The serene hypocrisy of Nikki Haley stands out in the GOP field
Astonishingly, some people still see Nikki Haley as one of the “good” Trump Cabinet members, the future of a more tolerant and accepting Republican Party. Like those anti-trumpers who willfully interpreted each casual flick of Melania’s wrist as a prospect of rebellion, Haley hopefuls want to believe that a conscience might yet emerge from Trump’s Team of Liars, that the GOP’S latest showcasing of a Can-do Immigrant Success Story can somehow undo years of xenophobia.
This requires listening to only half of what Haley says.
But if you listen to the full spectrum of her rhetoric, Haley clearly wants to capture the base that yearns for Trumpism — and to occupy the moral high ground of the post trump era. She wants to tout the credential of having served in a presidential Cabinet (she was Trump’s U.N. ambassador) — and bask in recognition for having left of her own accord. She wants to criticize Americans’ obsession with identity politics — and highlight her own identity as a significant qualification.
There are plenty of reasons to approach Haley with wariness: her middle-school-cafeteria style of meting out revenge, her robotic “I have seen evil” presidential campaign announcement video, the PTA briskness with which she dismisses a bothersome fact. But most alarming is her untroubled insistence on having her cake and eating it, too. Even in short-term-memory Washington, rife with wafflers and flip-floppers, Haley’s serene hypocrisy stands out. She wants it both ways — and she wants it her way most of all.
Haley is accustomed to internal contradiction, having been plucked from the South Carolina governorship to serve as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, a position Trump reportedly chose her for because it removed her from the governorship. Soon after Madam Ambassador arrived in New York in 2017, she appeared at the Council on Foreign Relations, an event I attended and remember well. Even members of the council, a nonpartisan group accustomed to hosting dignitaries both friendly and hostile, thrummed in anticipation of its first visiting Cabinet member from the Trump administration.
Despite a reputation for intuitive political acumen, Haley seemed wholly incapable of reading the room. “This is an intimidating crowd, I’ve got to tell you. It really is,” she said, otherwise placid in her unpreparedness for a role grappling with urgent complexities in Russia, Iran, China and North Korea. She proceeded to share folksy anecdotes about how family members were adjusting to life in the big city. Later, she wove past questions from the council’s president, Richard Haass, at one point breaking into giggles. “It’s like you want me to answer it a certain way,” she admonished him. “That was too funny in the way you worded that.”
Here as elsewhere, Haley emphasized where she came from: “In South Carolina, I was the first minority governor and — a real shock to the state — the first girl governor as well.” As discordant as this blushing Southern girlishness was from a senior administration official, it fit in with Haley’s “You go, girl!” notion of female empowerment. Haley may be the last American woman to champion “leaning in” à la Sheryl Sandberg — and on Sean Hannity’s TV show, of all places — without even a smidge of irony.
With equally dexterous flair, Haley emphasizes her relative youth at 51 (“a new generation of leadership”), her identity as a woman and her Indian heritage as the child of immigrants while repeatedly condemning identity politics. “I don’t believe in that,” she said while campaigning recently in South Carolina, before wrapping up with “As I set out on this new journey, I will simply say this — may the best woman win.”
According to a recent poll, Haley is 1 point ahead of Pence, currently exciting about 5% of Republican voters. In all likelihood, she will wind up Sarah Palined into the vice-presidential candidate pool. She may be hoping a record of equivocation will be perceived as one of mediation, and her brand of hypocrisy mistaken for one of moderation. It’s on voters to decide, when choosing between her and those Republican candidates who are ideological to their core, whether they prefer a candidate with no core at all.