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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Steve Phillips

Nikki Haley’s pretend slavery ‘gaffe’ told us what this election is about

The Confederate flag is removed from the flag pole at the South Carolina statehouse
‘Haley and the state’s political leadership begrudgingly capitulated to years-long demands to stop flying the Confederate flag in South Carolina’s statehouse grounds.’ Photograph: Jason Miczek/Reuters

Nikki Haley’s difficulty articulating the cause of the civil war – the war that began in her home state of South Carolina – has put that issue in the headlines just days before the first votes are cast in the Republican nomination contest. While Haley was caught trying to be too clever by half in refusing to name slavery as the cause of the nation’s bloodiest conflict, the controversy has had the unintended effect of framing what is facing the country’s voters in 2024.

This year’s election is, in fact, a continuation of the unresolved question of the civil war era: will the country continue to move towards fostering a multiracial democracy, or will it aggressively reject its growing diversity and attempt to make America white again?

Haley’s entire career has consisted of trying to walk the tightest of tightropes. She is a woman of color operating in a political party whose driving forces are white racial resentment and misogyny (and, increasingly, homophobia and transphobia). On the one hand, she is eagerly embraced as a high-profile party symbol who serves as a strong rebuttal to accusations of racism and sexism (“See, we’re not racist and sexist, we have a woman of color as our governor!”). On the other hand, white racial resentment serves as fuel for the Trump movement to the extent that no presidential candidate can hope to win the nomination without bending a knee to the Confederate cause.

This high-wire act was most prominently on display in 2015, when a white man who had proudly posed with pictures of the Confederate flag walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in South Carolina, declared, “You rape our women. And you’re taking over our country. And you have to go,” and proceeded to murder nine Black people. That tragedy was too much even for most defenders of the Confederate flag, and Haley and the state’s political leadership begrudgingly capitulated to years-long demands to stop flying that flag over statehouse grounds.

The current conundrum is important not just because of Haley, who is emerging as Trump’s strongest competitor in the Republican field, but because of what it reveals about politics in this country in general and in the Republican party in particular.

Boiled down to its essence, much of the country – and most of the Republican voters – are still fighting the cause of the civil war in ways both literal and figurative. The active and organized resistance to removing Confederate statues led a mob of white nationalists to march through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 chanting “Jews will not replace us”; one Hitler-loving member of the crowd gunned his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing a woman, Heather Heyer, who had come to stand for racial tolerance and peace. That was the protest of which then president Trump observed: “There are good people on both sides.”

While it is fairly widely accepted now that Trump has a stranglehold on the Republican party, many have forgotten what propelled him to his current position of seemingly unshakable dominance. In the month before launching his presidential bid in June of 2015, Trump was largely seen as a joke and languished in the polls with support from just 4% of his party. After he staked out his position as defender of white people and demonizer of Mexican immigrants (“they’re rapists, they’re murderers”), he zoomed to the top of the polls and has never looked back.

For all the talk of the Trump phenomenon being unprecedented, the truth is that he is not the first political leader to ride a wave of white racial resentment to high levels of political influence and power. In the 1960s, when Trump was in his 20s, the nation watched the Alabama governor, George Wallace, proudly proclaim “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in his 1963 inauguration speech (delivered from the same spot where Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, took office).

Six months later, Wallace physically stood at the door of the University of Alabama auditorium to block the desegregation of Alabama’s colleges and universities. That defiant embrace of white supremacy boosted Wallace’s national standing to the extent that he launched a presidential campaign in 1968 that attracted millions of voters.

Black-and-white image of white man in suit flanked by white men in hard hats/riot hats in the doorway to a stone building.
George Wallace blocks the entrance to the University of Alabama, turning back a federal officer attempting to enroll two Black students, on 11 June 1963. Photograph: AP

Wallace’s presidential bid was preceded by that of Strom Thurmond, who held the same office that Haley later did – governor of South Carolina. In 1948, after President Harry Truman had the temerity to urge Congress to outlaw lynching Black people, Thurmond joined forces with his fellow southern governors to create the Dixiecrat party and ran for president on a platform unapologetically stating that “We stand for the segregation of the races.” Thurmond’s third-party bid won four states outright: Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and, oh look!, South Carolina.

The centrality of white racial resentment to American politics is longstanding and explains the panic that caused Haley to become so tongue-tied. As the former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, until Wednesday Haley’s competitor for the anti-Trump mantle, explained in the wake of Haley’s comments: “If she is unwilling to stand up and say that slavery is what caused the civil war … what’s going to happen when she has to stand up against forces in our own party who want to drag this country deeper and deeper into anger and division?”

If the size and power of the constituency that will brook no retreat on the cause of the Confederacy is so large that a leading presidential candidate can’t even state the simple fact that the civil war was about slavery, then the stakes in 2024 should be crystal clear. One party is propelled and dominated by voters who, essentially, want America to be a white country. On the other side is an incumbent president who just last week specifically namechecked and denounced “the poison of white supremacy” in a speech delivered from the pulpit of the same church where parishioners were murdered in 2015.

The good news is that the portion of the population that wants America to be a white nation is not the majority of people. (That’s why the Confederates had to secede in the first place, after failing to win popular support at the polls.) The challenge for those who know why the civil war started and who want to continue the journey towards multiracial democracy is to organize, inspire and galvanize that majority in the upcoming elections.

To do that, we need to do what Nikki Haley can’t or won’t – state clearly why the civil war started, declare our determination to finish the job of reconstructing this nation and do everything we can to ensure massive voter turnout in November.

  • Steve Phillips is the founder of Democracy in Color, and author of Brown Is the New White: How the Demographic Revolution Has Created a New American Majority and How We Win the Civil War: Securing a Multiracial Democracy and Ending White Supremacy for Good

  • This article was amended on 12 January 2024 to make clear that in 2015 the confederate flag was removed from statehouse grounds. The main photo was also changed to show this. An earlier version said the flag was removed from the capitol and showed a picture of it flying from the building’s dome. This change, however, happened in 2000.

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