Politics

What if Nikki Haley Doesn’t Really Believe in Anything?

The sometime Trump supporter heads toward 2024 with a platform of saying whatever a leading Republican candidate would be saying at any given time.

Haley, wearing a blue jacket, watches while Loeffler speaks to reporters in front of a crowd of supporters.
Kelly Loeffler campaigns with Nikki Haley in Cumming, Georgia, on Dec. 20. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

On Friday, Politico’s Tim Alberta published a long profile of former U.N. ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Haley worked for Donald Trump but is also the kind of Republican who appeals to the national press because she can be polite, polished, and not outwardly delusional during television appearances; Alberta is sort of the establishment D.C. media’s envoy to the modern right-wing grassroots movement—while he deplores its full turn toward conspiratorial violence, he retains some sympathy for the people involved and some vestigial affection for the purported values of American conservatism.

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The story can thus be read as an audition, on Haley’s part, for the 2024 presidential nomination—and in particular, an audition for the kinds of establishment GOP voters and donors who want to support someone who is less disruptive, embarrassing, and poisonous in swing states than Trump, but who are also sufficiently connected to reality to acknowledge the electoral power of the paranoid, racist, and racism-adjacent cultural grudge politics he has specialized in. It’s the Alberta primary.

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What is Haley’s strategy for balancing her party’s competing interests going to be? Well, don’t ask her! Or do, but be prepared to get a different answer every time. As Alberta notes, the prospective candidate took three positions on Trump’s effort to overturn the election during a six-week period in which he was following her for the story. First, in December, she called Trump a “friend” who genuinely believed he’d gotten more votes than Biden; shortly after the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, she said she was “angry” and “disgusted” at the president and told Alberta he had disgraced himself to the point of being finished in politics; on Jan. 25, she went on Fox News during prime time and described him as the victim of Democratic obsession who deserved to be given “a break” for inspiring the insurrection against Congress.

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As Alberta documents in detail, this flip-flop was just a microcosm of the approach that Haley has taken to tensions within the Republican Party during her political career—which, he says, followed a childhood and early adulthood that bear little evidence of interest in politics or government. She began her electoral life as an iconoclastic fiscal hard-liner, won the South Carolina governorship by running as a Sarah Palin–endorsed underdog, and became a national figure by taking down Confederate flags after the Emanuel AME Church massacre despite having no previous involvement in racial justice issues. She denounced Trump repeatedly in 2016, when she was supporting Marco Rubio’s smiley American dream Republicanism, but then joined the Trump administration. Once there, Alberta says, she became one of the ex-president’s most enduring (but still nominally respectable) advisers by occasionally criticizing him in public while keeping his trust in private by contacting him frequently to disparage the judgment of others in his circle.

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Alberta, an old-fashioned believer in ideas and ideals, frames this story as one of someone trying to figure out who her authentic political self is. He seems to be rooting for a particular outcome: that Haley, the child of Indian immigrant entrepreneurs, will come to realize her role in American public life is to defend both pluralism and self-reliance, forging a path for a Republican Party that can be “tough without being truculent” and “nationalist without being … nativist.”

That would be nice, wouldn’t it? But Alberta’s story makes a much more thorough case that Haley doesn’t have an authentic political self and never will. He depicts someone who likes to win elections and made what was an otherwise circumstantial decision to participate in the dominant local culture of her home state by running as a Republican. Beyond that, her attitude seems to be that the right position is whichever one works. And it does work: Alberta also quotes a lot of people, not all of them friendly to Haley, who have been impressed over the years with her ability to persuade both regular voters and elite gatekeepers that she feels strongly about the same things as they do. (Liberal readers may find themselves involuntarily charmed by a section about Haley’s reaction to Ted Cruz, an anecdote that could not have been more perfectly leaked to convey that she isn’t one of those Republicans.) A few compare her to Bill Clinton.

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The politician who blows this way and that is a figure as old as the hills—look not just at Clinton but at Joe Biden, a onetime deficit hawk who is about to borrow his way to one of the biggest spending bills in history. Alberta’s Haley refreshes the archetype for an era of high-speed information churn and deteriorating civil norms. Her positions on questions as basic as “should the legislature be overrun by a violent mob of white supremacists” last as long as the attention span of the average Fox News viewer.

Haley’s seemingly inevitable campaign for the Republican nomination promises to deliver something with the most sheen, the keenest sense for dramatic timing, and deepest performance of depth of any candidate in the field. What that something is is TBD on a daily basis, and ultimately may never be determined at all.

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