The GOP Won’t Disavow Trump, but Nikki Haley Has Another Strategy

The former UN ambassador presents herself as the leader who, without ever renouncing Trump, can heal the divisions his presidency has caused.

Nikki Haley and Donald Trump sit together at the UN.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

This article was updated at 6:20 p.m. on November 15, 2019

Nikki Haley has a theory about the post–Donald Trump GOP. It’s that Republicans will want to move on from Trump without repudiating him. They’ll want a candidate who promises healing without accountability. Haley auditions for that role in her new memoir, With All Due Respect. A former South Carolina governor who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Haley is a bellwether for her party. She’s done a better job than almost anyone of remaining popular with both Trumpists and the pre-Trump establishment alike, and at 47, she’s a likely presidential candidate in the years ahead. It’s figures like her who will decide whether Trump was a fluke—or the Republican future.

That’s what makes With All Due Respect so intriguing. Early news reports about the book emphasized Haley’s professed loyalty to Trump and her attacks on former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for undermining the president. Such reports, observed my Atlantic colleague David Frum, make it appear that Haley has placed a “big bet that the Republican future will be almost as Trump-y as the recent Republican past.”

But those initial reports are misleading. The book itself, which was only publicly released on Tuesday, turns out to be less an exercise in sycophancy than in triangulation. Had Haley wanted to depict herself as Donald Trump 2.0, she wouldn’t have devoted the first two chapters to the 2015 massacre of African American parishioners at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel Church and her subsequent push to remove the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds. White-supremacist violence and its link to the South’s racist past aren’t themes that rouse people in MAGA hats.

But crucially, Haley tells the Mother Emanuel saga as a tale not of white supremacy, but of tribal division. Again and again, she balances her condemnation of racism with condemnation of the leftists who oppose it in divisive or disruptive ways. She sympathizes with the families from Mother Emanuel who wanted the Confederate flag removed while also sympathizing with those white flag defenders who felt “under siege by Washington”—which is to say, President Barack Obama—and by Hollywood and the media. In the course of one paragraph, she cites the police killing of Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland’s death in jail alongside the protests by Yale students “who erupted over supposed culturally offensive Halloween costumes”—and condemns both as examples of “racial anger and identity politics.”* She acknowledges that, in the wake of the Mother Emanuel shootings, Trump’s language “was touching raw nerves,” but describes his attacks on people of color as just one symptom of a bipartisan malady. The problem, she declares, “wasn’t just one party’s rhetoric or Donald Trump’s rhetoric. Our politics were getting toxic.” Trump’s harsh language “turned me off,” but the behavior of Black Lives Matter left her “disgusted.”

Haley is the child of Indian immigrants, and she shoehorns her own upbringing into this pox-on-both-your-houses narrative. When she wanted to play kickball in third grade, a classmate told her, “You have to pick a side. Are you white or are you black?” (“I’m neither … I’m brown,” Haley remembers responding. She adds that “before long, we were all playing kickball.”) After recalling that she and her sister “were disqualified from a children’s pageant because we weren’t white or black,” she derides the “pageant organizers” for having “thought in categories.” As with Mother Emanuel, the villain is not white supremacy, but divisive “identity politics,” which both whites and blacks, conservatives and liberals, must overcome.

Haley’s strategy resembles the one George W. Bush employed when he ran for president in 2000. The Gingrich Congress had just impeached Bill Clinton, thus inflaming partisan hatred in Washington. Bush didn’t condemn the impeachment effort, yet he triangulated off it, describing himself as an outsider who could overcome the divisions stoked by both sides. “I have no stake in the bitter arguments of the last few years,” he declared when accepting the Republican presidential nomination. “And I want to change the tone of Washington to one of civility and respect.”

This involved a sleight of hand. In presenting himself as the antidote to the rancor of the impeachment struggle, Bush was suggesting that Clinton—and his vice president, Al Gore, against whom Bush was running—bore equal responsibility for a process that had been thrust upon them. Haley is doing something similar. To cast herself as able to heal the nation from the rancor of the Trump era without alienating Trump’s supporters, she must suggest that the rancor isn’t primarily Trump’s fault. And so, in her book, when she inches toward a condemnation of Trump, she generally returns to her safe harbor: condemning division. Within paragraphs of saying she was “deeply disturbed” by Trump’s remarks about neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, she is back to castigating “our politics, media and popular culture,” which are “exaggerating our differences, and weaponizing them.”

Haley is betting that by 2024, even many Republicans will be exhausted by Trump. They won’t want another screeching narcissist; they’ll want someone who can calm things down. But neither will they want to take the blame for having enabled Trump’s ugliness. Instead, they’ll be drawn to someone who offers them closure while absolving them of responsibility—someone who suggests that the problem was not Trump, but rather discord. Haley’s trick will be to argue that since Democrats are implicated in that discord, it is they who represent the continuation of Trump-era nastiness while she offers the prospect of cultural peace. She will offer Republicans amnesty and amnesia, and offer weary Americans a reprieve from both Trump and Adam Schiff. Sadly, it might just work.

*An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the circumstances of Sandra Bland’s death.