Ordinarily, the opposition party’s official response to a State of the Union address is offered as a rebuttal to the president’s speech. This, however, is clearly no ordinary time. Overshadowing any criticism of President Barack Obama in the rejoinder delivered by Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina Tuesday night was the targeting of the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. Though his name was never mentioned, the text of Haley’s remarks left no doubt that her target was none other than Donald J. Trump.
“Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory,” Haley said. “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.”
Every day, it seems, there are stories in the political press about efforts by something called the Republican establishment to stop Trump’s candidacy. There are super PAC ads designed to do just that, and meetings of party pooh-bahs trying to engineer the billionaire’s defeat as he vies for the nomination.
Haley and her message represent yet another salvo, and one geographically targeted. While the attention of campaign reporters is presently focused on the first two nominating contests—the February 1 Iowa caucuses and the February 9 New Hampshire primary—the first really big one comes just after, in Haley’s own state. With 50 delegates up for grabs (compared to 30 in New Hampshire and 23 in Iowa), the February 20 South Carolina primary is where things start to get serious. And according to the most recent polls, Trump enjoys as much as a 15-point lead over his rivals.
If you were looking for a right-wing anti-Trump to carry party leaders’ prayer for his defeat, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than Haley.
Trump calls for border closings, mass deportations, and discrimination against immigrants on the basis of their religion. Haley is the daughter of Sikh immigrants from India.
Where Trump shows contempt for women, Haley is a woman.
While the billionaire blows hard and blusters, Haley plays a particularly melodic kind of dog-whistle politics designed to placate whites who remain uncomfortable with African American power while reassuring them with the notion that this does not make them racist.
Haley’s recounting of the race-motivated massacre of nine black worshippers at an important African American church last summer keenly demonstrated her skills.
The national public outcry over the massacre led to calls to remove the Confederate flag from state capitol grounds. Its display long opposed by proponents of civil rights, it is also a symbol used by white supremacists such as Dylann Roof, who was arrested for the June 18 shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Haley eventually stepped up to lead the legislative effort needed to have the flag taken down.
Also notable in the aftermath of the carnage were calls of forgiveness by members of the Emanuel congregation and others in Charleston’s black community, and appeals for calm.
In her remarks Tuesday night, Haley used those points to set up a swipe at the Black Lives Matter movement (which the right self-satisfyingly and falsely paints as violent) even as she poked at Trump.
"Our state was struck with shock, pain, and fear,” Haley said. “But our people would not allow hate to win. We didn't have violence, we had vigils. We didn't have riots, we had hugs. We didn't turn against each other's race or religion. We turned toward God, and to the values that have long made our country the freest and greatest in the world.”
In those six sentences, delivered by a politician whose background is of the sort looked on with suspicion by so many in the GOP’s white base, Haley delivered a powerful inoculation against characterizations of her party as racist, even as she telegraphed a false narrative about activists who protest the deaths of African Americans at the hands of police. It was such a brilliant performance by a woman of color that Erick Erickson, the influential right-wing pundit, called on the yet-to-be-determined Republican presidential nominee to name Haley as his running mate. But for that to happen, Trump would have to fail in his bid to become the party’s standard-bearer. And that’s far from a sure thing.
While Haley would likely bring influence to bear in a general election campaign—swing voters in cul-de-sacs would likely find her presence on the ticket reassuring—it’s hard to see how she convinces those people poised to vote Trump in a primary to do otherwise.
“Whether in popular culture, academia, the media, or politics, there's a tendency to falsely equate noise with results,” she said in her State of the Union response. "Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference.” Then she urged viewers to turn down the volume so that all sides might be heard.
But the yelling is a major factor in Trump’s appeal to those who follow him. They’re all mad as hell, and they’re not interested in hearing anybody else. But, make no mistake, this is exactly the kind of voter the Republican Party, establishment and otherwise, has been cultivating—and, dare I say, creating—for the last 40 years.
Presented with the science of climate change or evolution, they plug their ears, and the party encourages it.
False narratives are advanced on subjects ranging from the president’s place of birth to the capacity of fetuses to feel pain, and no evidence to refute them is permitted consideration.
And let us not forget the moment in 2009, when the nation’s first African American president delivered his first State of the Union address, only to be heckled by a Republican congressman who went on to gain fame and surging poll numbers for this trouble. His triumph? Shouting down President Obama with the accusation “You lie!” as the president made a simple assertion of fact regarding the content of the Affordable Care Act.
The horrifying campaign of Donald Trump is the natural result of the Republican Party’s engineering of what it once saw as its perfect voter: one driven by fear and prejudice. And Trump has given that voter permission to yell it all out, loud and proud.
However great the political talent of South Carolina’s governor, it’s unlikely that her call for a quieter, kinder, and gentler expression of the resentments of Republican primary voters will prevail. It’s like asking kids at a carnival to use their inside voices.