Nikki Haley Makes the Case for Old-School Racism

In her response to President Obama’s final State of the Union address, the South Carolina governor channeled some classic dog-whistle politics.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, moderator of the Heritage Action Presidential Candidate Forum, speaks to the crowd Sept. 18, 2015, in Greenville, S.C.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, moderator of the Heritage Action Presidential Candidate Forum, speaks to the crowd Sept. 18, 2015, in Greenville, S.C. Sean Rayford/Getty Images

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley wants to take things back to the “old school.”

The establishment’s choice to represent a “sensible” side of Republicanism, Haley’s response to the State of the Union address seemed to target GOP front-runner Donald Trump more than President Barack Obama.

“Today we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory,” Haley said. “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”

Yes, Haley seemed to want to reject the blunt bloviating of the GOP’s biggest star, but she didn’t offer a repudiation of Trump’s poisonous hate speech; instead she called for a kinder, gentler form of bigotry that’s less costly at election time.

In Haley’s response, she trafficked in the racial conspiracy theories of the right by linking Obama to riots in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, and contrasting those events with her handling of the assassination at “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., last summer, a narrative she’s been promoting for over a year.

I get it; it was Obama’s personal Iago, Rahm Emanuel, who said you should never let a good crisis go to waste. The moment Haley was announced as the Republican response, it was clear that 1) She’s being primed for a vice presidential nod, and 2) She was going to mention the shootings. What I didn’t expect, however, was the completely ahistorical and abhorrent way she tried to retell the racial narrative of the Republican Party in the wake of that tragedy.

To hear Haley tell it, Dylann Roof shot nine Christians in a church, and the state of South Carolina (and, tacitly, the Republican Party, led by her) immediately responded with universal empathy and radical change.

“Our state was struck with shock, pain and fear. But our people would not allow hate to win,” Haley said. “We didn’t have violence; we had vigils. We didn’t have riots; we had hugs.”

The truth isn’t nearly so pretty.

Putting aside the fact that shootings by police and shootings by citizens are not the same and one shouldn’t conflate the two, Haley made no mention of the fatal police shooting of Walter Scott that happened in North Charleston a few weeks before Roof killed nine churchgoers.

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