Nikki Haley became an overnight superstar in 2015, after she took down the Confederate flag from across from the South Carolina state house, in reaction to a white nationalist’s terror attack against black churchgoers. Last week, after a deliberative pause of four years—and a term of service in the Trump administration—she suggested that the aforementioned terrorist had “hijacked” the true meaning of the Confederate flag.
This bit of prestidigitation might have come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with Haley’s career, but not to those who have followed her closely. Because Haley has always been a political shapeshifter with a finger in the wind.
During her 2014 reelection campaign, Haley was a defender of the Confederate flag, on the grounds that it didn’t hurt state commerce and that CEOs did not mind it. And also, as she liked to say, the Confederate flag was irrelevant in South Carolina because the state had elected an “Indian American female governor” and appointed its first black U.S. senator. So South Carolina had, she contended, moved beyond the the Stars and Bars.
At the time, Haley needed to be on the right side of the flag issue statewide. But a year later, after Dylan Roof killed nine African-Americans as they worshiped in their Charleston church, Haley didn’t need any more votes from South Carolina. So she pivoted to declare that the Confederate flag outside the state’s capital “should never have been there” in the first place.
The next year, Haley was tapped to give the Republican response Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address. Her speech was stirring. She began with a rebuttal to President Obama’s address on policy grounds, but then shifted to talk about her story as the daughter of immigrants growing up in the deep South:
Growing up in the rural south, my family didn’t look like our neighbors, and we didn’t have much. There were times that were tough, but we had each other, and we had the opportunity to do anything, to be anything, as long as we were willing to work for it.
My story 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. That remains the dream of all of us, and in this country we have seen time and again that that dream is achievable.
But what really made headlines was her next line:
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.
This line was seen as a direct attack on Donald Trump, who was then leading the Republican primary field. Haley confirmed that this swipe was “partially” directed at Trump.
A few weeks later, ahead of the important South Carolina primary, Haley suggested that her choice in the primary was “anybody but Trump” and she would go on to endorse Marco Rubio. As a part of her campaigning for Rubio, she attacked Trump by calling him a terrible businessman and a racial bigot, using lines like, “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.”
After Trump won the nomination, Haley more or less disappeared from national politics, until October 27, three weeks after the Access Hollywood tape, when she gave Trump a non-endorsement, saying that she would reluctantly vote for him because it was the right thing for the people of South Carolina.
This was a pure hedge: She had staked a claim against Trump early, and was positioned for the future if he lost to Hillary Clinton. But by proclaiming she would vote for him reluctantly while he was at his nadir, she was buying insurance on the cheap, just in case he somehow won.
Her bet paid off, and Haley was appointed as the ambassador to the United Nations, a perfect job for someone who wanted the benefits of being high-up in the Trump administration, but with the maximum amount of insulation from the daily politics of Trump.
Some politicians have a unique gift for leadership. Others for compromise. Some have a talent for demagoguery.
Nikki Haley’s superpower is the uncanny ability to find a lane that can deliver her to both sides of anything.
It has been a useful skill. She spoke at a Turning Point USA event and advised high school students against “owning the libs.” Which was kind of weird, since lib owning is the entire point of Turning Point USA. Here, for instance, are some pieces of merchandise currently on sale in the group’s store:
And it is not the case that Haley was trying to subtly subvert the lib owners. She’s been in full promo mode not only for Kirk but even for Diamond & Silk. It doesn’t really matter how foolish or embarrassing someone is. Stick a MAGA hat on them and Haley will vouch for them.
Two years after she’s left the administration, she wrote a book about her service and, amazingly, decided to stay in New York—a place full of donors and TV cameras—rather than return to South Carolina.
On her book tour, she made headlines by claiming that she had rejected a plea from Chief of Staff John Kelly and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to subvert Trump. Again, she found her way to both sides: A principled actor would have either informed the president that his CoS and SecState were working against him or joined the renegades. Not sure which element would be victorious, Haley kept her head down and saved the story for the book so she could score points with the MAGA base.
Haley’s tenure as ambassador to the U.N. is generally regarded as having been a success. In large part, this is because she gave a series of powerful floor speeches in defense of America’s greatness and Israel. And good on her for doing so.
But what no one seems to talk about when it comes to Haley’s time at the U.N is what actually happened in the world on her watch.
For instance, several principals of key organizations fell into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party’s allies. Tedros Adhanom, a Sinophile, was elected to head the World Health Organization. Haley nominated Ken Isaacs, a man with an embarrassing Twitter history, to head the International Organization for Migration, another increasingly important U.N. entity. Isaacs was such a weak pick that his nomination was defeated in the first round of voting. The position eventually was filled by a socialist from Portugal, the first time in nearly 50 years that the organization’s head was not an American. Haley failed to prevent the appointment of Natalia Kanem to lead the United Nations Populations Fund, another important U.N. entity. Kanem has made comments welcoming cooperation with China and its Belt and Road Initiative, an economic geostrategy that seeks to undermine America’s global influence.
Speeches can be important, but personnel is policy. And the grinding, bureaucratic trench warfare of fighting for American interests does not seem to have mattered to Haley unless there was a TV camera present.
There were sins of commission, too. On national TV, Haley proclaimed that regime change in Syria was no longer a priority for the United States. Five days later, Bashar al-Assad dropped chemical bombs on Syrians.
At the height of the tensions with North Korea, Haley suggested that the United States might not send its team to the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea. Later, the White House press secretary echoed this notion before rushing to correct that it was not true.
One imagines that America’s allies in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan—not to mention the 100,000 Americans who live in Seoul and within the reach of North Korea’s artillery—were not reassured by American’s inconstancy.
But maybe none of that is important. After all, Haley left Turtle Bay with a highlight reel of patriotic speeches and her Trumpist bona fides intact. America might not have gotten much out of her tenure as ambassador to the United Nations, but Nikki Haley sure did.
It’s hard to remember now, but in 2010, Nikki Haley was a long-shot gubernatorial candidate riding the Tea Party wave against the establishment favorite Henry McMaster. An endorsement from Sarah Palin—remember her?—gave Haley an overnight lead and slingshotted her to the government mansion.
As soon as the Tea Party started to wane, Haley remade herself as an establishment figure. She became a fierce critic of the Donald Trump, only to re-emerge as a supporter to receive the perfect job to boost her image with enough association with Trump but not so much. She was for the Confederate flag before she was against it.
And now she’s for it again.
As the GOP begins to contemplate its post-Trump future, it’s hard to imagine that there’s any pathway that doesn’t involve Haley playing a significant role.
She may not be the hero Republicans need, but she’s the hero they deserve.