By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
Two weeks ago, on Feb.14, Nikki Haley—former South Carolina Republican governor and United Nations ambassador under President Trump—announced her own 2024 run for president on Twitter. The next day, at her campaign launch event in Charleston, S.C., she called for mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old. This was clearly a swipe at the 76-year-old Trump, who has declared his own 2024 candidacy and, of course, 80-year-old President Biden. She taunted, “America is not past our prime. It’s just that our politicians are past theirs."
CNN host Don Lemon reacted to her statement, saying: “Nikki Haley isn’t in her prime, sorry. A woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s, and maybe 40s.” (Haley is 51.)
Haley responded on Twitter: "To be clear, I am NOT calling for competency tests for Sexist middle-aged CNN anchors."
Lemon apologized under pressure almost a week later, calling his statement “inartful and irrelevant.”
I agree that Lemon’s statement was inartfully expressed. What he should have said is “Who are you, Nikki Haley, to decide who is past their prime? There are some who would say that you are past your prime.” And he should have added that her call for a mandatory test is the height of ageism.
The ageist Nikki Haley calling Lemon out for being sexist amounts to the pot calling the kettle metal.
Problematic politicians come in all ages. Marjorie Taylor Greene, for example, is only 48 years old; Lauren Boebert is 36. What is important in choosing a leader is not age, gender, race or ethnicity, but what the candidate stands for. And though Nikki Haley presents like a moderate, likeable, suburban-mom type, that persona is a mask, hiding the fact she is an opportunist who has, on policy, largely cast her lot with extremists—when she’s not changing her stated positions to fit momentary shifts of political winds.
Nikki Haley’s True Colors
At her first South Carolina campaign event on Feb. 15, Haley invited the infamous right-wing evangelical pastor John Hagee—he of the anti-Semitic and homophobic statements—to give the invocation. According to The New Yorker, Haley declared, when she came to the podium: “To Pastor Hagee, I still say I want to be you when I grow up.”
At the same event, she also told South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman, who wanted Trump to declare martial law to stay in power and who voted against certifying the election: “You know I would have been right there with you in Congress, holding them accountable.”
The next day, at her first primary campaign stop at an Exeter, New Hampshire town hall on Feb. 16, Haley chose to be introduced by election denier Don Bolduc, a retired general.
None of this should be surprising. As far back as 2011, Haley became governor of South Carolina by running as a Tea Party candidate. Despite her sensible suburban-mom demeanor, she continues to promote policies in line with Trumpian MAGA extremism.
According to The New Yorker, Nikki Haley has said that if she becomes president, “voter ID will be the law of the land.” Her support for strict ID laws goes as far back as her time as governor, during which she also opposed refugee resettlement, and signed a law banning abortions after 20 weeks with no exceptions for rape or incest.
And last November, while campaigning for Herschel Walker in Georgia, she called for the deportation of his opponent, Senator Raphael Warnock, a Black citizen born in the United States.
The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg recently opined concerning Haley: “She’s such a hollow figure that it’s impossible to say what her vision is.” In a 2021 POLITICO article, Tim Alberta pegged Haley as having “an absence of core beliefs.”
These descriptions are apt. Haley changes her stated views according to what appears politically expedient for her in the moment.
Six days after the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol, in an interview conducted by POLITICO (but not published until Feb. 12), Haley said, “We need to acknowledge [Trump] let us down. He went down a path he shouldn't have, and we shouldn't have followed him, and we shouldn't have listened to him. And we can't let that ever happen again."
But less than two weeks later, in a Jan. 25, 2021 interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, Haley said she would vote against Trump’s impeachment, declaring: “They beat him up before he got into office. They are beating him up after he leaves office. At some point, give the man a break and move on.”
Likewise, Haley denounced Trump’s Muslim ban when he proposed it as a candidate in 2015. But when, as president, Trump issued an executive order prohibiting entry into the U.S. to people from a number of Muslim countries, Haley had no qualms about defending his order. She simply employed some sophistry, claiming that the ban was not a Muslim ban.
Some may be tempted to give Haley credit for removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House after white supremacist Dylan Roof murdered nine Black people at Bible study in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015. But before the murders, Haley adamantly supported flying the Confederate flag on statehouse grounds. And in the years afterwards, she promoted the claim that the Confederate flag represented to some “service and sacrifice and heritage.” She maintained that Dylan Roof had hijacked the flag’s meaning.
This is, of course, baloney, and Haley has to know that. For if the Confederate flag represents service, sacrifice and heritage, it is service to the so-called twisted ideal of a slave society, the sacrifice of supporting secession from the United States, and a monstrous heritage in which white people enslaved and owned other human beings. If that is not a definition of white supremacy, I don’t know what is.
Furthermore, as Daily Beast contributor Wajahat Ali told MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan on Jan. 20, Haley “uses her Brown skin to launder white supremacist talking points.” This appears to be accurate, if blunt. Haley is simultaneously courting white supremacist agendas and attempting to capitalize on being the daughter of Indian immigrants.
In her video campaign announcement, Haley referenced how she felt “different” growing up in Bamberg, South Carolina. She spoke of the difficulty of being considered neither white nor black in a town divided by race—but also being reminded by her parents “how blessed we were to live in America.”
However, Haley’s parents came to the U.S. with advantages other immigrants often don’t have upon arrival. Her father already had a master’s degree in biology and became a teacher at Voorhees College in South Carolina. Her mother who came from a wealthy Indian family and had a law degree, was able to begin in South Carolina teaching sixth grade social studies, and later opened a gift shop which became a million-dollar fashion boutique.
Perhaps, being “neither white nor black” gave Haley’s family room to maneuver without being segregated in the same way as others were. In any event, whatever discrimination she experienced should have given her some empathy for the obstacles Black people face.
Instead, Haley has used her own good fortune to deny that racism exists. She has audaciously claimed: "Take it from me, the first minority female governor in history, America is not a racist country.”
Haley has deviated from one MAGA position. Possibly because of her experience as a U.N. ambassador, Haley appears to recognize that the Ukraine-Russia conflict is not simply about Ukraine but is a war on the freedom of all nations. She has declared, “If [Russia loses], it tells every dictator and enemy of the West, ‘Don’t mess with us.’”
Will the Public See Through Nikki Haley?
The New York Times recently published an article in which its columnists weighed in on Nikki Haley’s chances of winning the Republican presidential candidacy. The common wisdom expressed by most of those Times journalists seemed to be that her candidacy cannot be “taken seriously.”
Some argued that Haley is not sufficiently virulent to attract the raging Trump contingent she would need to support her. Probably based on her style, they categorized her as a moderate and claimed that, in the current political atmosphere, her moderation will prevent her from getting the presidential nomination. Because they didn’t consider her a serious contender, they spent their print on handicapping the political horserace rather than throwing light on Haley’s views and agendas—which are not moderate.
However, a few of the Times journalists saw through her persona, recognizing that Haley may be a force to be reckoned with. Bret Stephens wrote: “It’s said of Ron DeSantis that the closer you get to him, the less you like him. Haley is the opposite. Nobody should underestimate her appeal.”
In addition, Aaron Blake recently wrote in the Washington Post: “Haley’s gift is to come across as a moderate while espousing immoderate views and surrounding herself with extremists.”
The majority of the media would do better to stop reducing their coverage of Haley’s candidacy to the horse race. Because if the extremist agenda hidden beneath Haley’s butter-wouldn’t-melt-her mouth facade is not exposed, she may be able to fool moderate Republicans and independents who are sick of Trumpism into voting for her. That is the danger of Nikki Haley.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.