A big part of the legend of Nikki Haley the Republican Redeemer — the young Indian-American pol who is often depicted as the symbol of some future post-Trump Republican Party — is derived from her high-profile decision in 2015 to remove a Confederate Battle Flag flying on South Carolina’s statehouse grounds in the wake of Dylann Roof’s racist slaughter of African-Americans in a historic Charleston church. Although there was very little political risk associated with this move (it was quickly approved by big majorities in the legislature), in contrast to the guts it took her Republican predecessor David Beasley to take this position in 1996, she got a lot of credit for being in the right place at the right time. And while never a Haley admirer, even I conceded it represented a turning point for Republicans in her state, though it was more complicated than it looked:
In South Carolina, it’s been easy for conservative politicians like Nikki Haley to pay lip service to the anti-centralist and illiberal tradition of the Confederacy, even though it has to feel alien to her own background and identity, since warmed-over Dixiecrats are natural allies in her obsessive efforts to make her state a union-free Eden for “job-creators.” But push comes to shove, her loyalty is to the same Golden Calf of unregulated capitalism worshiped by Scott Walker, not to the regional aristocracy of the Old South. And so when the Battle Flag becomes a source of acute embarrassment to the state and an obstacle to economic development, down it comes, without a lot of discussion. “We do not need to declare a winner and a loser here,” she said in announcing her new position.
But truly consigning the Battle Flag to the dustbin of history requires some recognition of why it was flying and what it signified. And like Donald Trump — to whom she often swears fealty despite her reputation for independence — Haley hasn’t necessarily passed that test. She raised eyebrows most recently in an interview with Glenn Beck in which he looks back at her decision to take down the flag, and explains (via Mediate) that the murderous racist Dylann Roof made it necessary:
“[H]ere is this guy that comes out with this manifesto, holding the Confederate flag, and had just hijacked everything that people thought of,” she proclaimed. “We don’t have hateful people in South Carolina. There’s always the small minority that’s always gonna be there, but, you know, people saw it as service, and sacrifice, and heritage, but once he did that there was no way to overcome it, and the national media came in in droves.”
“They wanted to define what happened. They wanted to make this about racism, they wanted to make it about gun control, they wanted to make it about death penalty, and I really pushed off the national media and said there will be a time and place where we talk about this, but it is not now …”
Now I understand there’s some ambiguity about what Haley is saying here: is she agreeing with the characterization of the Battle Flag as unobjectionable until Roof “hijacked” it, or simply defending those South Carolinians who felt that way? Either way, I would argue, it undercuts her image as a brave figure fighting the legacy of racism.
In her state and around the South, this flag was never just a nostalgic symbol of “service, sacrifice and heritage” — if it was it would have been consigned to museums and history books for good well over a century ago — but rather a living symbol of southern white resistance to African-American empowerment past, present and future. It wasn’t first flown at the South Carolina statehouse in the days following the Civil War, but in 1961, at the centennial of the state’s horrifying role in launching the Civil War, and at the height of southern resistance to desegregation and other forms of basic civil rights. It was and remains very much a symbol of Neoconfederacy — the enduring effort to reverse the racial justice achieved by the Civil War and sought unsuccessfully during Reconstruction. It was certainly never part of the “heritage” of South Carolina’s African-American population (which represented a majority of the state’s population for many years until grinding poverty and oppression drove many of them to migrate north). And The idea that the Battle Flag was perfectly fine until some murderous racist “hijacked” it in 2015 is infuriating: It was the favored banner of white terrorists during Reconstruction; of white supremacists throughout the Jim Crow era; and of those perpetually resisting racial justice even now.
In that last category you’d have to include Donald Trump, as I noted after he aligned himself with the Neoconfederacy in his famous expression of sympathy for racists in Charlottesville in 2017:
[U]ntil Donald Trump’s election, it seemed Neo-Confederacy had finally about run its course. The display of Confederate regalia on state flags, public buildings, and even football mascots gradually became distasteful, even to many conservative politicians …
Yes, even hard-core conservatives began to understand that Confederate insignia were not just parts of history that today’s Southerners should “cherish,” to use the president’s startling allusion to the Lee statue, but part of a retroactive effort to whitewash history in the pursuit of racist lies.
At that time I included Haley in the ranks of hard-core conservatives who finally “got it.” It’s possible I was premature.