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.
Roof was a white supremacist who declared war on African Americans, and Haley, along with the majority of the Republican candidates, attempted to characterize his attack as “anti-Christian,” with no racial element whatsoever. It wasn’t until public sentiment became too overwhelming to ignore that she admitted that Roof’s actions were racial and political.
More important, there had been vigils to take down the Confederate flag for years, and Haley not only ignored them but even defended the Confederate flag during her campaign for governor. It wasn’t until nationwide protests and the actions of activists like Bree Newsome that Haley actually did anything symbolic about the Charleston shooting, and that was because her position was politically untenable if she wanted to stay in the running as a potential running mate. And if rewriting recent history wasn’t good enough, she had to ensure that she did some effective pandering to bigots, too.
Earlier in her speech, Haley spoke of “unrest in our cities” as part of Obama’s failures. This was a racial dog whistle so loud, all of Team Jacob would have had to cover their ears. The narrative believed by some in the GOP base is that Obama encouraged riots in Ferguson and Baltimore as part of some twisted supervillain scheme to 1) take guns, 2) declare martial law or 3) get revenge on white America. Take your pick.
So Haley’s snake oil that South Carolina had “hugs, not thugs” is a Republican subtweet that they know how to “handle” black protest and anger and can quell the kind of massive protests that make some white Americans uncomfortable. In one fell swoop, Haley attacked Black Lives Matter and Obama and rewrote her own behavior during Charleston. In a nutshell, what she was offering was a throwback kind of Republican racism—when candidates would say “urban voters,” “inner city” or “gangster rap culture” instead of “black” and the press would give them a pass—as opposed to the openly hostile bigotry of Trump, which might have serious political consequences. Haley’s words may not have been as blunt as Trump’s, but they were every bit as disgusting, shameful, racist and ultimately politically dangerous.
Giving the opposition response to the president’s State of the Union is like getting on a VH1 reality show. People tell you that it’ll do wonders for your career, that it will raise your profile and that, regardless of the reputation of the “show,” you’ll be the one who comes out looking like a star. But more often than not, it is a futile enterprise in which you end up in reality-TV hell, never breaking through to the prime time.
Haley probably thought that giving the SOTU response would be a great launching pad for a national political future (even though only two opposition respondents have ended up on the party ticket since 1990). She and Republicans are playing with fire, however, if they think it’s wise to trot out an “anti-Black Lives Matter” candidate in the 2016 campaign season. Charleston is not 9/11, and Nikki Haley is no Rudy Giuliani. If she believes that she can traffic in tragedy to gain political power, her own sorry record in South Carolina will be exposed to national scrutiny, and it won’t be pretty.
More important, the conversation about race in America has fundamentally changed because of Obama. Haley’s soft pitch to return to the olden days simply won’t fly. We are in an era when whites are more conscious and less tolerant of overt racism than ever before, and black voters have seen how collective action from Black Lives Matter, Campaign Zero and dozens of local groups can literally bend three national political campaigns to a whole new policy space without their dropping so much as a dime in PAC money.
You had one job, Nikki Haley. Stick to running your state. You’re not ready for prime time.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.