In 2015, according to the talking points being floated by former South Carolina governor and candidate for the Republican presidential nomination Nikki Haley and her team, she alone heroically removed the Confederate flag that flew on the grounds of the state capitol and so healed racial wounds. She implied as much right after it happened, again at the 2020 Republican National Convention, and in subsequent interviews. This “achievement” remains a critical part of her story about why she aspires to be president. Given the weakness of the South Carolina governorship, Haley doesn’t have a lot to show for her time in office or, for that matter, defending President Donald Trump as his ambassador at the United Nations.
Still, even her claim to that is problematic on multiple levels. First, she and other state Republicans like Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott had ignored decades of resistance to that flag by African Americans and their local allies. And unlike Haley and crew, those protesters, of course, never bought into the “Lost Cause” rhetoric of the Confederacy, the historical revisionism filled with intentional mythology that has long suggested that the Stars and Bars is nothing but a benign neutral symbol of “our” past.
Haley bought into that very tale when she claimed that the flag symbolized “service, sacrifice, and heritage” and was essentially devoid of harmful racist significance until “hijacked” by white supremacist murderer Dylann Roof in his mass shooting at a church in Charleston in 2015. In fact, scholars Spencer Piston and Logan Strother found that white Southern support for the Confederate flag had long been associated with racist intolerance.
For African Americans and racial-justice advocates, it’s always been painfully clear that the Confederate flag remained a white supremacist message the state’s racial hierarchy sought to defend at all costs. That flag at the state capitol was installed in 1961, exactly 100 years after the start of the Civil War, as Freedom Riders, sit-ins, and civil rights rallies were steamrolling the white racial hegemony of Southern life. It would enjoy a privileged position first atop the capitol itself and then on a flagpole adjacent to it for decades.
The horrific 2015 massacre of eight black worshipers and their parson at the legendary “Mother” Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston by the Confederate flag–loving Roof, and the fearless action 10 days later by Bree Newsome, who climbed that flagpole and physically took down the Stars and Bars—only to be arrested and see it raised again—finally spurred Governor Haley and state officials to remove it. Deflecting blame for the racist symbolism of the flag onto Roof was a way of defending generations of white nationalist support for it, allowing Haley to claim hero status for its removal. Still, in 2023, it remains beyond disingenuous for her to eternally praise herself because “we” got rid of that flag.
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An Ever More Extreme Republican Party
No less dishonest has been Haley’s reshaping of her own record on the issue. As the PBS Newshour noted, “For years, Haley had resisted calls to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds, even casting a rival’s push for its removal as a desperate stunt.” Embarrassingly, CNN uncovered a 2010 interview in which she defended not just the flag but also Confederate History Month and the Lost Cause ideology that went with it.
When asked about the controversy surrounding that flag in a recently surfaced interview with the Palmetto Patriots (a far-right group with links to brazen white nationalists), she responded, “I will work and talk to them about the heritage and how this is not something that is racist.” She also supported “Confederate History Month,” adding, outrageously enough, “Yes, it’s part of a traditional—you know, it’s part of tradition. And so, when you look at that, if you have the same as you have Black History Month and you have Confederate History Month and all of those.” Equating Black History Month with Confederate History Month is not only contemptuous but also previews the kind of pandering, lowest-common-denominator politics a future Haley administration in Washington would undoubtedly embody.
No less problematic, one of those Palmetto Patriots interviewers she so happily chatted with was a virulent racist, Robert Slimp. He also had been a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the white nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), the latter one of the groups that Roof claimed had inspired him through videos on its website of “black-on-white” crime. There is no record of Haley’s denouncing Slimp, though there is a record of her being forced to purge a member of her 2013 reelection steering committee who had ties to CCC.
Worse yet, Haley seems to believe that she can succeed in a run for the presidency because she—and only she—can navigate the turbulent waters of the MAGAfication that’s seized the Republican Party by the throat. She clearly thinks that her candidacy could appeal to both the far-right white nationalist wing of the Republican Party and the we-don’t-want-too-much-overt-racism “moderates” among Republican and independent voters. The battle inside the GOP, to the degree that it exists in 2023, is no longer between Trump supporters and anti-Trump forces. That fight ended long ago with a clear loser, the almost nonexistent anti-Trump crew (as opposed to the candidates who want to out-Trump the former president).
No, the war in 2023 is between what might be thought of as ultra-MAGA and diet-MAGA Republicans. Ultra-MAGAism has not only pollinated much of the party but is rapidly moving past Trump himself. The tenets of MAGAism—voter suppression, election denialism, Great Replacement paranoia, white victimization, undemocratic governance, full-spectrum bigotry, the threat (and reality) of political violence, and Christian nationalism—have been embraced, enhanced, and enlarged across the nation and, indeed, other parts of the globe.
Trumpism, led by Trump himself, has effectively mobilized white Christian nationalist forces, uniting the right and reconfiguring, not to say redefining, what constitutes acceptable political behavior in America. In fact, his corruption, blatant abuse of power, obstruction of justice, naked nepotism, malignant narcissism, and ultimate untrustworthiness make him an increasing liability to the very authoritarian project he put at the center of contemporary Republican politics.
Although diet-MAGA has the same objectives and vantage point, it differs in its strategy for achieving those goals. Its proponents correctly recognize that the majority of American voters increasingly abhor Trumpism, as every national election and many state elections has shown since he first won in 2016.
In the past dozen years, victories by Democrats have ushered in a sea change in political governance at the state level. In 2023, the 17 states where Democrats control both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s seat have more than 140 million Americans (42 percent of the country’s population), while there are about 131 million in the 22 states fully under Republican control. This represents a giant leap from 2018, in the middle of the Trump administration, when Democrats had full control over just seven states with a population of only about 64 million and there were 155 million people in GOP states.
The most clear-eyed, though cowardly, Republican leaders understand these dynamics. But diet-MAGA itself continues to lose ground. Some of Trump’s biggest failures, like Herschel Walker and Mehmet Oz, have indeed vanished into the political holes from which they emerged. However, others remain MAGA warriors and, in some instances, are being rewarded despite historic defeats and even rejection by Trump himself.
For example, in Michigan on February 18, the state Republican Party selected MAGA fanatic and election denier Kristina Karamo as its new chair. From denying she lost her own election as Michigan’s secretary of state (by a whopping 14 points) to blaming antifa for the January 6 uprising, she checks all the boxes for MAGA fever. Notably, however, she also defeated the candidate Trump himself endorsed, Mathew DePerno, another denier, but apparently not quite strident enough for the Michigan party. The GOP, in other words, is not becoming less extremist as it heads toward the cliff. It’s pressing its foot on the gas pedal as hard as it can.
“I Don’t Want to Go Back to the Days Before Trump”
Into this fray comes Haley who—it’s already clear—can’t find the right rhetoric or spin to convince current GOP voters that she’s the elixir needed to heal the party’s electoral wounds. She’s already attacked the elders of the party although there’s no indication that will win her any support from its “youth” wing. She’s zigged and zagged when it comes to her view of Donald Trump, knowing that it’s as hard to win without his support as it is with it. She denounced Trump—lightly—immediately after the January 6 insurrection and months later went all Kevin-McCarthyite, as she pledged fealty to the former president, stating, “We need him in the Republican Party. I don’t want us to go back to the days before Trump.”
Tactically, Haley skipped any mention of the removal of the Confederate flag in her campaign announcement, for an obvious reason: It’s viewed as a negative move by a significant sector of the MAGA base, especially in her home state. She has little hope of winning South Carolina’s Republican voters without leaning into the states’ rights and “perseverance of Southern heritage” gospel that tolerates no “wokeness” when it comes to Confederate flags.
She took a big step toward bulking up her far-right credibility by having controversial conspiracist pastor John Hagee provide the opening prayer at her campaign launch. Hagee is a notorious repeat offender when it comes to anti-Semitism, homophobia, and all-around bigotry. Haley made it clear that he was not there by accident when she offered this comment: “To Pastor Hagee, I still say I want to be you when I grow up.” It will be difficult to make a case for her not being so out there when she found one of this country’s most notorious out-there ministers to be at her side.
On the other hand, with little to sell and desperate to convince the nation that the Republican Party is about more than divisiveness, she wants to hold that lowered flag in her quiver, too, so that, after winning the nomination, she can pivot ever so slightly toward a vanishing middle. While this will win her few if any black votes, she understands the necessity of playing a game of anti-racist posturing to reach anxious white GOP and swing voters uncomfortable with the party’s overt intolerance.
Spoiler alert. Haley’s Machiavellian maneuvering notwithstanding, count on one thing: She won’t be able to beat either Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis, even in South Carolina. Admittedly, it’s still a year before any primary voting begins, but she has yet to make her way out of polling’s low single digits. In a recent Morning Consult poll, for instance, she was at 6 percent, which, on the bright side, was six times higher than an Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll that had her languishing at 1 percent.
The Haley campaign (and some journalists) believe that, at a time of war in Europe and Chinese spy balloons, her foreign policy experience as a former UN ambassador will work to her benefit. In fact, this is unlikely to help her any more than it will another potential 2024 candidate, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo. Being on the Trump foreign-policy team and so linked to his disastrous international profile should be the first item scrubbed from both their résumés. In addition, the American public rarely votes on foreign-policy concerns. While some GOP voters prioritize China or international terrorism as their top issues, the rest of the country does not.
Even if Trump’s own candidacy were to collapse due to indictments, fear of a humiliating loss, or physical or mental health issues, Haley is unlikely to survive a slew of Republican primaries where she’ll be vying for the same voters with former vice president Mike Pence, Ron DeSantis, Pompeo, and perhaps even South Carolina Senator Tim Scott.
The race politics of the GOP have only become rawer and more aggressive with each election. Trump is increasingly hysterical about projecting himself as a victim of anti-white bias, while calling out “radical, vicious, racist prosecutors.” He’s taken particular aim at black elected officials investigating multiple allegations about him, including New York Attorney General Letitia James, former chair of the House January 6 committee Representative Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), and Atlanta-based District Attorney Fani Willis. At the January 2022 rally in Texas where he made that charge, he also dog-whistled that a goal of his in 2024 would be to “take back that beautiful, beautiful house that happens to be white.”
Other denizens of Trumpworld are also playing the anti-white card. His former speechwriter Stephen Miller, who launched an “alternative” to the ACLU called America First Legal, ran ads in last year’s election season that opened with asking, “When did racism against white people become OK?”
Haley, who is a woman of color, has tolerated such racist forays and so much more. She never condemned Trump or offered an apology for his vile statements including, while she was UN ambassador, his reference to nations in Africa and Latin America as “shithole” countries.
When Trump’s immigration policy harked back to the overt racism of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act by calling for a total ban on Muslims’ entering the United States and he tried to implement that once in office, where was global expert Haley? Where was she when Trump was launching racist and misogynist attacks on women of color, whether elected officials or journalists? Again and again, she absolved Trump of any responsibility for the toxic racist and political environment that defined his presidency.
And in those years, she was exactly where she undoubtedly will be when the dust settles on the 2024 race—nowhere to be seen.