Nikki Haley Was Never a Moderate

Whether on immigration and race, reproductive health, or even respecting the rule of law, Nikki Haley’s record as governor doesn’t exactly set her far apart from Donald Trump.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley speaks during a campaign rally in Columbia, South Carolina, February 1, 2024. (Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

Nikki Haley’s campaign strategy, and possibly her only hope to win the Republican presidential nomination, has been to claim a lane as a moderate who could put together a coalition of GOP voters disgusted by Donald Trump. She was portrayed as “providing a moderate alternative to the ex-president” from the moment she threw her hat in the ring, and even as the race has tightened, she’s been painted as a “sane, rational Republican” who’s “stuck in the moderate lane” and “the last GOP moderate in the race.”

Struggling to catch up to Trump, Haley herself has chafed at this label, insisting that if you look at her record, you’d see that she’s a “hard-core conservative.” The thing is, she’s right.

I recently chronicled Haley’s lengthy record as a pitiless zealot for austerity who balanced budgets on the backs of the poor and workers while throwing money at big business. But maybe she’s one of those “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” politicians, you might say, someone who, if you’re in a state with an open primary like South Carolina, you could vote for holding your nose because she at least doesn’t sink to the retrograde cruelty of someone like Trump or also-ran Ron DeSantis.

The answer is no, she is not. Haley is as right-wing on pretty much every issue that makes Trump anathema to liberal America, from his position on social issues to his authoritarian tendencies.

Rule of Maw

Let’s start with what might be Haley’s most compelling argument: that unlike Trump, Haley would at least do the bare minimum of respecting the rule of law and America’s governing institutions. Even those refuting Haley’s supposed moderation give her this one.

But as South Carolina governor, Haley repeatedly overstepped her authority and challenged political authorities when they didn’t do what she wanted.

In maybe the most dramatic example, Haley was repeatedly slapped down by the courts for ordering state police to arrest local Occupy Wall Street protesters camping out at the statehouse grounds in November 2011, based on a dubious reading of a policy issued by the state’s powerful (and no longer existing) Budget and Control Board. So flimsy was Haley’s legal rationale that Columbia’s mayor, city manager, and police chief all refused to go along with it, and the local county solicitor later dropped the charges for lack of evidence that any law had been broken.

A series of judges agreed, even when Haley got the lawsuit that protesters brought against her moved to a more conservative federal court she hoped would side with her (in spite of her constant railing against the federal government). Instead, the federal judge plainly stated that the law she claimed banned people from camping on the statehouse grounds didn’t exist, and that she was “making up rules that do not comport with the First Amendment as a knee-jerk response” to the protest.

Judges similarly shot down Haley’s extraordinarily tyrannical claim that she had qualified immunity and so couldn’t be sued for violating South Carolinians’ constitutional rights. In the end, the whole thing cost the state $192,000, far more than it would have cost to simply leave the protesters alone, a cost which Haley had originally indicated to justify forcibly removing them.

This wasn’t the only instance. When the state supreme court invalidated hundreds of candidates from both parties because of filing errors in 2012, including the woman Haley was backing to unseat one of her Republican foes in the state legislature, she made a thinly veiled demand to the state GOP that it simply ignore the court and reinstate her — which it did. One columnist accused Haley of “ignoring the rule of law.”

Later that court decided that Haley’s breathtakingly petty decision to hike workers’ health insurance premiums in 2012 was similarly illegal. Even though lawmakers had hammered out a budget deal that specifically gave state employees some relief after a decade of premium hikes, Haley engineered a 4.6 percent raise anyway. The court voted unanimously that she had overstepped the legislature’s authority and ordered the money returned to the workers.

None of this suggests Haley would wield the far, far more immense power of the US presidency responsibly or within reason — especially with the candidate absurdly calling the practice of posting anonymously on the internet a “national security threat.”

Trumpism Without Trump

It’s a similar story when it comes to the two issues that have arguably drawn the most liberal outrage against Trump: immigration and race.

Haley supported Arizona’s infamous “Papers, Please” law, the strictest and most outrageous immigration law in the country at that point, allowing police to stop and question anyone if they simply suspected they were undocumented. “I applaud what Arizona did. I applaud the governor,” said Haley, who as a state legislator cosponsored a bill she said was modeled on the law.

Later, after becoming governor, Haley signed a similar bill into law, trampling over several of her own shibboleths in the process: it was a massive government expansion, it was expensive, it created a new tax, it threatened small businesses, and it ended up costing taxpayers money. She later joined sixteen other mostly Republican-led states to sue the Barack Obama administration over its executive order letting millions of undocumented immigrants, largely parents of US citizens, be able to temporarily stay in the country. “The president just opened the flood gates,” she claimed.

This was all before Haley stood up against letting Syrian refugees into her state, citing supposed national security concerns — the exact same racist logic as Trump, before she self-servingly turned around and soaked up liberal adulation for calling his proposed Muslim ban “an embarrassment.” Syrian refugees were resettled in the state then and since with no incident, yet Haley is still a hard-liner on this issue, opposing resettling Palestinian refugees and backing Texas governor Greg Abbott’s standoff with the federal government over what he calls an “invasion” at the southern US border.

As part of her anti-immigrant crusade, Haley appointed an actual white supremacist, Roan Garcia-Quintana, as one of her reelection campaign cochairs, a naturalized Cuban American who likewise talked about Latino immigration as an “invasion” and charged that Obama’s immigration reform would give “amnesty” to the “lowest of the low.” Garcia-Quintana sat on the board of directors of the Council of Conservative Citizens — a hate group that opposed “all efforts to mix the races of mankind” and inspired the white supremacist Charleston shooter — though he explained to the press that the group merely “supports Caucasian heritage.” The campaign at first refused to remove Garcia-Quintana, as he questioned why it was “racist to want to keep your own heritage pure,” but eventually succumbed to pressure.

This appeared to sit awkwardly with Haley’s later attempt to build a national profile on top of her removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol. But the truth is that Haley really only ever opposed the flag for a brief blip in her career. She dismissed calls to remove it earlier in her governorship; after the removal, she triangulated. Haley’s post-2016 line, which she repeated several times, was that the Charleston shooter had “hijacked” the flag, which had stood for “service, and sacrifice and heritage,” and that he’d “turned it into a hate symbol.” Even at the time, Haley reluctantly embraced the move, with her initial response being, as Chris Hayes put it at the time, to “hem and haw on it.”

Meanwhile, Haley championed and eventually signed into law a voter identification bill that Democrats charged was “voter suppression,” and which the state’s local ACLU branch called “discriminatory,” making South Carolina the tenth state to enact such a law. Sure enough, there were numerous examples of black South Carolinians both lacking and being unable to obtain photo IDs because of issues with their birth certificates, some of whom contacted the governor directly, to no avail. Haley is now pushing for a national version of the law.

War on Women

It doesn’t get much better when it comes to reproductive rights and women’s health more generally.

The way Haley operated was well-illustrated by her turnaround on the issue of HPV vaccinations for young girls. As a state legislator, Haley had cosponsored a bill requiring, with religious exemptions, all girls who were entering seventh grade and were at least twelve years old to get the free shot, against the potentially cancer-causing sexually transmitted infection. Then when she became governor — and as it became a wedge issue on the Right, with some absurdly claiming it would cause intellectual disability, and others that girls would start having sex earlier — Haley vetoed it. It would be a “precursor to another taxpayer-funded health care mandate,” she said, even though the bill she vetoed was completely optional, unlike the version she’d cosponsored earlier.

Haley, in other words, often knew better, but was more than willing to pander to hard-liners if it meant advancing her political career.

This behavior was on full display in August 2015, when Haley ordered an investigation into the state’s three abortion clinics — even though they had already been inspected earlier that summer without incident. What changed? Well, in the midst of that year’s GOP presidential primary contest, a series of misleading and selectively edited “sting” videos on Planned Parenthood abortion clinics had lit a firestorm on the Right, leading every presidential contender and other Republicans to trip over themselves to prove who was willing to crack down on the organization most harshly.

Planned Parenthood protested that its clinics in the state didn’t take part in collecting fetal tissue, the practice discussed in the “sting” videos that had so incensed conservatives. But that didn’t stop Haley, who ordered the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to carry out a “prompt and comprehensive investigation” of the state’s clinics, putting the two operated by Planned Parenthood at the top of the list. Most of the violations discovered had to do with incomplete or inaccurate records and noncompliance with the Woman’s Right to Know Act, an anti-abortion law (cosponsored, incidentally, by Haley before she was governor) that made women read state-mandated “counseling scripts” while sitting through a twenty-four-hour waiting period. The most serious violation involved the improper disposal of infectious waste.

Nevertheless, the DHEC, now under pressure from the governor, reacted in an absurdly heavy-handed way, suspending two of the clinics’ licenses and threatening them with closure. It took Haley only seven minutes to issue a seven-paragraph statement about the DHEC announcement (while she was traveling in Europe no less), one that neatly sidestepped the fact that the ostensible reason Haley had ordered the probe — accusations of selling fetal tissue — wasn’t remotely substantiated by the probe.

Commentators speculated that Haley wanted to burnish her conservative credentials after the Confederate flag’s removal had turned her into a liberal darling. She needn’t have worried: she had already created a long record of hostility to women’s rights and reproductive health by that point.

As a legislator, Haley voted to make women undergo an ultrasound twenty-four hours before an abortion and later cosponsored a “personhood” bill that defined life at the moment of fertilization, which would have effectively made not just abortions but birth control illegal (as well as to charge pregnant women with homicide if they lose a baby after using illegal drugs). No matter, because as Haley later explained, “women don’t care about contraception; they care about jobs and the economy and raising their families and all those things.”

Once Haley became governor, the state’s already cost-burdened fifteen rape crisis centers were put under threat by her veto pen in 2012, which slashed their budgets by a third, because “only a small portion of South Carolina’s chronically ill or abused” were served by the funding, she said, which would only “distract from the [DHEC’s] broader mission of protecting South Carolina’s public health.” The Republican-controlled House voted unanimously to override the veto.

Four years later, Haley signed into law a ban on any abortions twenty weeks after conception, with any doctors performing an abortion after that date looking at prison time unless the mother’s life was threatened. Haley had made South Carolina only the thirteenth state to make the harsh measure law. At the time, Trump was campaigning on signing that very same ban into law at the federal level, and he later backed bills that would do so as they wound their way through Congress.

No Easy Fix

It’s a pleasing fantasy for many that exorcizing Trump from the US political landscape might simply involve voting for someone else, especially another Republican who’s more “reasonable” and “moderate.” The problem with that is that Trump is not a break from years of Republican politics but the logical end point of them, whose political persona and policies were inherited from figures like Haley.

Haley’s own rebranding as a moderate, or a Republican that liberals can live with, is a testament to the nonsensical way that term is often used in US political discourse, focused entirely on self-presentation and rhetoric over policies and record. If you hate Trump’s social policies, it’s going to take a lot more to defeat them than voting for the Nikki Haleys of the world.