When, in the 2016 South Carolina Republican primary, Haley backed Trump’s then rival, the Florida senator Marco Rubio, it looked like moderate Republicans potentially had their dream ticket. It helped, too, that Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, won the endorsement of the state’s first Black senator, the Republican Tim Scott.
For reformers who believed the party needed to look more like modern-day America, the optics of the three of them standing together on stage could not have been better. However, Trump ended up winning this pivotal primary, which gave him unstoppable momentum. When it came to arousing the conservative base, racial demagoguery outperformed racial healing.
Since then, Haley has come to typify at least three different variants of Trumpian Republican. The first is the hyper-ambitious Trump appeaser. Though a foreign policy neophyte, Haley opportunistically took the job at the UN precisely because she was a foreign policy neophyte. As she eyed a future presidential run, it filled a gap in her curriculum vitae.
Then she became a Trump mollifier, someone who, to her credit, strove to curb his worst instincts. At a time of “America First” unilateralism, when the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres feared that Trump could destroy the international body with a single tweet, she helped protect it from a catastrophic withdrawal of US funding.
Since the January 6 insurrection, she has become another familiar conservative figure: the uncourageous critic. In a speech to the Republican National Committee shortly afterwards, she said Trump “will be judged harshly by history”. Then she quickly backtracked, when it became clear January 6 was not going to bring on a moment of Trumpian repudiation but rather another wave of Republican radicalisation.
A genuine profile in conservative courage came from the then-Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney, who ended up losing her seat in Congress during last year’s midterm election. By contrast, Haley once again looked craven.
Maybe we should look on her campaign film more as a hostage video than a bio. For the truth is that all the Republicans with serious presidential ambitions, whether it be Haley or Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, are still captive to Donald Trump, and run scared of his personal base.
To survey her career, then, is to wonder what might have been, and to mourn the ugliness of the here and now. Sometimes, I cast my mind back to that sweltering day in South Carolina and how the lowering of the Confederate flag could have presaged a healthier brand of conservatism.
Alas, the Republican Party continues to be shaped not by Haley’s political bravery in the aftermath of June 17, 2015, the night that Dylann Roof carried out his murders, but by what happened 24 hours earlier on June 16. That was the day Trump descended his golden escalator and announced his bid for the presidency.
Dr Nick Bryant is the author of When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present.
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