Nikki Haley’s Slavery Omission Typifies the GOP’s Tragic Pact with White Supremacy

GOP hopeful Nikki Haley in 2023. Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Nikki Haley’s headline-generating incident at a town hall in New Hampshire is the perfect metaphor for the current Republican Party and its continued slide into open authoritarianism and White supremacy. 

At a recent town hall in New Hampshire, the contender for the GOP’s presidential nomination was asked by an audience member what she believed to have been the cause for the Civil War.

In the video, a visibly shaken Haley paces around the stage, and eventually answers evasively. “Well, don’t come at me with an easy question,” she says, adding, “I mean, I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run, what you could and couldn’t do, the freedoms in what people could and couldn’t do.”

After an attempt to turn the question back to the audience member, to which he replies that he isn’t running for president and wants to hear what she thinks, Haley offers a word salad: 

I think it always comes down to the role of government and what the rights of the people are. And I will always stand by the fact that I think government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people. It was never meant to be all things to all people. Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life. They don’t need to tell you what you can and can’t do. They don’t need to be a part of your life. 

The questioner, unconvinced, remarks that he is astonished that she manages to answer the question “without mentioning the word ‘slavery’.” Haley asks “What do you want me to say about slavery?” to which the man (quite devastatingly) replies: “You’ve answered my question. Thank you.” With a strained smile, Haley swiftly turns her back and announces, “Next question.”

Haley has since both walked back her claims and re-affirmed them, in a stunning display of rhetorical gymnastics that has become an integral part of the Republican posture. The next day on a New Hampshire radio show, she said: “I mean, of course, the Civil War was about slavery,” before pivoting to defend her earlier remarks: 

We know that’s, that’s the easy part of it. What I was saying was, what does it mean to us today? What it means to us today is about freedom. That’s what that was all about. It was about individual freedom, it was about economic freedom, it was about individual rights.

This is, of course, the very “States’ Rights” rhetoric that sparked outrage in the first place. And the follow-up to every claim that the Civil War was about “individual rights” and “economic freedom” has to be followed up with the questions: “individual rights to what? economic freedom to do what exactly?” To which the answer, of course, is: To own people.

Haley has since tried to claim that the man who asked the question at the town hall was a “Democratic plant”—a secret operative working for the Biden team. She has cited no evidence for this. 

Haley’s comments at the NH town hall were widely reported to have been a “gaffe”—when they were anything but. Nikki Haley knows what the cause of the Civil War was. That question is not up for debate among historians—Mississippi, like other seceding states, openly stated their dedication to slavery in their articles of secession, namely

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.

But as the party realignment started to take place over the last century, as the national Democratic Party abandoned its segregationist stance in favor of support for the civil rights movement, Republicans saw an opening: to appeal to the racial resentment of voters, especially (though not only) in the South and Southwest, who felt abandoned by the Democrats, and to break up the “New Deal” coalition that had helped Democrats since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

This change didn’t happen overnight—it took years. Under Eisenhower, the GOP poured more resources into the South, establishing party structures in places of the country where there had never been a Republican on the ballot before. Goldwater was the first Republican presidential nominee who showed that the seemingly impossible could be done: that the “Old South” could be won by a Republican. Granted, his loss in the 1964 presidential election would go down in the history books as one of the most devastating defeats in U.S. history, but he did win five states in the Deep South—something no Republican had done before. 

When Nixon ran for the second time in 1968 (he had lost to JFK in 1960), he and his party had learned from Goldwater’s mistakes. While his open extremism was off-putting to a majority of voters anywhere except the heart of the old Confederacy, Nixon and his advisors devised a strategy to pander to Southern—and suburban—Whites in general, pairing old racism with dog whistles and the racialized language of “law and order.” 

He couldn’t win the “Old South,” because the arch-segregationist George Wallace running on the American Independent Party ticket would sweep those up, but he did narrowly win the general election—thanks to Strom Thurmond, the segregationist senator of South Carolina, a former Democrat who had become a Republican in 1964. Thurmond helped him win the Republican nomination and the presidency by vouching for the Nixon/Agnew ticket to other former Southern Democrats. It was Reagan, who later cemented the alliance between White Southerners and the GOP. 

This so-called “Southern Strategy” would not only remake the GOP but the entire political landscape of the U.S. And, as was emphasized in a recent town hall event, Thurmond’s efforts are echoed, albeit in a subtler way, in that of another prominent figure of South Carolina politics today—Nikki Haley. 

When Haley suggested that the Civil War was about “economic freedom”—using “States’ Rights” rhetoric—she was only the latest in a long line of Republican politicians, from Goldwater to Nixon to Ronald Reagan himself—to use pseudo-libertarian, ahistorical rhetoric to pander to voters animated by racial grievances. The Republican Party’s path is historian Heather Cox Richardson’s argument in How the South Won the Civil War, that while the South technically lost the Civil War they’ve actually long won the PR-war fought in the aftermath, in memory culture—from the prevalence of the “Lost Causemyth to the image of the cowboy holding a torch for rugged Western individualism and “States’ Rights” used by Goldwater and Reagan, to the image of the South as a peaceful society led by genteel patriarchs, romanticizing the brutality of slavery and plantation life.

From 2007-2011 Haley was the Governor for South Carolina, the first state to have seceded from the Union, so it’s not terribly surprising that she has a history of defending at least parts of the Confederacy. In 2010 she claimed that the state had a right to secede in a talk with a pro-Confederacy group. And while she’s credited with signing the bill that removed the Confederate Flag flying over South Carolina’s Capitol, she only did so in 2015, after the murder of nine Black people in one of the oldest Black churches in Charleston at the hands of a White supremacist.  

The move earned applause from national pundits who praised her leadership, though she was far from the first Republican in the South to have made that decision. Nearly 20 years earlier, in 1996, South Carolina governor David Beasley had enraged his fellow Republicans when he declared that he had prayed about the issue, changed his mind, and wanted the Confederate battle flag to be taken down. It cost him re-election—just like it did the then-Governor of Georgia, Roy Barnes, who had also decided to abandon the Confederate flag in 2001. Beasley was present when Haley signed the bill that ordered the flag to be taken down in 2015. 

Haley was hailed as one of a new Republican generation of leaders from the South—leaders who came without the racist baggage of the past. This wishful thinking would be short lived. Four years later, when she was serving as ambassador to the UN in the Trump administration, Haley reverted course once again on the Confederate flag, claiming in a CNN interview that its legacy was pristine before the murders in 2015: 

And here is this guy that comes out with this manifesto, holding the Confederate flag and had just hijacked everything that people thought of (about the flag). […] But you know people saw it as service, and sacrifice and heritage – but once he did that, there was no way to overcome it.

The myth of the “Lost Cause,” manufactured after the South’s loss to romanticize and heroize the Confederacy’s racist motivation for war as the mere defense for the “Southern way of life”—an ante-bellum fantasy of Southern Belles, chivalry and simple, agrarian life, negating that the foundation for the South’s society was the brutal enslavement of Black people—is an integral part of today’s Republican Party. This narrative was heavily and eventually successfully pushed by White women through groups like the “United Daughters of the Confederacy” and made its way into the textbooks and minds of those who wanted a tragic, heroic sheen to their racist history. 

Haley’s comments in New Hampshire weren’t a deviation from her previous utterances on this topic. In her years as a South Carolina politician, she has carefully crafted something that Sidney Blumenthal, writing in the Guardian, calls “Lost Cause lite”:

The Wall Street Journal editorially praised her in 2010 for an interview she gave to a neo-Confederate group, the Palmetto Patriots. “‘You had one side of the Civil War that was fighting for tradition, and I think you had another side of the Civil War that was fighting for change,’ she said. She did not use the word ‘slavery’ but hinted at it, saying that ‘everyone is supposed to be free.’” 

The Journal noted approvingly: “She pledged to retain a political compromise that gave the Confederate flag a place of prominence in front of the State House, a position that puts her within the mainstream among GOP leaders in the state.” Haley’s answer was an attempt to repeat her balancing act in the birthplace of secession, offering ‘lost cause lite’. Her rationale was a muffled echo of that of Confederate leaders justifying secession.

Of course South Carolina is a very different place than New Hampshire where, as Blumenthal points out, you won’t find any Confederate monuments. Maybe Haley forgot about that in the moment she was asked the question, which genuinely seemed to throw her off—but it’s also apparent that the falsification of history, which has served Republicans well at the ballot box in the party realignment decades, has become such an immovable part of the GOP’s modern core identity that it cannot be altered even a little bit—even if one is campaigning in a former Union stronghold. Blumenthal’s verdict is as devastating as it is accurate: 

Her recoil from the question about the Civil War was an ingrained instinct. She keeps trying to pass the southern test. […] If Haley appears unfamiliar with the history of New Hampshire’s contribution to the preservation of democracy and emancipation, she is certainly well acquainted with South Carolina’s attempt at its destruction, and the history that both preceded and followed it, which has been apparent in her efforts to soften and cover it up.

That the GOP, the former party of Lincoln, the man who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, has completed a 180 degree turn, is a bizarre thing to watch. While there were more progressive episodes, the party had quickly become the home of the economic elite after the Civil War, using the “States’ Rights” rhetoric to both attract Southern and suburban White voters and, according to Richardson, to justify its policies of economic deregulation: 

In the modern era the swing begun under Richard Nixon gained momentum with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Since then the party has focused on deregulation, tax cuts, privatization, and taking power away from the federal government and turning it back over to the states, while maintaining that market forces, rather than government policies, should drive society. But those ideas were not generally popular, so to win elections, the party welcomed white evangelical Christians into a coalition, promising them legislation that would restore traditional society, relegating women and people of color back to the subservience the law enforced before the 1950s. But it seems they never really intended for that party base to gain control.

The history of the modern Republican Party is one of a party establishment that makes a pact with radicals, thinking they can not only be used for political gain, but also be controlled. It was a gamble that turned out to be disastrous not only for American democracy, but also for the party itself. Haley’s comments about the Civil War are the perfect encapsulation of this (willfully brought on) tragedy, writes Richardson

[H]er answer was not simply bad history or an unwillingness to offend potential voters, as some have suggested. It was the death knell of the Republican Party. When Nikki Haley said the cause of the Civil War “was how government was going to run, the freedoms, and what people could and couldn’t do,” she did more than avoid the word “slavery” to pander to MAGA Republicans who refuse to recognize the role of race in shaping our history. She rejected the long and once grand history of the Republican Party and announced its death to the world.

The most important question remains: Will the gravediggers of the GOP, Nikki Haley among them, succeed in pulling American democracy down with them?