Nikki Haley Rebukes Donald Trump in the GOP’s State of the Union Rebuttal

The South Carolina governor unexpectedly takes on Trump’s nativism.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley addresses a Newsmaker Luncheon at the National Press Club, Sept. 2, 2015 in Washington, D.C.  

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Nikki Haley is a total loser, third-rate talent. Never VEEP! Takes down the flag—bad!

So Donald Trump’s Twitter feed will likely proceed in the next 24 hours once he gets word about the South Carolina governor using her official State of the Union rebuttal to make a surprising political maneuver. Though she did not attack Trump by name, her swipe at the Republican presidential front-runner was clear.

The speech—after first establishing for the Red Team that, yes, of course, the current president’s record is garbage—pivoted to a vague attempt at humility: Republicans may not be perfect either. “We need to be honest with each other, and with ourselves: While Democrats in Washington bear much responsibility for the problems facing America today, they do not bear it alone. There is more than enough blame to go around,” she said. “We as Republicans need to own that truth. We need to recognize our contributions to the erosion of the public trust in America’s leadership. We need to accept that we’ve played a role in how and why our government is broken.”

She then described her childhood as “the proud daughter of Indian immigrants” and added that, “growing up in the rural South, my family didn’t look like our neighbors.”

“My story,” she went on, “is really not much different from millions of other Americans. Immigrants have been coming to our shores for generations to live the dream that is America. They wanted better for their children than for themselves.”

Was there some pressing reason why she felt the need to reinforce the idea that immigrants are, indeed, good? That follows:

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

No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country.

The target would appear to be Trump’s brand of nativism, which, as we know, is also a significant share of Republican voters’ brand of nativism.

It loses its bite as any sort of official Republican policy stance, though, with all the hedging that comes immediately afterward. “At the same time,” she said, “that does not mean we just flat-out open our borders. We can’t do that. We cannot continue to allow immigrants to come here illegally. And in this age of terrorism, we must not let in refugees whose intentions cannot be determined.” So what does it mean? “We must fix our broken immigration system.” Sure. “That means stopping illegal immigration.” Yes. “And it means welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion.” Unless they come from Iraq or Syria.

But you can’t cure cancer in a day, and it’s risky enough in this political environment for any Republican politician planning a future to say anything that might be construed as touchy-feely toward outsiders. “Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference,” she said, later on. “That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying.”

This was an attempt by the Republican Party to begin the process of saving itself before November after the wreckage that Trump has brought over the past six months. There’s a long, long way to go.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the State of the Union.