Astonishingly, some people still see Nikki Haley as one of the “good” Trump cabinet members, the future of a more tolerant and accepting Republican Party. Like those anti-Trumpers who willfully interpreted each casual flick of Melania’s wrist as a prospect of rebellion, Haley hopefuls want to believe that a conscience might yet emerge from Trump’s Team of Liars, that the G.O.P’s latest showcasing of a Can-Do Immigrant Success Story can somehow undo years of xenophobia.
This requires listening to only half of what Haley says.
But if you listen to the full spectrum of her rhetoric, Haley clearly wants to capture the base that yearns for Trumpism — and to occupy the moral high ground of the post-Trump era. She wants to tout the credential of having served in a presidential cabinet (she was Trump’s U.N. ambassador) — and bask in recognition for having left of her own accord. She wants to criticize Americans’ obsession with identity politics — and highlight her own identity as a significant qualification.
There are plenty of reasons to approach Haley with wariness: her middle-school-cafeteria style of meting out revenge, her robotic “I have seen evil” presidential campaign announcement video, the P.T.A. briskness with which she dismisses a bothersome fact. But most alarming is her untroubled insistence on having her cake and eating it too. Even in short-term-memory Washington, rife as it is with wafflers and flip-floppers, the serene hypocrisy of Nikki Haley stands out. She wants it both ways — and she wants it her way most of all.
Take a glance at the inconvenient record. Here is Rebranded Republican Nikki Haley, who told Politico she was “triggered” by the 2015 slaughter of nine parishioners inside Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, that she was disgusted by Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential candidacy, that she was “disgusted” by Trump’s treatment of Mike Pence. And here also is Red-blooded Republican Haley, who in earlier interviews for the same 2021 Politico magazine profile rolls her eyes at the possibility of Trump’s impeachment, warmly recalls checking in on the disconsolate former president — a man she called her “friend” — and emphasizes “the good that he built.”
Haley is accustomed to internal contradiction, having been plucked from the South Carolina governorship to serve as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, a position Trump reportedly chose her for because it removed her from the governorship. Soon after Madam Ambassador arrived in New York in 2017, she appeared at the Council on Foreign Relations, an event I attended and remember well. Even members of the council, a nonpartisan group accustomed to hosting dignitaries both friendly and hostile, thrummed in anticipation of its first visiting cabinet member from the Trump administration.
Despite a reputation for intuitive political acumen, Haley seemed wholly incapable of reading the room. “This is an intimidating crowd, I’ve got to tell you. It really is,” she said, otherwise placid in her unpreparedness for a role grappling with urgent complexities in Russia, Iran, China and North Korea. She proceeded to share folksy anecdotes about how family members were adjusting to life in the big city. Later, she wove past questions from the council’s president, Richard Haass, at one point breaking into giggles. “It’s like you want me to answer it a certain way,” she admonished him. “That was too funny in the way you worded that.”
Here as elsewhere, Haley emphasized where she came from: “In South Carolina, I was the first minority governor and — a real shock to the state — the first girl governor as well.” As discordant as this blushing Southern girlishness was from a senior administration official, it fit in with Haley’s “You go, girl!” notion of female empowerment. Haley may be the last American woman to champion “leaning in” à la Sheryl Sandberg — and on Sean Hannity’s TV show, of all places — without even a smidge of irony.
In a similar vein, the kicker to her campaign announcement speech was not only stunningly literal — “And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels” — it also came from the regressive stilettoed playbook of Melania-Ivanka-Kellyanne. As Haley declared in her 2022 book, “If You Want Something Done: Leadership Lessons From Bold Women,” when people try to tell her what she can and can’t do, her strategy is to push back harder: “Your life — the life you want — is worth fighting for.”
Throughout her career, Haley has enjoyed the image of herself as an underdog and outsider willing to stand up to her party. But exposing and exploiting racism in the Republican Party isn’t the same as confronting it head on. Nor has she risked doing so except in rare moments. While governor of South Carolina in 2015, Haley called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the state capitol — but only after the murderous rampage of an avowed white nationalist. A 2010 video recently shown by CNN reveals this less as a moment of principled bravery than of political expediency. In that video, she defended the display of the Confederate flag and the observance of Confederate History Month. Asked how she would respond to those who objected, she replied, “I will work to talk to them about the heritage and how this is not something that’s racist.” She repeated this defense again in 2019 in an interview with Glenn Beck in which she described the flag as a symbol of “service, sacrifice and heritage.”
With equal dexterous flair, Haley emphasizes her relative youth at 51 (“a new generation of leadership”), her identity as a woman and her Indian heritage as the child of immigrants while repeatedly condemning identity politics. “I don’t believe in that,” she said while campaigning recently in South Carolina, before neatly wrapping up with “As I set out on this new journey, I will simply say this — may the best woman win.”
According to a recent poll, Haley is one point ahead of Pence, currently exciting about 5 percent of Republican voters. In all likelihood, she will wind up Sarah Palined into the vice-presidential candidate pool. But with her long-shot win of the South Carolina governorship, Haley has previously proved the unbelievers wrong. She may be hoping that a record of equivocation will be perceived as one of mediation, and her brand of hypocrisy mistaken for one of moderation. It’s on voters to decide, when choosing between her and those Republican candidates who are ideological to their core, whether they prefer a candidate with no core at all.
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