South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was tasked with responding to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. But it came at a moment when the Republican Party is divided against itself, with Donald Trump leading a xenophobic charge that many in the GOP establishment fear will destroy the party’s long-term prospects. Haley’s speech was thus a two-front war: trying to make the Republican case not only against Obama but also against Trump’s virulent immigration-bashing.
While there were some boilerplate attacks on Obama, as well as some subtle swipes at Black Lives Matters and atheism, the main narrative energy of her speech was devoted to telling a personal story that rebuked Trump’s line on immigration:
I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants who reminded my brothers, my sister, and me every day how blessed we were to live in this country.
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.
This is the core of Haley’s speech, distinguishing it from the banal Republican talking points that make up the rest of the text. It challenges Trump’s evocation of an America under siege from evil foreigners.
Haley was also trying to convey that you can still be a very conservative Republican while rejecting Trumpism. There was little that was moderate about Haley’s speech. She even came out against admitting refugees: “[I]n this age of terrorism, we must not let in refugees whose intentions cannot be determined.”
The nature of Haley’s balancing act can be seen in this long passage where she talks about the mass shooting at a Charleston church in 2015 and its aftermath:
This past summer, South Carolina was dealt a tragic blow. On an otherwise ordinary Wednesday evening in June, at the historic Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, twelve faithful men and women, young and old, went to Bible study...
We lost nine incredible souls that night.
What happened after the tragedy is worth pausing to think about.
Our state was struck with shock, pain, and fear. 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.
We removed a symbol that was being used to divide us, and we found a strength that united us against a domestic terrorist and the hate that filled him.
There’s an important lesson in this. In many parts of society today, whether in popular culture, academia, the media, or politics, there’s a tendency to falsely equate noise with results.
Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference.
The line about “riots” is clearly a jab at Black Lives Matter protests—a very unfair characterization at that. But the thrust of the passage is about how a conservative Republican can act as a unifying force in a multi-racial democracy and overcome symbols of hatred. The reference to the “loudest voice” calls to mind Trump again. So Haley is presenting her brand of conservative Republicanism as a middle path between radicals on the left (Black Lives Matter) and those on the right (Trump).
Will Haley’s balancing act work? Will it allow the Republican Party to forge a new identity as peace-keepers in a divided multi-racial society? Given Trump’s success so far, it’s unlikely. The reaction on conservative talk radio, so far, has not been kind. And the supporters of Trump have already made their opinions of Haley known: