There is a moment in Nikki Haley’s presidential campaign launch video—a genre as obligatory as the political memoir, and as useless—where the former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor channels Hillary Clinton’s 2016 failed bid for the presidency. “You should know this about me, I don’t put up with bullies,” Haley says at the end of the video. “And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels.” Then, the inevitable: “I’m Nikki Haley, and I’m running for president.”
It’s the kind of comment that Clinton made again and again down the stretch seven years ago: Donald Trump is a thug, but I’m tough—tough enough to take down this meathead without stooping to his level. To no one’s surprise, many outlets have interpreted Haley’s launch video as a veiled shot at her former boss—who, at the moment, happens to be her only officially declared opponent for the GOP nomination.
— Nikki Haley (@NikkiHaley) February 14, 2023 It very well may be the case that this is what Haley and her team intended the “bullies” remark to refer to—though it’s something of a stretch considering she happily served without complaint as his U.N. ambassador for two years. For my part, I’m not sure she has Trump on the brain. Rather, she’s making an early foray into what is sure to be a commonly held view of everyone who ends up in this nomination scrap: “Bullies” refers to America’s enemies: Russia, China, and, of course, the woke left.
This is one area in which Donald Trump is still playing catch-up. The former president’s stump speech has lately become much more predictable and strange. So far, his 2024 bid has revolved around his own personal grievances about the criminal investigations in which he is meshed and the election he lost but says was stolen. So while other candidates may ape his style or tone, Trump remains sui generis. None of the people running against Trump have any incentive to talk about a stolen election, knowing as they must that any primary victory they enjoy will come to be viewed by Trump as illicit.
Haley’s video is slick, focus-grouped, and largely rooted in one core idea: The left hates America and is also trying to indoctrinate your kids (to hate America). It is the exact type of video that you could see being produced by Ron DeSantis—or Glenn Youngkin, or Mike Pompeo, or Mike Pence. In fact, you probably will see it produced by most or all of these men. Haley is the canary in the coal mine: Hers is the first example of what the 2024 primary will be: A Mad Max–style race through a postapocalyptic wasteland, with each candidate insisting that they and they alone are the only Republican who can stand athwart history and yell, “Stop sharing your pronouns.”
Early in Haley’s video, the former South Carolina governor goes all in on The 1619 Project, the now four-year-old New York Times magazine theme issue (turned book, turned documentary). For Haley, her story—“I was the proud daughter of Indian immigrants. Not Black, not white. I was different”—is what makes America great: the tale of someone who was raised to love this country and who was ultimately rewarded for that love. In that sense, Haley’s case is unique. She will likely be the only daughter of Indian immigrants standing on the Republican debate stage. But the larger point she is making is the same one you’ll hear many Republicans make again and again: America has gotten over its violently racist past and is now postracial, even colorblind—for Haley, her own success is proof of this.
There is a lot of time devoted to The 1619 Project and “critical race theory.” But the video nevertheless manages to whiz through an array of familiar right-wing baddies and tropes. “Some look at our past as evidence that America’s founding principles are bad,” Haley says over a montage of horrifying images: The 1619 Project’s logo, a picture of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a sign reading “Racism is a Pandemic.”
“They say the promise of freedom is just made up,” she continues. “Some think our ideas are not just wrong but racist and evil. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have seen evil. In Iran, they murder their own people for challenging the government. When a woman tells you about soldiers throwing babies in a fire, it puts things in perspective. Even on our worst day, we are blessed to live in America.” “America: It’s Not China or Iran” may not be the winning political slogan Nikki Haley thinks it is.
Haley is often framed as a moderate Republican, but the policies that get brief mentions in her video are the only ones the GOP has left: up with tax cuts, down with immigrants. That is largely by design. For one thing, Republicans no longer evince any yen for policymaking—they just want to hear about how you’re going to take pronouns out of textbooks. More important, however, is the fact that Haley’s America is perfect and good and in need of no changes. The big problem isn’t the legacy of racism and slavery—something that Haley, a lifelong South Carolinian, should be familiar with—but rather the people who are still talking about those things.
What this portends is exhaustion. This is going to be a Republican primary of weird cultural grievances and incessant whining: We’re on tap for crying about candy commercials, grumbling about who should be allowed to play high school sports, and moaning about bogeymen such as a magazine story about the legacy of slavery. Ironically, we’re gearing up for Republicans to spend their primary steeped in the very thing they claim to hate the most: the politics of victimhood. Republicans are under attack from textbooks and drag shows and pronouns. This is an arms race, and every Republican who enters after Haley will have to one-up the others. It will get worse.