Although the US Republican national convention is still 17 months away, the GOP presidential candidate pool has now widened to two candidates. This week Nikki Haley the former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador, announced that she’s taking on Donald Trump for the 2024 presidential nomination.
Haley made her announcement in a video filmed on the old railroad tracks of what one presumes is her hometown of Bamberg, South Carolina. The announcement contained all the normal tropes of a political campaign advertisement: Haley shakes hands with police officers, smiles at schoolchildren, warns of the “socialist left”. An enormous American flag flutters in the wind.
As far as political theatre goes the campaign video does a good job of making Nikki Haley sound like the most moderate person to ever run for president. Given the competition within her party, this is a low bar. But the former governor is a right-wing extremist dressed up in moderate clothing.
One of Haley’s firmest convictions is that America is not a racist country. She is, after all, the child of Indian immigrants, and is so keen to prove how not racist America is that in 2021 she called for all governors to ban critical race theory from schools. When a white supremacist murdered nine people in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, she scolded the “national media” in a subsequent interview for trying to say the shooting had anything to do with racism or gun control. She then added that the Confederate flag stood for “service, sacrifice and heritage”. The fact that the service, sacrifice and heritage it stood for was all in the name of fighting to keep slavery didn’t seem to bother her.
Haley’s record extends beyond reinterpreting American history. Ahead of the 2022 midterms, she campaigned in Georgia for the far-right Senate candidate, Herschel Walker, who believes that abortion should be illegal even when the mother’s life is in danger. As governor of South Carolina she signed a law that created a special team of police officers that could stop and search anyone they suspect of being an undocumented immigrant. She supported her former boss during his term in the White House when he pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, and when he was impeached in 2019 for trying to bribe the Ukrainian president with military aid in exchange for dirt on Joe Biden. Although she originally spoke against Trump for inciting the riot on 6 January 2021, she later went on Fox News and lamented that America should “give the man a break”.
For the moment it doesn’t look like the former governor has much of a shot at winning the candidature. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released yesterday (14 February) of registered Republicans put Haley in fourth place with only 4 per cent of support behind Trump and the Florida governor Ron DeSantis (who hasn’t announced he is running). Trump feels so unthreatened by her candidacy that he hasn’t even bothered to come up with a malicious sounding nickname for her yet.
One of the reasons Haley’s candidacy isn’t taken very seriously among those in her own party is because she might be perceived as a better candidate for vice-president. Given that so many believe that either Trump or DeSantis are likely to lead the ticket, Haley’s more mild manner could win over independent voters who view her as a moderating force.
But moderation would mean campaigning on a platform of conservative issues like lowering taxes or refusing to condone the overturning of a democratic election. Instead, Haley has jumped on the anti-woke bandwagon and built her recent political career on fighting the culture wars. Although she never mentioned her former boss by name in the announcement video, she tried to distance herself from him by describing her candidacy as a call for a “new generation of leadership”. This is to imply that the only thing wrong with Trump is his age, and that at 51 she represents the rejuvenation of a quickly ageing party. It’s a sign of how far the GOP has moved to the right that moderate now means wrapping the former president’s talking points on social grievances into the polished presentation of a wholesome, suburban soccer mom.