Politics / January 23, 2024

Nikki Haley Missed Her Best Chance to Take on Trump

Haley had an opportunity to unite New Hampshire voters against Trump’s racism. Instead, she ducked.

John Nichols
Republican presidential hopeful and former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign event in Franklin, New Hampshire on January 22, 2024. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP)

Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign event in Franklin, N.H., on January 22, 2024.

(Joseph Prezioso / AFP via Getty Images)

There was an argument to be made for voting for Nikki Haley in today’s New Hampshire Republican presidential primary. Unfortunately, Haley refused to make it.

In fact, the former United Nations ambassador has actively undermined the best case she could make to the independent voters she desperately needs to choose Republican primary ballots and vote for her.

Here’s the argument: By closing his New Hampshire campaign with overtly racist and xenophobic jabs at Haley, Republican front-runner Donald Trump is, once again, making the Grand Old Party the prime vehicle for his crudely divisive approach to politics. Trump needs to be rebuked, not just by responsible conservatives within the party—whose number seems to get smaller by the day—but also by independents who frequently participate in Republican primaries and vote Republican in general elections. There’s never been a better time to call out Trump’s ongoing crusade to turn the GOP into a vile cult of personality that invariably defaults toward racism. And there’s no better place to do it than New Hampshire, a state where a large block of independents can—and often does—influence the results of Republican primaries.

John McCain, the master of New Hampshire primary campaigning, recognized the importance of appealing to independents who were ill at ease with the general direction of the Republican Party—and he exploited it.

Like Haley, McCain ran for the presidency as a traditional conservative against Republicans who were running further to the right, especially on social issues. Well aware that he wouldn’t win New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primaries by trying to outdo the extremists, McCain crafted appeals that were designed to get thoughtful independents to rally behind him.

McCain’s message to those independents—many of whom disagreed with parts of his platform—was that they could intervene in a fight for the soul of the Republican Party and turn things in a direction that might moderate not just the party’s internal discourse but also the broader national debate.

Haley could have done the same thing this year, especially in the closing stages of the campaign, as Trump veered toward increasingly offensive appeals in his scorched-earth effort to defeat his last serious rival for the nomination.

As the New Hampshire contest narrowed into a fight between the former president and his former United Nations ambassador, The New York Times reported:

Mr. Trump lobbed his latest racially charged attack at former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, the daughter of Indian immigrants and his closest competitor in the New Hampshire primary, by repeatedly flubbing her given name, Nimarata Nikki Randhawa. On Friday, Mr. Trump referred to Ms. Haley as “Nimbra” in a post on Truth Social, his social media platform, three days after facing criticism for dubbing her “Nimrada.” Ms. Haley has long gone by her middle name, Nikki.

Both are racist dog whistles, much like his continued focus on [former president Barack] Obama’s middle name, Hussein, and add to a long history of racially incendiary statements from the campaign trail.

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And Trump didn’t stop there. As Tuesday’s vote approached, he bragged about deliberately mangling Haley’s birth name as part of an effort to suggest there was something foreign about his last viable Republican opponent. Talking about Haley—who was born in South Carolina and has lived there her entire life—Trump actually speculated about “wherever she may come from.” Late last week, he even reposted a false charge that she was ineligible to serve as president because her parents were not US citizens at the time of her birth.

So what was Haley’s response to what is obviously a calculated strategy by Trump?

She described these crude attempts to portray her as some kind of foreigner as “temper tantrums,” said Trump was “insecure,” and concluded, “I don’t sit there and worry about whether it’s personal or what he means.”

“Whether it’s personal”? Of course, it’s personal. He’s literally mocking her name to undermine her politically.

“What he means”? He means to portray her as somehow insufficiently American to be the Republican nominee.

Worse yet, even as Haley acknowledged that, as a child in South Carolina, “I was teased every day for being brown,” and talked about “how hard it was to grow up in the deep South as a brown girl,” she kept trying to make a case that the United States “has never been a racist country.” And she recently got tripped up at a New Hampshire town hall meeting where she answered a question about the Civil War by saying “the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run—the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do.” Everyone, even Trump, noted that Haley omitted any reference to slavery—despite the fact that, as South Carolina’s governor, she had to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state Capitol in 2015, after the mass murder of Black parishioners at a historic Charleston church.

Trump’s racism created an opening for Haley to go after the former president for what the Times refers to as “his long history of racist attacks,” to ask voters—be they Republicans or independents—whether they really want one of the nation’s two major parties to be defined by a man who regularly seeks to exploit racist and xenophobic stereotypes as part of a political strategy.

Haley could have claimed the legacy of the Republican Party as “the party of Lincoln,” and used that claim to rally voters who might not always agree with her to join a Republican primary coalition that was determined to send a message—not just to Trump but to anyone using racist and xenophobic political appeals to divide Americans against one another.

Instead, she shied away from what could have been an inspired, and potentially effective, challenge to the party of Trump. In a campaign defined by its many missed opportunities, this was the most sad and frustrating of them all.

John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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