceful in making the electability argument, taking her cue from Christie who hammered Trump over his defeat in election after election.

But none of these are deemed viable in today’s party. Instead, when Haley did go bold and against the grain, it was on foreign policy, ardently pro-Israel and anti-Russia, and constantly bashing China. It was never going to win many extra votes but it was sure to alienate the isolationist “America First” wing of the party, personified by Ramaswamy.

Other flashes of courage arrived too little too late. Early on Tuesday Haley appeared on Fox News’s Fox & Friends and said, bluntly, she did not know if they would “tell the truth” about her campaign. Later, in her concession speech, she pushed the electability argument: “The worst-kept secret in politics is how badly the Democrats want to run against Donald Trump.”

If it was such a badly kept secret, why not shout it from the rooftops months earlier?

But like many bullies, Trump’s ostentatious show of strength was motivated by inner weakness. Haley did well enough among independents to raise red flags for Republicans in the general election.

The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, commented: “It’s clear that Trump is political poison to moderates. Sane and moral Republicans said their conscience won’t allow them to vote for a chaos-driven maniac who is under 91 criminal counts, a proven sexual predator, and authoritarian wannabe who will shred the constitution and burn this country down.”

Biden, meanwhile, won the unsanctioned Democratic primary without even being on the ballot. He, not Trump, was the winner of the night when judging how things will play out in November.

Trump rules by fear in his party but lacks the love of his nation. For many voters, it is not love but loathing.

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