Nikki Haley's word salad extremism
She's trying to dupe people and mostly failing.
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Even with Ron DeSantis out of the race, Nikki Haley will not be the Republican Party’s nominee for president. But she will go down in history as one of the nation’s most prolific purveyors of word salad.
Haley’s torturously garbled statements are not, however, meaningless. They amount to calculated efforts to appease the right-wing extremism that now permeates the base of the GOP, while burying it under dollops of platitudes and happy talk that allows her to masquerade as a relative “moderate.”
But while Haley’s studied incoherence was initially hailed by some pundits as savvy messaging, it’s become clear over the past several weeks that bothsidesing whether the Civil War was about slavery or whether women should have control over their reproductive systems may not be a viable strategy for winning the GOP presidential nomination — let alone wining a general election.
Haley supports abortion bans but is loath to say so
Haley built a political career on endorsing deeply intolerant policies favored by the GOP’s increasingly radical base, while offering empty rhetoric falsely signaling to voters repulsed by such extremism that she’s one of them.
This strategy of rhetorical diversion came to the fore nationally on the issue of abortion. During a November 8 debate, Haley won plaudits for a deliberately muddled account of her position on reproductive rights.
On one hand, Haley stated that the issue of abortion is “incredibly personal to every woman and every man” and offered comforting assurances that she did not want to “caus[e] division and demonizing” on the issue by attacking women who want to preserve their right to choose, whom she claimed to respect, and with whom she claimed to seek “consensus.” (The video below is timestamped to Haley’s remarks.)
But Haley also touted her record as a committed opponent of reproductive rights, both as a governor and as a UN ambassador, and reiterated that she would sign any and all bills restricting or nullifying reproductive rights that might cross her desk as president.
Critics rightly observed that Haley’s “position” was entirely contradictory; but, as some pundits argued, it also initially seemed to be savvy. She managed to convince many pro-choice GOP voters that she was on their side, even as her actual position remained as stridently opposed to abortion rights as that of nearly everyone else in the GOP presidential race.
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Haley has similarly adopted the most radical of right-wing culture war positions by nesting her extremism in layers of linguistic croutons about being a caring mom who just wants the best for kids.
In pandering to GOP culture warriors, Haley actually accused DeSantis of being too soft on LGBTQ persons, asserting during a speech last year that Florida’s notorious “Don’t Say Gay Law” did not “go far enough” because it allegedly allowed teachers to “talk about gender” to students after they complete third grade.
“I think Ron’s been a good governor,” she said. “I just think that third grade’s too young. We should not be talking to kids in elementary school about gender, period.”
Haley’s tone may have appealed to some voters looking for a “moderate” alternative. But it only faintly obscured the fact she was also courting the most bigoted and intolerant factions of the Republican Party as avidly as DeSantis.
“What caused the Civil War?” shouldn’t be a gotcha
This strategy of political incoherence may have reached its limit recently when Haley tried to appease the GOP’s growing neo-Confederate wing, without overtly appealing to racism, by giving a series of ever more confusing accounts of the nation’s racist past and present.
During a December 27 town hall in New Hampshire, an audience member asked Haley what caused the Civil War. She responded by stating that the war was a dispute arising from “government” attempting to determine the "freedoms of what people could and couldn’t do.” She pointedly failed to mention that the primary “freedom” at issue was white Confederates’ claimed “right” to own other human beings.
It was a bizarrely anodyne account of the Confederacy, deliberately obscuring the central role that slavery played in the Civil War. But it was also an account that Haley had likely heard many times in the private school she attended in South Carolina, which was founded by segregationists who wanted to avoid sending their children to school with Black kids in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Haley, a child of South Asian immigrants, has recounted that both she and her parents had searing experiences with bigotry during the years in which she grew up in a small South Carolina town. Nonetheless, as Haley climbed the political ladder, she adopted the neo-Confederate account of South Carolina’s history as her own, exemplifying what would prove to be her one consistent approach to politics: expedience first, principle last.
Another note from Aaron: As you’ve probably heard by now, DeSantis is out of the presidential race. We saw it coming — back in April we ran a premortem on his failed presidential campaign that holds up well. Check it out if you haven’t read it.
As Haley recounted in a memoir, she was mindful from the outset of her career of the political price that an earlier Republican governor of South Carolina, David Beasley, paid in 1996 for calling for the removal of the Confederate Battle Flag from the statehouse dome, to which it had been raised as a statement in defiance of desegregation and civil rights.
In response to his modest stance against South Carolina’s history of open and notorious bigotry, Beasley faced a revolt from many in the state legislature. As Haley recounted in her memoir, that was “career ending.” Beasley lost his race for reelection.
Haley drew a lesson from Beasley’s admirable act of political courage: Always take the path of least resistance. During the first years of her tenure as governor, Haley rejected calls from the state’s Black citizens to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from the Capitol entirely. When asked to explain her position, Haley, characteristically, resorted to studied contradiction and transparent mendacity, acknowledging that the flag of the Confederate army was a symbol of racism to some, but asserting that it was also a symbol of “heritage and ancestry” to others, whom she called “good intentioned.”
It was only after neo-Nazi Dylann Roof murdered nine Black worshippers in a Charleston church in June 2015 that Haley reversed course and joined a supermajority of the state’s legislature in, finally, calling for removal of the notorious symbol of racist defiance from the statehouse grounds.
But Haley hardly acted out of conviction, like her predecessor Beasley. Indeed, in her 2019 memoir, Haley recounted the decision to banish the Battle Flag with more regret than pride, explaining that she was unhappy that Roof’s murder spree had rendered it impossible for her to continue comfortably bothsidesing the Confederate symbol: “The evil act he had committed had robbed the good-intentioned South Carolinians who supported the flag of this symbol of heritage and service.” In other words, it was unfortunate that Haley could no longer continue appeasing the neo-Confederates among her State’s white voters, and was actually forced to take a clear stand (however, temporarily) against bigotry.
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On that background, it is unsurprising that, during last month’s New Hampshire town hall, Haley initially, and intuitively, mouthed neo-Confederate-infused nonsense when asked about the causes of the Civil War, apparently expecting that her deliberately confusing response would get her off the hook. But, as has since become notorious, Haley’s anonymous questioner was unwilling to let the disingenuous answer Haley offered stand, and stated he was surprised Haley had not even mentioned slavery in her capsule history.
An obviously flustered Haley responded by asking the questioner, “What do you want me to say about slavery?” — apparently recognizing that her familiar strategy of obfuscation was, unexpectedly, not going to work this time.
What followed was weeks of effort by Haley to “fix” her gaffe. Initially, she claimed, absurdly, that the topic of slavery slipped her mind when she was asked about a war that was declared by enslavers to preserve and expand it. But that was only the first of a series of increasingly incoherent Haley “corrections.”
In an echo of her response to the flag controversy that beset her time as governor, it soon became clear that Haley continues to have a very hard time being clear about the nation’s past and present racism, and desperately clings to obfuscation when the topic comes up. The reason for this is clear: She recognizes, intuitively (and accurately) that admitting the undeniable fact that racism is a stain on the nation will offend many of the voters she wants to attract.
On January 16, Haley appeared on Fox News to declare to Brian Kilmeade: "[W]e’re not a racist country. Brian. We've never been a racist country. Our goal is to make sure that today is better than yesterday. Are we perfect? No, but our goal is to always make sure we try and be more perfect … every day that we can."
This was, perhaps, Haley’s clearest statement about the national “conversation” regarding the Civil War and its legacy that she had bumbled into starting weeks earlier. Its transparent mendacity was particularly revealing.
As in the cases of women’s reproductive rights and culture “warring” against LGBTQ Americans, Haley remains characteristically unwilling to challenge the most bigoted and intolerant of views, wary that doing so might turn off some members of the GOP base she’s intent on appeasing. Given her commitment to appealing to extremists, she can only hope to woo moderate voters by confusing and duping them into thinking she’s less of a right-wing extremist than Trump.
Saying the quiet part into a hot mic
The inevitable result of Haley’s habitual bothsidesin and of her political and moral cowardice is that she’s left without any constituency to whom she can actually appeal. Chris Christie understands this. As he exited the GOP primary race on January 10, Christie was overheard saying into a hot mic that Haley’s exit would soon follow, after she inevitably gets “smoked” by Trump.
Predictably, in recent days, Trump has begun to pummel Haley with overtly racist, misogynist, and xenophobic attacks, including by recycling the “birther” smears he used against Barack Obama and using a “nickname” based on a deliberately garbled version of Haley’s Punjabi first name.
Haley, who previously hesitated to criticize Trump at all, responded with her own cutting insults, describing Trump as an old “fella” and questioning his mental fitness. But, true to form, Haley continues to refuse to squarely call out Trump for his racism and bigotry. The clear implication is that Haley is not as worried about taking on Trump as she is wary — and she has been for years— of confronting the bigotry and intolerance that permeates much of the base of the Republican Party.
As Christie implied, it’s a sorry fact about the current state of the GOP that the only primary candidate standing as a purported alternative to the extremism of Donald Trump is, herself, unwilling to challenge the extremism Donald Trump exemplifies, and instead employs a salad bar selection of incoherent statements as a means of feigning “moderation.” Haley is not only about to lose ignominiously; she very much deserves to do so.
That’s it for today
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