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How the politics of race will play a key role in Nikki Haley's 2024 campaign

Nikki Haley opposed Donald Trump's candidacy for president in 2016, criticizing his unwillingness at one point to denounce the KKK. However, she went on to serve as UN ambassador in his administration.
Mark Wilson
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Getty Images
Nikki Haley opposed Donald Trump's candidacy for president in 2016, criticizing his unwillingness at one point to denounce the KKK. However, she went on to serve as UN ambassador in his administration.

One clear theme of Nikki Haley's presidential announcement is unity. Over and over, her Tuesday announcement video references bringing people together.

One example she uses to emphasize that is her state's response to hate.​

In 2015, a white supremacist killed nine Black parishioners at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Haley, who was governor at the time, led the state through the tragedy.

"We turned away from fear toward God and the values that still make our country the freest and greatest in the world," she said, over video of herself and fellow leaders joining hands in the wake of that crime.

Haley is the first candidate to challenge former President Donald Trump for the Republican nomination. She is also one of several potential candidates with a tricky pattern to justify to voters: vehemently opposing Trump, then embracing him and now, running against him.

And with Haley, the topic of race highlights how her politics have shifted. In the wake of the Charleston shooting, Haley famously signed the law removing the Confederate flag from the state capital complex grounds.​

"For those who wish to show their respect for the flag on their private property. No one will stand in your way. But the statehouse is different," she said shortly after the shooting. "Today, we are here in a moment of unity in our state without ill will to say it's time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds."

Haley got bipartisan respect for that decision. Former Democratic Governor Jim Hodges said that he spoke to Haley during that period, and believes she recognized the need to take down the flag, despite not having championed that cause before.

"I think it's safe to say it probably was not on her priority list in her second term of things that she was going to focus on," he told NPR. "The moment provided that opportunity, and I think she should get credit for moving quickly."

Haley's early argument against Trump and racism

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, right, waves as she and her husband, Michael Haley, left, are introduced at the second inaugural of Gov. Henry McMaster on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. As governor, Haley signed the bill to remove the Confederate flag from state Capitol grounds.
Meg Kinnard / AP
/
AP
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, right, waves as she and her husband, Michael Haley, left, are introduced at the second inaugural of Gov. Henry McMaster on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023, in Columbia, S.C. As governor, Haley signed the bill to remove the Confederate flag from state Capitol grounds.

Haley has often referenced that time after the shooting as an important period of her governorship. When she endorsed then-presidential candidate Marco Rubio in 2016, she spoke of the effort around removing the flag in a speech slamming candidate Donald Trump.

"The KKK came to South Carolina from out of state to protest on our statehouse grounds," she told a crowd at a Rubio event. "We saw and looked at true hate in the eyes last year in Charleston. I will not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the KKK. That is not a part of our party. That is not who we want as president. We will not allow that in our country," she added, to loud cheers.

But then, less than a year later, she took the post of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in the Trump administration and became a prime example of how Trump reshaped the party.

Trump put racial resentment at the forefront of American politics, across issues from immigration to policing to education. And Trump support has been correlated with certain racist beliefs.

"Hijacking" the Confederate flag

When the Confederate flag came down in South Carolina, Haley was conciliatory towards state residents who saw the flag as a symbol of their heritage, and not of racism. She has maintained that view in more recent statements.

But a 2019 interview with Glenn Beck, she drew heavy criticism for additionally saying that Dylann Roof, the Charleston shooter, had imbued the flag with racist meaning.

"Here is this guy who comes out with his manifesto, holding the Confederate flag and had just hijacked everything that people thought of," she told Beck. "We don't have hateful people in South Carolina. There's always the small minority who are always going to be there, but people saw it as service, sacrifice and heritage. But once he did that, there was no way to overcome it."

Teresa Cosby, professor of political science at South Carolina's Furman University, finds that statement outrageous.

"And where does Dylann Roof get it from?" she asks. "Where does he get this association, the Confederate flag, with white supremacy and racist ideology? It doesn't appear in thin air. He didn't steal anything."

Moreover, Haley's statement to Beck stood in contrast to her 2015 stand that the flag "should never have been" on the capitol grounds.

All of this happened against a backdrop of a GOP arguing about whether Confederate monuments should stand in the South, not to mention Trump taking multiple positions on the Confederate flag — for example, he supported taking it down in South Carolina, and later was angry when NASCAR banned it at its events.

Haley as a historic candidate

Haley's own race plays a major role in her announcement video — she leads off by talking about her own racial experience in the town of Bamberg, S.C.

"I was the proud daughter of Indian immigrants. Not black, not white. I was different," she says. "But my mom would always say, 'Your job is not to focus on the differences, but the similarities.'"

This is another particular nod to unity. Haley is the first woman of color to be a major candidate for the Republican nomination, and she acknowledges her difference...and then immediately blasts Democrats as racially divisive, referencing the 1619 Project and progressive lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

But simply casting Democrats as the enemy won't unify all Republicans — particularly those who are disgusted with what the GOP has become. Doug Brannon is a former Republican lawmaker in South Carolina who led the 2015 charge to remove the Confederate flag.​

"Mr. Trump gave people license to say things that before him they didn't feel they could say," Brannon told NPR. "He gave them a mouthpiece and because of him, they were emboldened."

Brannon sees Trump as a symptom of a broken GOP — "I don't think there's a Republican party anymore" — and said he didn't know yet whether he would vote for a Republican or Democrat in 2024.

Trump upended what it means to be Republican, as well as even what conservative means.

Teresa Cosby at Furman University points out that Haley is often mistaken for a moderate but right now, being more extreme may appeal more to primary voters in a swath of red states, including South Carolina.

"The battle is between Republicans in the primaries. And you don't pay any penalty for playing to that extreme-right ideology that is replicated at the national level in states like Florida and Texas," she explained.

In that vein, Cosby doesn't think Haley's Confederate flag removal will help her win the nomination.​

"It's just going to score her points with people who want the Republican Party to return to some normalcy. But how many of those groups are left in the Republican Party?" she asked.

Haley may not bring it up much anyway. While the Charleston shooting was a part of her announcement video, the push to take down the Confederate flag was notably absent.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.