Race to the Top

The racial opportunism of a rising political star in Trump's America

01 August 2018
TRAVIS DOVE/THE NEW YORK TIMES

IN LATE JUNE, NIKKI HALEY, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, came for a high-optics two-day tour in India. A brief media advisory issued by the United States mission to the UN slated the visit as diplomatic, designed “to underscore the United States’ shared values and strong alliance with the people of India.” The trip was a whirlwind: she met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, students, industry titans, politicians, and members of various religious communities. Journalists snapped photos of her alongside her kids and husband at various temples and gurdwaras. The 46-year-old American ambassador, who often calls herself “the proud daughter of Indian parents,” also received a rockstar welcome as India’s prodigal daughter, returned.

Haley has been to India only twice since the age of two—both times for diplomatic reasons. This time, Haley returned to deliver tough news. In May, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, exited the watershed Iran-United States nuclear non-proliferation deal forged under his predecessor, Barack Obama, in 2015. Signed by Germany, the European Union and all five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the treaty stipulated that Iran curtail its nuclear ambitions for up to 25 years and be subject to close monitoring by external bodies. In return, the United States lifted a 12-year embargo that had crippled the country’s economy. These moves allowed Iran to participate freely in the global market once again, particularly in the export of oil. Making good on an election promise, Trump announced his country’s withdrawal from the deal, declaring, “We will be instituting the highest level of economic sanction.” However, he could not isolate Iran alone. “Any nation that helps Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons could also be sanctioned by the United States,” he added. Washington demanded that all foreign companies introduce a total embargo on Iranian oil by this November.

This announcement put India in a bind. India and Iran share major regional interests. In 2017, Iran sold 471,000 barrels of oil to India daily, making it the country’s third-largest oil supplier. Purchasing oil from Iran is currently cheaper for India than from Saudi Arabia, and even a dollar increase in crude-oil prices is likely to increase the country’s total annual import costs by roughly Rs 823 crore—around $130 million. India also has a strategic interest in building up the Chabahar port in Iran, which would open a gateway into Afghanistan, allowing Indian traders to bypass Pakistan. In February this year, the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, visited India to sign deals boosting trade, investment and regional connectivity between the two countries. For those reasons, among others, the external-affairs minister Sushma Swaraj retorted in a press conference, “It is our clear stand that we abide by UN sanctions, not country-specific sanctions.”

On the other hand, relations between the United States and India have strengthened since the turn of the century. The trade in goods and services between India and the United States totalled nearly $115 billion in 2016—and it has only increased since. However, friction between the two countries grew as the United States postponed its “2+2 dialogue” for defence and security cooperation—a bilateral engagement agreed upon during Modi’s visit to Washington last year—for a third time. Many Indians interpreted this as an Iran-related snub. In a media interview, KC Singh, a former Indian ambassador to Iran, argued that the delay was a pressure tactic by the United States, to see whether India would fall in line apropos Iran. Under the threat of American penalty, India’s oil ministry reluctantly warned its refiners, “There could be drastic reduction or there could be no import at all” of Iranian oil.

In her June visit to India, Nikki Haley said she had a “constructive conversation” regarding Iran sanctions with Prime Minister Modi.
PTI

When Haley sat down for an interview with the journalist Nidhi Razdan, her host asked if she had discussed the Iran sanctions with Modi. Haley did not answer the question immediately. She responded instead, “The US sees Iran for the threat that it is.” Listing a string of Iran’s perceived prior treaty violations, she continued, with a careful smile, “I think that, as a friend, what India should also decide—is this a country that they want to continue doing business with.” Only then did she confirm that she indeed had what she called a “constructive conversation” with Modi.

Razdan asked pointedly, “There is then clearly a divergence, isn’t there, in the way India looks at Iran and the way the US looks at it?”

Haley sidestepped the question by circling back to allegations of wrongful Iranian behaviour. She said, “They have changed the playing field. And when a country changes the playing field and starts to go in the wrong direction, the rest of us have to go back and say, do we want to change the relationship. The US has had to look at that and I think India is going to have to look at that.”

Haley delivered an implicit ultimatum clothed as a friendly suggestion. The ambassador’s high-wire act was perhaps best made clear in a nearly imperceptible moment. “I think for the future of India and the future of being able to get resources and who they are dependent on, I think it’s”—she paused a moment, to search for the right words and the right emphasis—“we would encourage them to rethink their relationship with Iran.”

As the mouth and shield of American foreign policy, Haley tried to reassure Indians that the United States was not paying them short shrift. When asked about her country’s view of the India-United States relationship, she said, “I wouldn’t be here if India wasn’t a priority.” She also defended without reservation all of Trump’s foreign-policy decisions, including perhaps his government’s most controversial policy to date—the forced separation of migrant children from their parents at the United States’ southern border in cases involving any suspected crimes, including illegal crossings.

Haley’s thinly veiled demand launched a series of high-level talks in India. In July, Indian officials met with delegations from the United States and Iran to negotiate a possible reduction of Iranian oil imports. Meanwhile US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, in an attempt to temper mounting hostility and show American flexibility, said to journalists, “There will be a handful of countries that come to the US and ask for relief. We will consider it.” On 18 July, weeks before the first phase of sanctions against Iran was to go into effect, VK Singh, an Indian minister of state for external affairs, explained India’s stance: “India’s bilateral relations with Iran stand on their own and are not influenced by India’s relations with any third country.”

While Haley’s homecoming-of-sorts may have roiled India—leaving some thrilled and others enraged—she had few words to spare for India upon her return to the United Nations. There, she focussed on different geopolitical tensions—primarily her full-throated defence of Israel in light of what she portrayed as an entrenched bias against it in the UN. Just days before her visit to India, Haley had stage-managed a dramatic US exit from the UN Human Rights Council, calling it a “cesspool of political bias.” But most in the chamber do not labour under the illusion that Haley’s audience is the international community. They know that Haley is doing what she has always done—situating herself for her next domestic political manoeuvre.

vipin kumar/ hindustan times/ getty images

THE AMERICAN AUTHOR and newspaper columnist Anand Giridharadas once quipped, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that an Indian-American in possession of gubernatorial dreams must be in want of a name like Nikki or Bobby.” It is tempting to compare the United States’ second Indian-American state governor, Nikki Haley, to its first, Piyush “Bobby” Jindal. Both rose to power at young ages as conservative reformers in the Republican Party. Both converted to Christianity. And both launched their careers on the promise to tackle bloat and inefficiency.

But the similarities end there. At first, Jindal’s unprecedented success in the political arena won him donations even from Indian-Americans who supported the liberal Democratic Party. However, Jindal’s relationship with the Indian diaspora soon soured—he railed against the idea of “hyphenated Americans,” saying he was simply an American, refused to meet Modi when he visited the United States, and reportedly discouraged an Indian woman from wearing traditional clothing to an event. Courtesy of the Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu, the hashtag #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite trended on Twitter.

While Jindal’s conversion to Catholicism signified a break from his family’s Indian roots, Haley still supports and draws sustenance from the Indian-American community. Even though she converted to Methodism in her twenties, Haley attends Sikh services, as she has said, “out of respect for her parents’ culture.” Her father presides over the Sikh Religious Society of South Carolina. He sat behind her, identifiable by his turban, during her confirmation hearing to become the US ambassador to the United Nations. She frequently attended Indian-American events while stumping for votes, and the community helped her raise funds and get the word out.

pankaj nangia/ india today group/ getty images

Haley’s faith in the United States, her skill at staying on message, along with her charisma has fuelled her climb through the terrain of American politics. In 2004, she became the first Indian-American to hold elected office in the state of South Carolina. When she rose to the governor’s seat in 2010, she became the state’s first minority and first female governor. Now, she is the United States’ top diplomat—and its first Indian-American cabinet official. Though a poll by the American news organisation Politico in March 2018 found that nearly one-third of voters have not even heard of her, numerous pundits consider Haley a viable future contender for the US presidency.

From the start, Haley had a penchant for portraying herself as a scrappy outsider disrupting the crooked “good ol’ boys” system of her home state, South Carolina. As a newcomer to the political scene, she began her campaign with low visibility and uncertain favourability. Yet, Haley won the state’s governorship—becoming the first non-white candidate to do so.

Part of the story has to do with her ideology. She is a staunch fiscal conservative who entered politics via the business world. Brought up by parents who were teachers as well as business owners, Haley was always told to “not complain about things, but do something about them.” In an interview after she became governor, Haley remarked, “I feel like I’m just an accountant and business person who wants to be a part of state government.” The Economist, in 2016, compared her to Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to become prime minister of the United Kingdom, who was also a shopkeeper’s daughter: “Mrs. Haley’s upbringing bequeathed an extreme watchfulness about overheads and a sharp aversion to government intrusion.”

Haley often talks about how she loathes identity politics—as governor she was accused of not having a diverse cabinet in terms of race and gender, to which she responded that she did not subscribe to “special interest groups.” Her only criterion, she argues, is merit. Her own identity, however, has been central to her story. In her first race for the state legislature, her opponent condescended to her, calling her a “little lady.” As a gubernatorial candidate, she was smeared with multiple allegations that she was having an affair. (She frames the scale of the media’s hysteria that this set off by observing that even the Indian press covered the story.) Haley continues to face salacious scrutiny as a member of the Trump administration, such as when Michael Wolff, the author of the book Fire and Fury, implied that Haley had had an extramarital affair with the president. Still, Haley has often managed to turn her gender into a political advantage. She rose to the governor’s seat as one of the Tea Party icon Sarah Palin’s “mama grizzlies”—tough female conservatives.

She is also one of the most visible people of colour in the Republican Party. While this may be seen as a triumph of multicultural diversity in the United States, not all racial minorities are treated equally. As one of the country’s “model minorities,” many Indian-Americans have benefitted from white America’s willingness to accept them at the expense of other groups—particularly the black population, whose civil-rights struggles paved the way for the existence of an Indian-American diaspora. While Haley represents a gentler model of assimilation than Jindal, she makes sure to not play up her difference too drastically.

In doing so, Haley has converted her ethnic identity from an electoral liability into an asset. She passes as white both in name and appearance, and yet she can make a credible claim to being a loyal Indian-American. Though Haley converted to Christianity and many people appear to be unaware of her ethnic identity, she speaks at gurdwaras across the nation and refers to her immigrant background in her speeches. As governor, however, she has implemented restrictive voter laws targeting minorities and tried to tighten the vice on immigration, while introducing business-friendly policies that appeal to a narrow band of highly skilled workers. She shelters her fierce rhetoric against undocumented immigrants using her heritage and rose-tinted stories of an America on the cusp of overcoming racism.

By walking this tightrope, Haley can play to conservatives and moderates seeking a more diverse Republican Party while not alienating those constituents in its core base who fear the demographic changes remaking the United States. As Republicans try to embrace minorities at arms’ length, Haley is the ideal evangelist of conservative gospel.

IN 1963, AJIT SINGH AND RAJ KAUR RANDHAWA moved from India to Canada after Ajit received a scholarship to pursue a doctorate in biology at the University of British Columbia. The young couple came from affluent families in Punjab’s Amritsar. Ajit taught at a local college and Raj had a law degree from Delhi University. But they had to build their way up in their new home—a pregnant Raj had to work at the post office to supplement Ajit’s stipend. Though the Randhawas initially intended to return to India, in 1969 they instead moved to the United States, to a small town called Bamberg in South Carolina. Through a friend, Ajit had accepted a teaching position at Voorhees, a historically black college. Raj went on to receive a Master’s degree in education and taught social studies for several years before beginning her own business. Three years after the family moved to America, Nimrata “Nikki” Randhawa was born, the third of four children.

Looking back on this time, the Randhawa clan call themselves “The Original Six”—the first Indian-Americans to live in that small town. “My parents came to North America with eight dollars in their pocket and a work ethic that most Indians are known for,” Simran Singh, Haley’s sister, wrote on her blog. However, the Randhawas’ adoptive country did not appear welcoming at first. Haley writes in her memoir, Can’t Is Not an Option, that police officers occasionally harassed her father, suspecting the turbaned man of being a thief. The family was evicted twice in two days upon arrival, each time after the owners realised that the new tenants were Indian.

The Randhawas eventually found and bought a house owned by a local mill. Singh recalls the three conditions their landlords imposed: the house had to be sold back to the mill when they moved; no alcohol was allowed on the premises; and, finally, “we were not allowed to have people of color at our home.” The Randhawas could not host Ajit’s black colleagues.

Perhaps the most famous story told about Haley’s childhood concerns the Little Miss Bamberg beauty pageant. Each year, the pageant featured a white queen and a black queen. One year, Nikki and Simran tried to compete. The hapless judges, unable to racially sort the children, disqualified both. However, they allowed the crestfallen five-year-old Nikki to sing an American patriotic standard. That night, an audience of Bambergers listened to the future governor of their state sing, “This land is my land … this land was made for you and me.” Haley has gone on the record saying she hates this story, because it caricatures South Carolina as racist.

CHARLIE NEIBERGALL/ AP

As a student, Haley did not stand out. Rose Marie Craft, Haley’s history and government teacher at Orangeburg Preparatory High School, found her to be a polite but unremarkable student. Craft only remembered that Haley and two friends—one of whom was also Indian-American—used to come to the front of the class room to chat with their young teacher about things unrelated to school. Craft could not have predicted at the time that she was speaking to South Carolina’s future wunderkind.

Watching from the outside, Craft believes that Haley struggled socially both due to physical and racial distance. Bamberg was some 30 miles away, and Haley’s “family wasn’t Caucasian … and they hadn’t been in the area forever and ever.” She said, “I don’t doubt a bit that she was left outside of things, because she was different.” With a hint of concern, Craft added, “Back then, I think they felt more accepted with the teacher than in the hallway with the other children talking in little groups. Looking back on it, I just have that idea.”

Nikki Randhawa did not seem to shine in college either. She went to Clemson University, where she got her degree in accounting in 1994. In her memoir, Haley notes that she had little interest in leadership or college politics during that time. Rick Uhlmann, the director of media relations and public information at Clemson’s College of Business, informed me that none of the accounting professors recalled teaching Haley, though several had taught at Clemson while she attended.

While her academic life may have been unremarkable, Haley’s business pedigree was not. She began keeping the books for her mother’s company, Exotica International, at the tender age of twelve, when Raj had started it as little more than a living-room curios store. After Haley worked for several years for a recycling company, she returned to her mother’s ever-expanding business. Under Raj and Nikki’s watchful eyes, Exotica transformed into a multi-million-dollar enterprise selling jewelry and gowns. By 2004, the year Haley was elected into the South Carolina House of Representatives, the company had an annual revenue of $1.8 million.

The Randhawas call themselves "The Original Six" - the first Indian Americans to live in Bamberg, South Carolina.

Nikki’s interest in politics was kindled as a businesswoman having to navigate taxes and red tape. “My motivation came from my frustration about how hard it was getting to make a dollar in South Carolina and how easy it was for the government to take it,” she said in an interview with a magazine. She joined the chambers of commerce in Orangeburg and Lexington, as well as the National Association of Women Business Owners—NAWBO—to represent Exotica’s interests. She later served as the president of NAWBO’s South Carolina chapter for several years.

Two years after graduation, in 1996, Nikki married her college sweetheart Michael Haley, an officer in the South Carolina Army National Guard, despite the initial objections of her parents. He would later serve in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province for almost a year, developing agrobusiness as an alternative to opium farming. The couple had two children, and she converted to Christianity. In an interview in 2012, she explained her conversion simply: “I understood the language, I understood what it was saying and so much of what Christianity brought. With the Sikh faith, I understood the feeling of the faith, but I never understood the words, so that’s really what that was.” Nonetheless, she and Michael married with two ceremonies—one Christian, and one Sikh.

Today, Nikki Haley is a Bamberg hero. A humid, sweltering town of a few thousand, Bamberg screams Americana. Trent Kinard, Haley’s childhood friend and a Bamberg city councilman, raved to me about a community where you see every neighbour at the grocery store, as well as the string of baseball championships won by a team led by “the all-time winningest baseball coach in the country.” For Kinard, Haley’s success is the community ethos made manifest. A sign welcoming people into Bamberg now reads: “Home of Nikki Haley, Governor of South Carolina.”

Kinard framed Bamberg as a community blind to race, describing it as a “friendly place,” where “neighbours help each other, doesn’t matter black and white.” He later continued, “Come football games, black and white, everyone gets together.” Yet, Kinard’s account of a faded colour line seemed to apply to Haley more than other minorities. Offhandedly, he noted that Haley was the first person of colour he remembered swimming in the town pool used by the white population, despite Bamberg’s long-resident black community. “She was one of us,” he said, “she just had a nice tan, is all.”

Despite his obvious fondness for Haley, Kinard seemed largely unconvinced by the Randhawas’ claims of experiencing racial discrimination. Multiple times, he insisted that race and ethnicity do not play in Bamberg. “Colour don’t matter, rich or poor.” He noted that kids played basketball across colour lines. He added, almost as an afterthought: “As a kid, maybe I didn’t have the experience to see what was going on. But I didn’t see it.”

LIKE EVERY STATE IN THE UNITED STATES, the southeastern state of South Carolina is a white-majority state. Some 27 percent of the population is black—more than double the national average. Asian-Americans constitute less than two percent of the state’s population. And still, an Indian-American woman became the first person to break a string of white male governors stretching back to the state’s founding in 1788.

While racial tensions simmer and erupt throughout the United States, these dynamics are often thrust into painful prominence in the Deep South. For hundreds of years, slave states such as South Carolina built their economic power on the backs of enslaved black men, women and children who grew and harvested crops on plantations controlled by white men. America supplied 77 percent of Great Britain’s cotton, feeding an Industrial Revolution that would decimate India’s formerly dominant textiles industry in the mid nineteenth century. The American South was so reliant on the crop that many from the region christened it “King Cotton.” The 1790 constitution of South Carolina declared that only a “free white man” would be eligible to enter the state House of Representatives, provided he also had “a settled freehold estate of five hundred acres of land and ten negroes.”

When the election of the Republican Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 threatened this order, South Carolina became the first southern state that attempted to secede from the Union, for “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery.” The following year, South Carolina became one of the founding members of seven secessionist states demanding the establishment of an independent Confederate States of America. This launched the American Civil War, whose first battle occurred in Fort Sumter in 1861 in Charleston. The war concluded in 1865, with the abolition of slavery, establishment of the black male vote and the collapse of the Confederacy.

Republican lawmakers tried to cement black political and economic equality over the following decade. By 1876, they controlled just three Southern states: South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana. That year, the Republican president Rutherford B Hayes secured his legitimacy by promising Congressional Democrats unfettered control over the entire South. The former Confederate states soon implemented Jim Crow laws—local or state laws that mandated racial segregation in all public facilities, including schools, restaurants and toilets. One South Carolinian law attempted to restrict the entry of blacks into the territory, mandating that “no person of color shall migrate into and reside in this state, unless, within twenty days after his arrival within the same, he shall enter into a bond with two freeholders as sureties.” Other laws targeted the polls, modifying voting rights with an aim to disenfranchise black voters. By 1900, the census indicated that 60 percent of South Carolina’s citizens were black, yet the black population had no political representation. These laws would endure until 1965.

Nikki’s interest in politics was kindled as a businesswoman having to navigate taxes and red tape. “My motivation came from my frustration about how hard it was getting to make a dollar in South Carolina and how easy it was for the government to take it.”

When they deemed the law insufficient, white mobs resorted to terror, burning black churches and schools. The most infamous white-supremacist organisation in the United States, the Ku Klux Klan, was formed a year after the Civil War ended. Led by the former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, the organisation was particularly notorious in South Carolina. In 1871, KKK members garbed in white cloaks and white hoods stormed a jail and executed eight black prisoners. In 1947, 31 white men were acquitted for lynching the 24-year-old Willie Earle in Greenville. As the New Yorker reported, “He had been beaten and stabbed and shot in the body and the head. The bushes around him were splashed with his brain tissue.”

The racist attitudes from this period applied to non-white immigrants too. With United States vs Bhagat Singh Thind, the US Supreme Court unanimously decided in 1923 that Indians were ineligible to become naturalised citizens of the country. The law only considered those immigrants who were “free white persons” or “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent” as legitimate applicants. Thind, who was a Punjabi-Sikh immigrant, Berkeley graduate and First World War veteran, unsuccessfully tried to prove that he belonged to the “Caucasian or white race” as a “high caste Hindu of full Indian blood” from the land of Aryan conquerors. The next year, the Asian Exclusion Act throttled immigration from countries such as British India to secure America’s borders. Less than 50 years before Haley was born in his home state, the US senator Ellison DuRant Smith railed, “With regard to the salvation of our own, let us shut the door and assimilate what we have. …We want men not like dumb, driven cattle from those nations.” The United States harboured only a tiny “Hindoo” population, as the census labelled Indian-Americans. That is, until the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 reopened the door.

The Immigration and Nationality Act was a legacy of the monumental efforts of the African-American civil-rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. As the struggle of black Americans slowly made open racial discrimination increasingly taboo, the inconsistency between civil-rights legislation predicated on social equality and immigration laws privileging individuals from white countries grew less tenable. When the vice president Hubert Humphreys defended the Immigration Act, he said, “We have removed all elements of second-class citizenship from our laws by the Civil Rights Act.” He continued, “We must in 1965 remove all elements in our immigration law which suggest there are second-class people.” Attorney-general Robert Kennedy echoed, “Everywhere else in our national life, we have eliminated discrimination based on one’s place of birth. Yet this system is still the foundation of our immigration law.”

Slave states such as South Carolina built their economic power on the backs of enslaved black men, women and children who grew and harvested crops on plantations controlled by white men.
MPI/ GETTY IMAGES

Although politicians tied this reform to ideals of human equality harking back to America’s founding fathers, the Immigration Act’s demographic ripples would remake the United States’ racial composition in ways that could never have been anticipated. These measures allowed new entrants from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Some of these newcomers became the model minorities. This landmark legislation presaged India’s “brain drain,” as legions of educated professionals, such as Ajit and Raj Randhawa, sailed and flew to the United States.

While few Indians lived in the United States before 1965, their population swelled to nearly 3.2 million by 2010. According to the National Science Foundation, the migration of Indian scientists and engineers to the United States increased by 85 percent between 2005 and 2015. By 2015, Indian-Americans had a median annual household income of $100,000—nearly twice the national median. Two Indians have sat in governor’s seats—the same number as African-Americans, though the latter compose over 12 percent of the population.

Both as a cause and a consequence of their social mobility, there is a prevalent stereotype about Asian immigrants—particularly Chinese, Indians, Japanese and Koreans—as hard-working, respectable, and non-confrontational. The role of these apparently self-made individuals resonated with older American myths of the self-made man, providing the ideal foil to other immigrants and the black demographic in the United States. As a successful white-passing Indian-American Christian conservative, Nikki Haley is the apotheosis of the model-minority myth.

Of course, many immigrants, from India and otherwise, have participated in the battle against racial inequality. A 2016 survey of Asian-Americans found that only 16 percent of Indian-Americans voted for Trump in the 2016 national election. The first Asian-American congressman, an Indian-American Sikh named Dalip Singh Saund, was elected as a California Democrat in 1957. There are five Indian-Americans in the United States legislature today, and they are all Democrats.

Indian-Americans have not been strangers to discrimination even after the 1965 Immigration Act. In Jersey City, the hate group Dotbusters committed several attacks in 1987, including some murders. They defiantly scrawled in a letter to the local news, “We will go to any extreme to get Indians to move out of Jersey City.” The New York Times reported that locals often endorsed the hate crimes. After 9/11 and the advent of the War on Terror, the distinction between adherents of Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism began to blur. The non-profit organisation South Asian Americans Leading Together, or SAALT, reported incidents of hate violence against South Asians spiking after 9/11 and in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. In February 2017, a white man shot two IT engineers, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, shouting at them to “get out of my country.” Kuchibhotla died.

According to Sunaina Maira, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California-Davis, South-Asians have historically had to contend with the political system in the United States. “People have this idea that immigrants are apolitical and naïve, but immigrants always had to be engaged with the legal system to get their rights,” she said. Lakshmi Sridaran, director of national policy and advocacy at SAALT, also noted that organising for rights by South Asians extends back to the early twentieth century, when protestors ranged from the predominantly Punjabi Sikh farm workers on the West Coast to communities in New Orleans. Far from contemporary South Asians abandoning this history of resistance, Sridaran optimistically argues that today’s “critical mass of organising is unprecedented.”

However, Sridaran also spoke to me about a persistent “aspiration for whiteness” within the Indian-American community, which serves to undermine civil-rights struggles. It endorses the idea that there is a “right” type of minority—and those who do not fit its mould are dangerous. As such, Sridaran warned that this “willingness to ingratiate themselves with white supremacy for short-term gains leads to long-term huge losses for the broader South Asian American community.” Maira also identified a rightward shift after 1965, with an influx of middle- and upper-class South Asians, and Indians specifically, more focussed on upward economic mobility than political mobility. “Even before 9/11, the Indian Hindu community has always tried to ally itself with mainstream power to establish themselves as good citizens,” she added bluntly.

AS HALEY TELLS IT, her becoming a politician happened almost by accident. A 30-year-old mother with two young kids and without experience in even collegiate government, she was an unlikely candidate during her first electoral race, in 2004. At different times, she has mentioned different inspirations for her decision to run. In her memoir, she said she had never considered politics as a career until her friend Eleanor Kitzman offered the suggestion. In an interview in 2012, Haley credited a speech by Hillary Clinton on women in politics at a leadership programme as the catalyst, reminiscing, “I walked out of there thinking, ‘That’s it. I’m running for office.’” At other times, Haley has cited the South Carolina political veteran Rita Allison as an influence for her decision to run. Allison recalled to me the advice she had given Haley: “If you have a burning desire in the pit of your stomach to seek elective office, go for it! That burning desire will get you over the humps and through the valleys of politics.”

Led by the former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan was particularly notorious in South Carolina.
UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/ UIG/ GETTY IMAGES

Haley’s main opponent in the race for the state House of Representatives could not have stood in starker contrast. A fellow Republican, the incumbent Larry Koon was white, male and the longest-serving member of the state’s lower house. He also had a family pedigree stretching back generations in the South, and the connections to match. Haley was running as an outsider who promised to rattle the status quo Koon embodied. As an unknown candidate who struggled even to hire a political consultant, she was only able to make it to the run-off election—a second round of voting between the top two candidates in the absence of an absolute majority—after she found pay dirt on Larry Koon. He once said, “Women are best suited for secretarial work, decorating cakes, and counter sales, like selling lingerie.”

South Carolina has earned a reputation for blood-sport politics in the United States, due to underhanded campaigning and dirty tricks. Whether or not these claims are exaggerated, Koon’s campaign quickly turned nasty. A newspaper advertisement, trying to cast Haley as an outsider, used her birth name, Nimrata Randhawa, to dogwhistle that she was not a “REAL Republican.” Passersby sometimes jeered at her volunteers with Hinduphobic slurs. Haley won anyway, by a margin of 10 percent. She would go on to win her next two elections, in 2006 and 2008, unopposed.

The Tea Party icon Sarah Palin gave haley a vote of confidence, and with it a massive campaign boost.
MARY WITH CHASTAIN/ AP

In her memoir and interviews, Haley presents herself as a maverick within the South Carolina legislature from the beginning. Yet her first few years document a swift rise through its ranks. In 2005, her first year, she held the position of chair of the freshman caucus—a conference made up of newly elected members serving their first session after elections. By her second year, she was the majority whip—one of the most powerful establishment seats in the legislature. The following year she was made the vice-chair of the women’s caucus.

Her true fall from establishment grace began in 2008, when she introduced a proposal to make voting records available to the public. Haley saw it as a measure for increasing legislators’ accountability towards the public—unlike other states, South Carolina could pass proposals, bills and legislation without a roll-call vote, but through a voice vote. Her proposal bred enemies in a legislature famous for its closed-door approach to allocating government funds. But she also found a powerful mentor and friend in Mark Sanford, the popular sitting governor of South Carolina, and a fellow spending-hawk committed to smaller and more transparent government.

Haley’s decision to run for governor in 2010 emerged from her conversations with Sanford, who faced term limits forbidding him from contesting again. In her memoir, Haley recalls asking Sanford, “Do you think South Carolina is ready for a female governor?” Noticeably, she did not ask him whether South Carolina was ready for a non-white governor.

Still a relative newcomer to the South Carolina political scene, she once again had to run a race with low visibility and countenance racist affronts. On an online talk show, the state senator Jake Knotts infamously said of her candidacy, “We don’t need a raghead in the governor’s mansion.” Haley’s search for backing among older establishment folks did not go well either. John Rainey, the late political activist and chairman of the state’s board of economic advisers, demanded to see her tax returns and phone records, and make background checks to ensure she was not related to terrorists. Rainey claimed he made the comment about terrorists in jest. Though Sanford released a statement supporting her candidacy, he stopped short of a full-blown endorsement. Further, when journalists exposed Sanford’s affair with a woman from Argentina, Haley’s campaign seemed like it might be kneecapped permanently.

Luckily for her, it was a time when discontent was brewing in the country. Haley’s visible push to clear the swamp of South Carolina politics with the voting accountability bill won her the attention of the fledgling Tea Party. A conservative populist movement, the Tea Party was formed in 2009 following Barack Obama’s election to the presidency. Though the movement loosely allied with the Republican Party, its defining ethos was a distrust of establishment politics. Officially, Tea Party movers and shakers supported limited government and hawkish approaches to the federal debt that were far from Washington orthodoxy. Unofficially, the Tea Party also attracted a less palatable crowd on the fringe of the mainstream. Racists flocked to their ranks, with protesters against Obama chanting slogans such as, “Bye Bye, Blackbird” and “Obama’s Plan: White Slavery.”

Nevertheless, the Tea Party figurehead Sarah Palin—the erstwhile governor of Alaska and vice presidential hopeful in the 2008 national election—gave Haley a vote of confidence, and with it a massive campaign boost. Urging voters to support Haley, Palin wrote in a Facebook post in 2010, “She’s the scrappy underdog in a tough competitive primary.” With the help of a few other high-profile endorsements, including from the Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and the influential conservative blog RedState, Haley went on to win the governor’s race.

Once in power, she continued to face scrutiny. Rainey’s accusation that Haley had lobbied illegally while she was a legislator ballooned into a full-blown ethics investigation. Concerns were raised about possible conflicts of interest, including a six-figure “fundraising” position that Haley had secured with a medical complex, the Lexington Medical Center, while she was a state legislator. The hospital admitted that it created the position for Haley, without explaining why they would hire an accountant turned politician as a fundraiser. In an unexpected move, Haley decided to testify before the ethics committee to defend her reputation. She argued that Rainey was driven by racist motives and called him a “racist, sexist bigot who has tried everything in his power to hurt me and my family.” Haley was cleared of all charges.

On 12 January 2011, Nikki Haley became South Carolina's first minority and first woman governor.
THE DOMINICK/ THE STATE/ MCT/ GETTY IMAGES

In her memoir and in public statements, Haley implied that the racist attacks she experienced were evidence of the inferior character of her detractors. While insisting that these attackers represented only the fringes of society, she framed her string of victories as a series of implicit referenda on racism. On the other hand, Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democratic member of South Carolina’s House of Representatives, echoed Trent Kinard’s description of the young Haley in Bamberg: “A lot of South Carolinians didn’t know she was a woman of colour. They thought she was a nice, conservative woman with a tan.” Unlike Kinard, however, Cobb-Hunter argued that race and racism persist throughout South Carolinian politics, hiding behind an elaborate façade of genteel behaviour and language.

Haley has denied Cobb-Hunter’s claim that her voters did not know her ethnic identity during her 2010 campaign, and has claimed that insinuations that she passed as white were racist. When I asked Cobb-Hunter if Haley could have won as a dark-skinned Indian woman, she replied, “I don’t think that someone who was five shades darker could win in South Carolina.”

In 2011, journalists unearthed that Haley had reported herself as white rather than Asian on a 2001 voter registration card. Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the Democratic Party, argued that this spoke to Haley’s pattern of instrumentally shifting her racial identity from white to Indian to secure power.

Indeed, the lack of awareness about Haley’s Indian heritage seems to be rather common—many people I spoke to, including South Asian Americans, were surprised to learn that Haley was not white. Sridaran recalled, “I remember the first time seeing Nikki Haley, and not knowing that she was South Asian at all.” Maira similarly marvelled, “I think the fact she’s ambiguously South Asian is interesting. She’s managed to pass so successfully.”

In 2011, journalists unearthed that Haley had reported herself as white rather than Asian on a 2001 voter registration card. Dick Harpootlian, a former chairman of the Democratic Party, argued that this spoke to Haley’s pattern of instrumentally shifting her racial identity from white to Indian to secure power. Harpootlian himself came under fire for apparent race-baiting when he said that Democrats needed to send Nikki Haley back to “wherever the hell she came from.” (Harpootlian claimed he meant Lexington.) The governor’s office did not release a comment at the time.

A conservative populist movement, the Tea Party was formed in 2009 following Barack Obama's election to presidency.
BILL CLARK/ ROLL CALL/ GETTY IMAGES

I asked Schuyler Kropf, the political editor of the South Carolina Post and Courier, whether most voters cared or even realised that she was not white. “I think they realised, but she was outward about it,” he said. “It was something she could joke and laugh about, and it disarmed a lot of the electorate.” After a brief pause, he added that because they knew she was a Republican, it “greased the skids.”

Nevertheless, there are advantages to being a minority candidate in a conservative political party. Stephen Caliendo, a political scientist who studies the role of race-based appeals in elections, told me, “It can’t be overstated how attractive it is to white conservatives” to have candidates like Haley endorse racist positions or policies, or to declare racism’s demise. He continued, “having your beliefs validated by someone who would be disadvantaged by racism” meant that your position could not be racist. Caliendo eventually summarised Haley’s appeal to conservative whites and Indian-Americans alike more simply: “I take these hardline positions because of who I am, not in spite of who I am.”

“I am amazed at how the party uses diversity hires as an emblem of how they aren’t racist,” Cobb-Hunter said. Sridaran noted that conservative electorates are sometimes “really willing to uplift a person of colour to show that things are working.” She continued with a hint of sarcasm, “That this is the way things are supposed to be.”

Haley's tenure as ambassador to the UN is unusually high-profile, due to the magnitude of Trump's changes to the status quo.
KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

Once in office, Haley claims she changed business as usual. But for a supposedly transparent administration, Haley both expected and rewarded fealty. In her memoir, she bitterly recollects the disloyalty of former political consultants who later worked on different campaigns. She nominated her friend Eleanor Kitzman from NAWBO as the director of the department of health and environmental control, without considering other options. (The previous director was chosen from 300 candidates.) Haley’s administration also replaced Darla Moore, a member of the University of South Carolina board of trustees, with one of her campaign contributors. Haley could not be reached for comment, despite multiple requests for a conversation in person, over the phone or by email.

Despite these controversies, Haley would go on as governor to deliver a business and immigration agenda straight out of conservative dreams—that would prove a boon to Indian-Americans and boondoggle to South Carolina’s vulnerable.

“IT’S A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN SOUTH CAROLINA!” beamed the newly elected governor Nikki Haley, using her signature catchphrase. It was a summer’s day in Charleston, and Haley had come to speak at the ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the aircraft- and defence-manufacturing giant Boeing’s first plant in South Carolina, in 2011. To scattered applause in the June heat, she went on to say, “We could not be more thrilled to celebrate a great American company.” She emphasised to workers gathered there that they were lucky to have a company that appreciated and cared for them. “This company is going to take care of you,” she said. But her next words were for Boeing’s leadership: “And we want Boeing to know, South Carolina is committed to you. It is our job to make sure you are successful. We’re going to fight for you.”

Haley considered Boeing’s arrival in Charleston to be a major victory. The company purchased a massive chunk of land in the city, including the Trailwood Mobile Home Park. Videos produced by “Angry Grandpa,” a viral-video producer, chronicled the rezoning of Trailwood to construct a road through to the Boeing plant. Many poor residents had lived in the park for years. They all left—some with their homes, some without them. As the former residents lived on month-to-month leases, they received no financial compensation. (Boeing could not be reached for comment despite multiple requests.)

Boeing’s new plant also attracted the attention of the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB opened hearings, suspecting that the company had opened its new plant in order to punish striking workers in a different state. South Carolina is a “right to work” state—one of 28 mostly southern and western states that have adopted legislation that removes joining a union as a condition of employment. As of 2017, South Carolina had the lowest union membership rates in the United States, at 2.6 percent. Though NLRB procedures tend to be far removed from the White House, Haley tied the group’s interest in the Boeing plant to the then-president Barack Obama.

Haley remained a muscular advocate of Boeing Charleston throughout her governorship. In her 2012 State of the State address, she said, “I love that we are one of the least unionised states in the country … We don’t have unions in South Carolina because we don’t need unions in South Carolina … And we’ll make the unions understand full well that they are not needed, not wanted, and not welcome.” Boeing workers in South Carolina rejected unionisation time and again during her tenure as governor—though in May this year, around 180 workers voted to unionise.

The Republican Hindu Coalition chairman Shalabh "Shalli" kumar made the highest possible donation to Trump's campaign, and was Haley's largest donor in her gubernatorial run.
JONATHAN ERNST/ REUTERS

While some have suggested Boeing might have questionable labour practices, many Indian immigrants were grateful to the company. For Shikhar Mehrotra, the president of the Indian Association of Greater Charleston, Boeing’s arrival was one of the best things to happen to the Indian-American community in South Carolina. “She welcomed Boeing … and now we have 15,000 employees. She brought lots of engineers and other workers, and a lot of Indians are Boeing employees or work at the university, a lot of people have these technical jobs,” he said. Beyond the airplane company, Mehrotra credited Haley’s policies with feeding a business boom in South Carolina—and businesses, hungry for skilled workers, hired numerous Indian-Americans. The Indian diaspora swelled from this influx, encouraging still more to arrive—Mehrotra pointed to Charleston’s vibrant Gujarati and Tamil communities, in particular.

Haley’s policies were less kind to other immigrants. In 2015, she shut South Carolina’s doors to Syrian refugees, citing security concerns. The same month she welcomed Boeing into South Carolina, she signed Senate Bill 20, which tightened the state’s already restrictive immigration policy. The law required police officers to call federal immigration officials if they suspected someone lived in the country illegally and allowed them to question immigration status following arrests or traffic stops. As the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out in a class-action lawsuit, such policies encourage racial profiling in practice. Several courts blocked key components of the bill. In 2014, the state and ACLU reached a settlement, and South Carolina significantly scaled back its immigration crackdown. Nonetheless, between 2009 and 2014 the unauthorised immigrant population in the United States dropped in seven states. One of them was South Carolina.

Susan Dunn, the legal director for the ACLU in South Carolina, pointed out that SB20 was not even the first anti-immigrant legislation in South Carolina. In 2009, South Carolina banned undocumented residents from attending public institutes of higher education in the state. Though Haley has a long record of tough rhetoric against illegal immigrant populations, less than 5 percent of South Carolina residents were immigrants as of 2014. The national average at the time was 13.3 percent. Only around 85,000 undocumented immigrants lived in the state—less than 2 percent of the total population. By comparison, the national average stands at 3.4 percent.

Haley does not dismiss all immigrants. Before she joined Trump’s Cabinet, she critiqued his proposed ban of Muslims from seven countries by saying, “We’ve never in the history of this country passed any laws or done anything based on race or religion.” (The accuracy of this statement is a separate matter.) Haley ties her hardline stance against illegal immigration to rhetoric supporting legal, highly skilled immigration—which fits neatly with the calculus of many organisations that represent South Asian interests.

This also falls in line with Trump’s draconian policies. Earlier this year, the United States was racked by the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act controversy. The debate was over whether and how undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children can attain the right to live in the country legally. As the Trump administration relentlessly tried to enforce a harder border against Mexico, roughly 11 million people who came to the country as children fought for a path to legal residence.

In response, on 3 February, the Republican Hindu Coalition staged a rally outside the White House. Founded in 2015 to “be the unique bridge between the Hindu-American community and Republican policymakers,” the RHC is almost exclusively concerned with the security and economic relationship between India and the United States. The RHC also states erroneously: “Hindus include all faiths like Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists that were born in India.” With both foot soldiers and financial muscle, the RHC exemplifies what the scholar Vijay Prashad labelled as “Yankee Hindutva”—a movement supporting the BJP in India and the Republican Party in the United States on the twin planks of Islamophobia and the free market.

Haley has old ties to the Chicago businessman and RHC founder Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar. Kumar reminisced in a 2016 interview, “Her father Ajit Singh Randhawa approached me in the summer of 2010 to support his daughter’s campaign to run for governor of South Carolina.” He became her largest donor. Kumar would later also support Trump due to his harsh rhetoric against Muslims, saying, “A lot of people think that Trump is somewhat of a racist. His partnership with the Republican Hindu Coalition will set that aside.” Though the RHC is a non-profit, Kumar sent the maximum possible private donation to the Trump campaign—$898,800, in his and his wife’s name. At Trump’s Diwali party last year, both Haley and Kumar made the guest list.

Shouting “We love Trump!” and waving all-caps signs with phrases such as, “Bring best and the brightest,” members of the RHC cheered on Trump’s brutal rhetoric and the pivot from family reunification to “merit-based immigration.” (Trump once said at a Republican Hindu Coalition rally, “I am a big fan of Hindu. Big, big fan,” so the affection appears to be mutual.) Similarly, an advocacy organisation for legal and highly skilled immigrants, Immigration Voice, urged its supporters to avoid lobbying for any immigration bills other than HR 392, the Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act of 2017. In HR 392, immigrants would expedite their residency application by paying a fee to fund the construction and maintenance of Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico.

A staggering 94 percent of black South Carolinians voted for Clinton in 2016.
T.J. KIRKPATRICK/ BLOOMBERG/GETTY IMAGES

The Trump administration, in a recent move, has made it difficult for even high-skilled Indian immigrants to stay on in the United States. On 13 July, the United States government added more conditions for H-1B visa holders—the largest share of whom are Indians working for IT companies—to prove their eligibility to work in the country. These new regulations, effective 11 September, allow officials sweeping authority to deny visa applications without warning applicants. The government has not yet established whether the spouses of H1-B visa holders have the right to work in the United States. Due to this uncertainty, many Indian immigrants who support Trump’s immigration trade-off may soon find themselves forced to return to India.

While Haley does not verbally target African-American constituents in the way she does undocumented immigrants, her job-focussed policies have often harmed South Carolina’s black community. Haley has claimed that her business sympathies are the best path to creating racial equality, and she has often made bold choices with rhetoric. During her first inaugural address as governor, she stated, “It would be wrong to mention our greatness during the revolutionary period without noting the ugliness of much that followed. The horrors of slavery and discrimination need not be retold here. They, too, remain a part of our history and a part of the fabric of our lives.”

And yet, the chasm in employment between black and white South Carolinians endured during her tenure. In 2015, nearly 13 percent of black South Carolinians lacked jobs—almost three times the paltry 4.3 percent of white South Carolinians who were unemployed. Four years earlier, Haley had spearheaded a charge to reduce the lifespan of unemployment insurance from 26 to 20 weeks. In 2014, fewer than 15 percent of short-term jobless workers in South Carolina received benefits—the lowest rate in the country. This is less than half the national average of 34.7 percent, and less than a quarter of the insurance of the most sympathetic state, New Jersey.

Sometimes, this conflict has been more direct. Haley condemned the Black Lives Matter movement, which formed in 2013 to protest police brutality against black citizens and gained steam as a wider anti-racist movement in subsequent years. She said, “Black lives do matter, and they have been disgracefully jeopardised by the movement that has laid waste to Ferguson and Baltimore.” Haley also pushed a voter-ID law in 2011, requiring voters to present photo identification. Voter fraud is virtually non-existent in the United States, but identification requirements do reduce black, Latino and youth turnout. All of these are Democratic constituencies. To Haley’s fury, the Obama administration blocked this law entirely as an example of voter suppression.

Black voters tend to be reliably Democratic, so much so that Cobb-Hunter remarked to me that, in South Carolina, the “legislative black caucus and the Democratic caucus are frankly quite interchangeable.” Despite Haley’s soaring rhetoric about businesses’ ability to lift all boats, her African-American constituents did not grow enamoured with the Republican Party during her tenure. A staggering 94 percent of black South Carolinians voted for Clinton in 2016.

ON 17 JUNE 2015, Dylann Roof joined a weekly Bible study session at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Mother Emanuel, as it is often called, is the oldest independent black church in the United States. After sitting through the study for an hour, Roof opened fire, slaughtering nine black Americans, including the church pastor and state senator Clementa Pinckney. The horrific attack transfixed the nation. State authorities captured Roof in less than 24 hours, and he later confessed that he wanted to incite a race war. Roof had left a railing manifesto detailing his racist beliefs on a website just before he left for the shooting. “I choose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and one time had the highest ratio of blacks to whites in the country,” it said. “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the Internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.” Later, images of Roof posing with the Confederate flag emerged.

After the white supremacist Dylan Roof murdered nine black Americans, he confessed he wanted to incite a race war.
AP

In the American South, the Confederate flag remains a lightning rod for political controversy. The flag is bound up in romanticised notions of the era of slavery, white supremacy and Southern heritage. The post-Civil War South Carolina statehouse first raised the Confederate flag in 1961—an official commemoration of the war’s hundredth anniversary, which conveniently coincided with the fledgling civil-rights movement. In 1996, the governor David Beasley spearheaded an effort to remove the Confederate flag in the wake of various hate crimes against black Americans. His bid for a second term failed. During Haley’s career until that shooting, she had described the flag as a key piece of Southern heritage.

When Haley first received the call from her chief of staff that Mother Emanuel had been attacked, she immediately called Senator Pinckney. “This is Nikki. I’ve heard about the shooting. I’m sending my full SLED team down there. Call me.” A response would not come. When Haley delivered the press conference the next day, her usually careful voice cracked and then broke. “We have some pain we have to go through…Parents are having to explain to their kids how they can go to church and feel safe, and that’s not something we ever thought we’d deal with.” Haley attended every funeral.

Haley’s leadership over the grieving state would prove a defining moment for both South Carolina and her political life. As the clamour to pull down the Confederate flag arose, Haley called in her staff to announce that she would lead an effort to remove the Confederate flag. It would require a two-thirds majority. She promised, “I will forever be grateful if you stand with me, but if you choose not to, I will hold no ill will.”

On 25 June 2015, Haley formally announced her decision. “I stand in front of you, a minority female governor, twice elected by the people of South Carolina,” she said. Haley referred to the Confederate flag as “an integral part of our past” and “a symbol of respect, integrity, and duty” for many tolerant South Carolinians. And then, she demanded its removal from the South Carolina statehouse as a demonstration of unity against hatred—a physical embodiment of South Carolina’s spiritual triumph over racism.

Cobb-Hunter agreed that the removal of the flag was meaningful, but argued that it was also political theatre. She pointed to an unsung reason—pressure from a frustrated business community seeking to remove obstacles to outside investment. Indeed, the decision motivated the National Collegiate Athletic Association to end its 15-year boycott of a state famous for its love of college sports. As Cobb-Hunter put it, “There are people who have capitalised on the flag and the deaths in Charleston.”

If this was theatre, Haley received a standing ovation. Many South Carolinians who backed her in her races in 2010 and 2014 vowed to never forgive her for spearheading the effort to remove the flag. But Politico declared, “Nikki Haley’s star rises as rebel flag comes down.” The black liberal icon Jesse Jackson credited “the leadership and courage of the governor” for the victory. The flag was moved to a museum.

Mother Emanuel, as it is often called, is the oldest independent black church in the United States.
DAVID GOLDMAN/AP

Less than half a year later, the Republican Party asked Haley to deliver the response to Obama’s final State of the Union address—an annual message delivered by the president to a joint session of the US congress. At the time, the Republican Party was floundering on the national stage. Despite its dominance in the federal legislature, in-fighting between establishment conservatives and the anti-establishment Tea Party faction continued to plague America’s right. The Republican leadership also feared that the growing minority population in the United States was on track to become an unassailable Democratic vote bank.

After the Democratic incumbent Barack Obama trounced Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee—the RNC—launched the Growth and Opportunity Project to improve their party’s performance. A lengthy report indicted the state of conservative politics. The authors warned, “we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue.” It demanded that the party pivot to attract a younger and more diverse audience, without which it could not survive. In essence, it sought minority mouthpieces for traditional platforms.

Haley was a godsend to the would-be architects of the Republican Party’s grand renewal. Her brand of tough courtesy mixed with Southern charm helped her present policies and pursue agendas without the accusations of artificiality that would plague Hilary Clinton in her bid for the presidency. Haley’s outsider status as a Tea Partier could also rejuvenate the image of a party that was perceived to be out-of-touch.

I asked Miki Carver, the press secretary of the RNC, about Haley, and whether the visibility of minority politicians was important for outreach. She said that they were not “pinning these ethnic groups into one section, but looking at voters as a whole.” By contrast, the co-chairs of the Growth and Opportunity Project, stated in an article: “On the voter engagement front, we discussed the need to make investments, including hiring national and state-based staff, to communicate directly with African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Pacific Americans.”

This reflects a greater churn in the Republican Party. The day before the Charleston shooting, real-estate mogul and reality-TV star Donald Trump had announced his candidacy for US president on a Republican ticket. When Haley was tapped for the response to the State of the Union address, Trump was pulling away as the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination. Most conservatives feared that his xenophobic rhetoric, explicit race-baiting and inability to grasp the complexity, or indeed, the basics, of policy issues would sound the death knell for their party. With the spectre of Trump looming over the party’s future, house speaker and Republican Paul Ryan called Haley the “exact right choice” to offer a vision of Republican leadership to the American people.

Trump attacked her on Twitter: “The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Hailey!” She replied, “Bless your heart”—a genteel, Southern “Fuck you.”

Haley commanded the podium. She repeated her tagline: “I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants.” After affirming this heritage, she said: “We cannot continue to allow immigrants to come here illegally. And in this age of terrorism, we must not let in refugees whose intentions cannot be determined … It means welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion.” She went on to discuss the Charleston shooting and South Carolina’s subsequent healing.

Haley’s belief in America’s positivity and potential stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s vision of a broken America, though neither politician likes illegal immigration. She savaged him without naming him, warning, “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.” At other times during Trump’s campaign, Haley was more direct. In September 2015, she stated that Americans would not want to elect as president a man who gets “mad at someone just because they criticise him. We would really have a world war if that happens.” Haley endorsed the establishment conservative Marco Rubio and continued to criticise Trump on both policy and ethics during the primaries. After David Duke, an infamous ex-leader of the Ku Klux Klan, endorsed Trump, Haley thundered, “I will not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the KKK.” Trump attacked her on Twitter: “The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Hailey!” She replied, “Bless your heart”—a genteel, Southern “Fuck you.”

Once Trump won the nomination, in June 2016, Haley transmuted brutal criticism into a measured endorsement. A few months later, the infamous Access Hollywood tape leaked. In it, Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women, shielded by his wealth and influence. After becoming ambassador to the United Nations, Haley would tell a news channel, “Women should always feel comfortable coming forward. And we should all be willing to listen to them.” But before the election, she announced her intent to vote for Trump.

And then, Trump won the presidency, ushering in the era of alternative facts, “America First” insularity, and Twitter wars as geopolitics writ large. While Haley rejected Trump’s offer of the secretary of state office, she accepted the position of United Nations ambassador. She claimed that she rejected the secretary of state role because she thought Trump could “find someone better.”

Both were strange positions for a woman with zero foreign-policy experience. To be sure, individuals with fewer qualifications than her ascended to cabinet positions. For instance, Trump chose the neurosurgeon Ben Carson to lead the department of housing and urban development, though he had never worked in government or housing policy. However, Carson had loyally campaigned for Trump after his own presidential bid collapsed. Many speculated that the administration zeroed in on Haley as an olive branch to diversity—and all the more so due to her association with the removal of the Confederate flag. Then again, as the United Nations expert Richard Gowan remarked, “The mere fact that Haley is not an angry white man is good in terms of political optics.”

On 10 July 2015, the Confederate flag was lowered from the statehouse in grounds in Columbia, South Carolina. Haley had signed a historic legislation authorising its removal the day before.
JOHN MOORE/ GETTY IMAGES

While the United Nations ambassador is a less prestigious position than secretary of state, it is also a far safer bet. Distant from the orbit of the White House, it allows Haley a freer hand to make a name in foreign policy without being swallowed by its gravity. Meanwhile, for an administration struggling to appear composed, Haley’s gift for messaging has become a godsend on the international stage.

ON 6 DECEMBER 2017, US President Donald Trump shocked the world yet again. Upending decades of United States foreign policy and setting fire to simmering tensions from halfway across the world, he recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He also announced his decision to relocate the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Though Israel considers Jerusalem its eternal and indivisible capital, the rest of the international community does not recognise it as such. Simultaneously, Palestinians have long advocated for it to be the capital of a future independent Palestinian state. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestine Authority, denounced this move by the United States as the “slap of the century,” and said the country could no longer be recognised as a neutral broker of the peace process. The resulting firestorm of controversy thrust Nikki Haley to the centre of the international stage.

Even as Israel supporters and many Jewish communities celebrated this decision, a deafening chorus of protest from leaders across the world erupted. Pope Francis spoke against it, insisting he would not “keep silent” about his “deep concern.” The German chancellor Angela Merkel tersely responded, “The German government does not support this position, because the status of Jerusalem is to be resolved in the framework of a two-state solution.” When Emmanuel Macron, the French president, addressed the representative council of French-Jewish organisations, he framed Trump’s decision as a “real error” that would not “help improve the security situation.” The Chinese foreign ministry representative Geng Shuang warned that the American move might drive a “flare-up of regional tensions.”

This overwhelming wave of international disapproval soon reached the United Nations. Egypt sponsored a Security Council resolution voiding any unilateral decisions on Jerusalem’s status. The resolution further demanded that countries “refrain from the establishment of diplomatic missions in the holy city.” Haley framed this as an “insult” and an unforgivable affront to the sovereignty of the United States. Facing the American veto, the resolution unsurprisingly failed, despite otherwise unanimous support from the council.

In response, Palestine, a non-member observer state, called an emergency special session to censure the United States’ decision. Yemen and Turkey drafted a non-binding resolution echoing the failed Security Council resolution, hoping for a symbolic victory in an arena unconstrained by veto power. Acting as the rhetorical sword of the Trump administration and using its language of direct threat, Haley warned dozens of countries in a letter: “The president will be watching this vote carefully and has requested I report back on those countries who voted against us.” Taking to Twitter, she also said: “We don’t expect those we’ve helped to target us. On Thurs there’ll be a vote criticizing our choice. The US will be taking names.”

The resolution still passed by an overwhelming margin: 128 in favour, 35 abstaining and only nine against. In addition to rebuking Trump with their votes, many turned their ire on Haley as the executor of his strong-arm tactics. The Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat famously told the “impudent” representative to “shut up” when she savaged Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. Haley retorted, “I will not shut up. Rather, I will respectfully speak some hard truths.”

While support for Israel has frayed within the Democratic Party, the ambassador’s zealous defence of its interests only increased her standing within the Republican Party. Many members of the Republican establishment see Israel as a valuable ally in what the political scientist Samuel Huntington once characterised as the clash of civilisations between “the West” and “Islam.” To thunderous applause during a convention in early March 2018, Haley repeated to an assembled conference of a pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, what she told the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the previous June—the UN “bullies” Israel, and the United States will no longer stand for it.

On 15 May 2018, Haley walked out of the UN Security Council meeting when a Palestinian representative began speaking of violence at the border between Israel and Gaza strip.
DREW ANGERER/ GETTY IMAGES

Haley even travelled to some countries that voted “No,” such as Guatemala and Honduras, and thanked them for their support in the emergency special session—a diplomatic departure from Trump, whose crude commentary on Latin American countries has won him few friends in the region.

Firefighting for an administration as volatile as Trump’s may at first seem a thankless task. The president’s penchant for individual deals and for demolishing Obama’s foreign-policy legacy have led to a series of dramatic manoeuvres, whose repercussions might be felt across the world for years to come. In under two years, apart from capsizing the Iran nuclear deal, the United States has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement on climate change, exited the UN Human Rights Council, and opted out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership—the cornerstone of Obama’s “pivot to Asia.”

On 21 December 2017, Nikki Haley addresses the General Assembly prior to the vote on Jerusalem.
EDUARDO MUNOZ AVAREZ/ AFP/ GETTY IMAGES

But being at the centre of the storm has its perks. Haley’s policy preferences sometimes align with Trump’s controversial decisions, such as his decision to relocate the United States embassy to Jerusalem. More significantly, her tenure as ambassador is unusually high-profile, due to the magnitude of Trump’s changes to the status quo. Her singular poise and composure plays well in contrast to the vacillating slurs and insults hurled by the American president towards his perceived enemies both domestic and international. And the position provides the former state governor with the kind of foreign-policy experience invaluable to a future presidential hopeful.

Through it all, Haley has managed to defend some of her core principles, including her aggressive rhetoric against Russian power plays. She has even contradicted Trump directly without losing her job. She has come under fire for her naked ambition, a few gaffes that betray her inexperience and her defence of Trumpian logic on an international stage. But even these costly moves often play well internally. As many commentators have noted, Nikki Haley has her eyes on the prize.

Shaan Amin is a writer based in Madison, Wisconsin. He has previously written for The Atlantic.

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