Despite the buzz and the endorsements and the right-wing donors funneling of millions of dollars into her campaign, Republican candidate Nikki Haley was never going to be president of the United States.
Now, she’s really never going to be president of the United States — and about the only thing that’s surprising about this turn of nonevents is the reason why.
Race and racism, as it turns out, are important issues, even for Republicans. Well, sort of. But first, let’s back up.
By now, you’ve probably heard about the extraordinarily simple question that Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, couldn’t bring herself to answer during a town hall campaign event in New Hampshire on Wednesday night.
“What,” a man stood up to ask, “was the cause of the United States Civil War?”
Haley, who broke barriers as the first Indian American woman in the nation to serve as a governor and the first in a White House Cabinet-level role as U.N. ambassador, seemed genuinely flummoxed. “Well, don’t come with an easy question,” she told the man, whom by Thursday she was desperately trashing as a Democratic “plant.”
She continued: “I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run — the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do.”
“I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are,” Haley added. “And we — I will always stand by the fact that I think government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people. It was never meant to be all things to all people. Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life. They don’t need to tell you what you can and can’t do. They don’t need to be a part of your life.”
To this nonanswer that echoed the excuses of segregationists, the man, who declined to give his name to reporters, told Haley, “In the year 2023, it’s astonishing to me that you answer that question without mentioning the word ‘slavery.’”
Sorry, but that’s not astonishing. Haley is not and never has been a moderate, despite the growing number of independents and moderate Republicans who have been telling pollsters they believe she is. Her history on issues of race are, at best, mixed.
As Jaime Harrison, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement, “This is what Black South Carolinians have come to expect from Nikki Haley, and now the rest of the country is getting to see her for who she is.”
The is the woman who, when she was running for governor in 2010, met with the leaders of Confederate heritage groups and told them that the Civil War was a fight between “tradition” and “change,” and that she supported having a Confederate history month.
This is also the woman who, during her campaign for reelection as governor in 2014, rejected calls to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House. This was after it came out that she had offered to leverage her identity as a child of immigrants to somehow convince the NAACP that the Confederate flag “is not something that is racist.”
Of course, these days, Haley loves to lean into her decision to back the removal the flag in 2015, after a white supremacist killed nine Black people at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. She did so again at yet another town hall event in New Hampshire on Thursday.
“By the grace of God, we did the right thing and slavery is no more,” Haley said, according to the Washington Post. “I say that as a Southerner. I say that as a Southern governor who removed the Confederate flag off the State House grounds.”
“Yes, we know the Civil War was about slavery,” she added.
Not that Haley is convincing anyone, let alone Democrats. As Harrison said, “I am disgusted, but I’m not surprised.”
But what is surprising is the way even Republicans have piled on Haley.
Alongside social media posts from President Biden — “It was about slavery” — and California‘s Democrat Rep. Ro Khanna — “Haley’s refusal to talk honestly about slavery or race in America is a sad betrayal of her own story” — there are posts from rival GOP presidential candidates and even random Republicans.
“The answer is slavery,” Rep. Byron Donalds, the Black Republican from Florida who always seems to emerge to defend Blackness at the most useless times, posted on X. “PERIOD.”
Vivek Ramaswamy, who also is running for the Republican nomination, but won’t be president either, quipped that he thought Haley had mistaken the man who asked her about the Civil War “for a Super PAC donor.”
Meanwhile, Republican candidate Ron DeSantis called what Haley said an “incomprehensible word salad” and said that she “had some problems with some basic American history,” because it’s “not that difficult to identify and acknowledge the role slavery played in the Civil War.”
Of course, most of this is just performative pandering — especially from DeSantis.
After all, he’s the one who, as governor of Florida, has banned books and classes on Black history and defended a school curriculum that teaches “how slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” And now, in a new level of shamelessness, the super PAC that backs DeSantis is trolling Haley with T-shirts emblazoned with: “What do you want me to say about slavery?”
But buried in this hypocritical Republican drivel — surprisingly and astonishingly — seems to be a recognition that the culture wars of the last few years, while so effective with voters on the far right, have taken their toll on the American public as a whole. We’re tired and we’re fed up, especially in liberal California.
Being historically accurate about race and racism doesn’t really matter to Republicans. But they seem to recognize that they’ll never get elected to national office in large numbers again without at least pretending that it does.
Haley was never a serious alternative to the tiresome, white supremacist, autocratic ravings of former President Trump. And she just showed us why in the lamest way possible, drawing a rare bit of bipartisan scorn.
Whether this is progress or not, I’m not quite sure. But in the spirit of the holidays, I’ll take whatever hope I can get.