Nikki Haley and family

Haley’s telling blunder

Many southerners happily fly the stars and bars, but they prefer to talk of state rights, not black slavery. Paul Demarty looks at Donald Trump’s nearest Republican rival

The end of 2023 saw various developments in the United States’ attempts to prevent the 46th president becoming, also, the 48th.

But there was also the Republican primary campaign itself. Trump had, for most of 2023, enjoyed a commanding lead, especially after Ron DeSantis - trumpeted as a real challenger in all quarters - saw his popularity crater, when people outside Florida started to get a good look at this shifty, whiny-voiced reptile. His campaign seemed to be run entirely for the benefit of deranged internet fascists; but there aren’t actually that many of them, so the wisdom of this approach is doubtful. As the Proud Boys like to say, DeSantis fucked around, and he was found out.

This was of course a nightmare for ‘sensible’ Republican kingmakers, who had staked a lot on DeSantis’s success. The history of 2016 seemed to be repeating itself - the nailed-on favourite (in both cases a serving or former Florida governor …) collapses into nothing, and we are then left with a field consisting of freaks, weirdos, serial losers - and Donald Trump, who is his own thing altogether. News began to leak out that the donor money was moving out of DeSantis’s campaign - and into that of a certain Nikki Haley. And it seemed to be working: Haley became the clear second-place candidate, and a poll in New Hampshire had her trailing by only four points (though the national numbers still have Trump inflicting a historic humiliation on the rest of the field). Though the small and sparsely populated state elects few delegates, its status as the first primary decided by ballot makes it a good opportunity to work the media, and thus an important stop on the rubber-chicken circuit.

Then, on the 27th, she held a town hall meeting in the Granite State, whereupon she got herself into a tangle on the question of American slavery. The resulting controversy was, to be sure, driven primarily by Democratic-leaning media, and we do not expect it to make much difference in the primary contest (perhaps it will in New Hampshire itself). But it illustrates the difficulties faced by the Republican establishment in finding a ‘sensible’ candidate, and - more profoundly - the strange distortions of historical memory imposed on the US establishment by the betrayal of the freed slaves after the Civil War.

Foot in mouth

Haley clearly did not expect, on December 27, to be asked, bluntly, what the cause of the Civil War was. As soon as she was asked, she attempted to bat the question away, but was pinned down for an answer by the questioner. Eventually, she launched into a torrent of vague blather:

I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run, the freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do … And I will always stand by the fact that I think government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people. It was never meant to be all things to all people. Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life. They don’t need to tell you what you can and can’t do. They don’t need to be a part of your life.

The questioner replied that it was “astonishing to me that you answer that question without mentioning the word ‘slavery’”. By now in a very testy mood, Haley demanded: “What do you want me to say about slavery?” Don’t worry, came the reply: you’ve answered my question.

As the scandal overtook the media the next day, Haley backtracked, declaring that of course the Civil War was occasioned by slavery. She accused the man in the crowd of having been a Democratic plant. She provided no evidence for this claim, but regardless of whether there was literally a conspiracy on the part of Democrat apparatchiks to embarrass her, this person’s question was clearly designed to have the effect it did. He knew it would make her squirm, and possibly corner her into saying something grotesque; and when she did, he thanked her and sat down.

That response was predictable, because Haley had already made it, repeatedly. Haley, after all, was previously governor of South Carolina - the first state to secede from the union, the home, for whatever reason, of the secessionist movement a decade earlier, called the ‘fire-eaters’. When she assumed office, the Confederate flag flew proudly from government buildings in Charleston; and so it did when she left office to become Trump’s first ambassador to the United Nations. It was only after the massacre of several black people by the fascist terrorist Dylann Roof in 2020 that the practice was ended (with Haley’s support). Neo-Confederate ideology is common, and Haley would never have won had she attacked it directly, whatever her ‘private’ view on the matter.

Her circumlocutions are a piece of ‘constructive ambiguity’ worthy of the late Henry Kissinger. What “rights and freedoms” was the government obliged to “secure” for its people in the 1860s? The freedom from explicit legal bondage, and all its attendant horrors, that the Union bought at such enormous cost in blood? Or the freedom, the right, to enslave? Her talk of rights in this connection inevitably brings to mind the ‘states’ rights’ interpretation of the conflict common among neo-Confederates (and, to some extent, the original Confederates - there was even a general who fought in several important battles by the peculiar name of States Rights Gist, ‘States’ to his mum; a South Carolinian, naturally). When pushed, she could ‘explain’ that she only meant the rights of African-Americans to freedom.

All of which makes a certain amount of sense in the grubby world of conservative politics in the deepest of the deep south. Using the same line in New Hampshire, which lost thousands of its sons to the slaughter of the civil war on the other side, seems a little off. Yet, as we noted, no candidate actually cares about winning New Hampshire. They care about winning more populous and strategically useful states from New Hampshire. Even in the very heartland of the hated Yankees of the 1850s and 60s, Haley is imprisoned by the sensibilities of faraway southern nationalists.

Which rights?

Here it is probably worth probing a little deeper into the “rights and freedoms” that the fire-eaters proposed to defend by means of rebellion. Haley’s hopelessly abstract conspectus of the conflict has at least a grain of truth to it: the irreconcilable differences between the southern planter elite and the northern (most especially north-eastern) bourgeoisie did present as a question of rights.

For the abolitionist wing of the northerners, at least, it was a historic crime that the famous “self-evident” truths of the declaration of independence - “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” - were denied to those who had black skin. Yet the life, liberty and happiness of the southern elite depended on slave agriculture. This was an antagonistic contradiction that expressed real interests on both sides.

Softer versions of the ‘states’ rights’ interpretation of the war often imply that, while slavery was wrong, the conflict over it expressed something deeper: a conflict between self-government in the states and the centralising power of the federal government. The historical record shows, again, that there is a certain truth there, in that - despite the betrayal of reconstruction - the post-war American state system was vastly more centralised than it ever had been, with a central bank, a standing army, and the capacity and will to embark on enormous infrastructural investments like the transcontinental railroads. Even during the war, the relative power of the Confederate states and the hastily-assembled central state apparatus repeatedly interfered with military mobilisations and conscriptions.

What this leaves out is the content of the ‘rights’ the south expected to be able to enforce. Every so often, a southern gentleman would have reason to travel to New England or some other hotbed of abolitionism; and he would want to travel with his domestic slaves. Once there, of course, the slaves had a tendency to run off to the shelter of those same abolitionists, or communities of black freedmen in the area. So the southerners pressed endlessly for - and eventually got - a Fugitive Slave Act, which imposed fines on public officials who failed to arrest escaped slaves, on evidence as weak as some slaveowner’s word that he was the owner, and offered bounties to would be snitches. The law was adopted in 1850 as part of a compromise omnibus, but became a persistent source of strife, as numerous northern polities defied it legally and extra-legally.

There came later the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision, whereby a southern-dominated US supreme court found against Scott, a slave whose owners had moved to a free state, who attempted to secure his freedom by legal means. Roger Taney, the southern chief justice, inserted into the language of the judgment that Scott’s case could have no standing because black people were not citizens, and enjoyed no rights under the constitution. The sectional divide worsened considerably after this outrage; before long, the southern hardliners were demanding a federal slave code, which would unambiguously establish their ‘rights’ throughout the union. Stephen Douglas, the northern Democrat conciliator, protested that this was a futile effort, since who would enforce it in anti-slavery heartlands like New England? A good point, said the southerners: any such code must have its own federal force to impose it on ‘Black Republicans’ and ‘abolitionist fanatics’. Along these lines, the Democrats split in 1860, opening the way for Abraham Lincoln’s victory in that year’s presidential election, and - inevitably - the war.

There is an important thing in common between all these initiatives, besides their vileness: the ‘rights’ they have to do with are not rights of self-government by individual states, but the rights of citizens of the United States to have their ‘liberties’ and peculiar institutions imposed throughout the states. It was about ‘states’ rights’, alright: the right of South Carolina to make law in Massachusetts.

This was a very specific conflict, over the fate of an economic arrangement that no longer exists in the US. Whence Haley’s coyness, in that case? The Confederacy itself is mostly potent as a cultural symbol today; overt neo-Confederate ideologues are marginal compared to the very many southerners happy to fly the stars and bars, and even they only rarely propose the reinstitution of black slavery. Their racism is of a distinctly contemporary type - at the extremes, full-on neo-Nazism, and elsewhere, the usual dog-whistles about inner city crime, affirmative action and so forth.

Northern capitalists

Yet the victory of the north resolved into the victory of the northern capitalists, who were arrayed against their own class enemy, the proletariat. The ‘rights’ defended by the constitution are, today, the rights of that class to exploit, in its own peculiar institutions. And it equally depends on state force: union-busting, the imposition of intolerable legal burdens on aggrieved workers, the manufacture of vast classes of insecure employees, from illegal migrants to those condemned to bounce in and out of America’s prison system at due intervals. “In its majestic equality”, wrote Anatole France a century ago, “the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” Legal regimes of rights do not secure a common social contract between different classes, but rather freeze the state of class antagonisms into place.

So when Haley complains that “Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life”, we know she really means: government cannot encroach on your ‘rights’, those rights are primarily capitalist property rights, and defending those rights - by the means mentioned - is precisely the function of government. Her sandblasting in the media is a result of her breaching a taboo about a conflict that has come, in mainstream historiography, to be seen as what it always was: a revolutionary war against a cruel and backward social system (really only in the last 50 years, mind you). Ironically, the upshot of neo-Confederate ideology - and Haley’s cringing before it - is the defence of the world the Yankees built.