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The Myth of Nikki Haley Takes Another Hit

Photo: Greg Hauenstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Nikki Haley presidential campaign would like us to think of the former South Carolina governor as part of a “new generation of leaders” who brought her state fully into a post-racist, 21st-century political era. Her governorship was supposedly a showcase for this exciting departure; its signature moment was her decision to remove a Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds in 2015 after a white supremacist massacred Black worshipers at a Charleston church.

In her 2024 campaign, Haley has highlighted her identity as “the first minority female governor in history” (a distinction she actually shares) to underscore the idea that she embodies a new direction for the Republican Party. She began her presidential-announcement video by explaining that she grew up in a racially divided South Carolina town as the daughter of Indian immigrants, “neither Black nor white,” suggesting that she was uniquely positioned to help her state move past its racist Confederate legacy. According to Haley’s fans, she began to change everything with her 2010 gubernatorial campaign; she overcame sexist and racist slurs (which is true) to beat “the good old boys” of the Palmetto State GOP.

The facts don’t entirely support the myth of “New South” Nikki. Her big Confederate flag moment was a gesture that stopped being brave or even all that controversial in the South well before 2015; her Republican predecessor, David Beasley, took a lot of heat for taking same position on the battle flag 20 years earlier, as did Georgia’s Zell Miller 23 years earlier. Years after basking in national plaudits for her action on the the flag, Haley backtracked while serving in the Trump administration, saying the Confederate flag was seen as an emblem of “service, and sacrifice, and heritage” before it was “hijacked” by the Charleston murderer Dylann Roof.

Now there’s more evidence that calls the narrative about Haley’s brave defiance of racist good old boys into question. CNN has unearthed an interview Haley granted a neo-Confederate activist group during her 2010 campaign, in which she said the Confederate flag isn’t “racist,” but part of South Carolina heritage.

“You know, for those groups that come in and say they have issues with the Confederate flag, I will work to talk to them about it,” Haley said in 2010. “I will work and talk to them about the heritage and how this is not something that is racist. This is something that is a tradition that people feel proud of and let them know that we want their business in this state. And that the flag where it is, was a compromise of all people that everybody should accept as part of South Carolina.”

Haley went on to reveal that she believes secession is still an option for states. Per CNN:

When asked about secession, Haley said that while she believed under the Constitution that states have the right to secede from the rest of the country. When asked if she would support the secession of South Carolina, which was the first state to secede during the Civil War, she said she did not think “it’s gonna get to that point.”

Well, that’s reassuring. But there’s more:

Haley also said she supported South Carolina’s “Confederate History Month” during the interview, comparing it to Black History Month.

“Yes, it’s part of a traditional — you know, it’s part of tradition,” she said. “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.”

This bizarre false-equivalence argument was compounded by Haley’s interpretation of the core differences between the pro-slavery Confederates and those who fought them to save the Union and end slavery: “I think you have one side of the Civil War that was fighting for tradition, and I think you have another side of the Civil War that was fighting for change.”

Whatever Haley actually thought about racists during her first gubernatorial campaign, she wasn’t calling them out. While she did represent a more modern southern conservatism, by 2010 most Republicans had learned to obscure if not abandon their bigotry. Haley was not some moderate Republican who made overtures to swing voters (as her fans often assert). Her politics fit right in with the hard-core, pre-Trump conservatism of Mark Sanford and Jim DeMint, who were zealous about laissez-faire economics, militant anti-communism, and above all resisting Big Government.

Haley is well positioned to campaign for president as someone who will bring back the kind of tea-party conservatism that terrified so many people until Donald Trump really freaked them out. But there’s nothing especially new or even vaguely moderate about the direction she offers Republicans or the South. Any arguments to the contrary should be regarded as mythmaking, unless Haley backs them up with something genuinely groundbreaking.

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The Myth of Nikki Haley Takes Another Hit