Nikki Haley’s State of the Union rebuttal was anti–Black Lives Matter.

The Ugly Message Hidden in Nikki Haley’s State of the Union Response

The Ugly Message Hidden in Nikki Haley’s State of the Union Response

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Jan. 13 2016 5:35 PM

Nikki Haley’s State of the Union Rebuttal Was Anti–Black Lives Matter

The South Carolina governor’s pleasant-sounding speech hid an ugly message.

Nikki Haley
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley speaks at the 2016 Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity in Columbia, South Carolina, Jan. 9, 2016.

Photo by Randall Hill/Reuters

On Tuesday, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley lived up to the hype. Tasked with giving the Republican Party’s response to President Obama’s final State of the Union address, Haley excelled, besting predecessors in a difficult format.

Jamelle Bouie Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is Slates chief political correspondent.

Besides her skill and comfort in giving a televised address, the secret to her success isn’t hard to parse. Instead of rebutting Obama, she aimed her fire—and by extension, the Republican Party’s—at its chief threat: Donald Trump.

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“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,” said Haley, introducing herself to the American public for the first time, before going on the offensive against the Republican presidential front-runner. “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.”

Most coverage—and most praise—of Haley’s address focused on this passage and others that signaled a clear attack on Trump from the Republican establishment. “No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country,” she said.

But missing in the analysis was a detailed look at the next part of her speech, where she contrasted Trump and anti-immigration voices on the right with protest movements on the left. After voicing conservative Republican positions on border security, she pivoted to the defining event of her tenure in South Carolina—the racist killings at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

“What happened after the tragedy is worth pausing to think about,” she said. ”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.”

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Haley continued with this: “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.”

On the surface, this is a simple retelling of the story of last summer, where—after protests and pressure from community activists—Haley removed the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol building in Columbia (albeit, a retelling that threads the needle about what the Confederate flag actually means). At the same time, you don’t have to read closely to see it’s also a barely coded rebuke to movements like Black Lives Matter.

“We didn’t have riots, we had hugs,” for example, is a clear reference to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, where police killings of unarmed black men unleashed a torrent of pent-up anger and frustration around police violence and harassment.

“Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference,” she said. “That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.”

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This sounds pleasant enough. But underneath is something ugly: the idea that, if you face oppression or horrific violence, the only legitimate response is reflexive quiet and forgiveness. Good victims, Haley seems to say, don’t make noise. The people who do—they’re the real problem. In this formulation, traditional Republican conservatism is a moderating force, that exists between the noise of Trump and of Black Lives Matter.

This turn only holds, however, if you equate Trump—an opportunistic demagogue leading a nativist movement—with a movement whose name affirms the value of human life, and whose aim is less violence in the conduct of policing. Equating the two is sophistry.

But even if it wasn’t—even if Trump and Black Lives Matter were equivalent phenomena on different sides of the spectrum—Haley’s formulation only works if you deny that loud, angry people can have legitimate grievances. If rioting Baltimore residents are just petulant, then yes, they should stay quiet. But the people in Baltimore (and in Ferguson, and in any other city with protests over police violence) face deep deprivation. They live in hollowed-out neighborhoods and face deadly crime. They have a right to be angry. Indeed, anger—when harnessed and focused—can help create change.

Which gets to why Haley’s message will fail to change the present dynamic in the Republican Party. Much of the party’s base is angry. Some of this is rooted in unambiguous racism. But some of it reflects problems the party has ignored, from drug addiction and family instability to a broken economy that doesn’t deliver to ordinary workers. And if “be quiet” is the only answer establishment Republicans have, then they’ve already lost their war against Trump and his imitators.