Nikki Haley’s blurry presidential ambition
A melancholy, tinkling piano melody served as the soundtrack for Nikki Haley’s announcement that she was running for president in 2024. She declared her candidacy on Twitter in a video that places her in her hometown of Bamberg, S.C.: thick with trees, a wide boulevard, roomy houses. When Haley appears, she’s walking alongside the railroad tracks that, she says, divided Bamberg by race when she was growing up. That division was between Black and White. And Haley, who is the daughter of Indian immigrants, didn’t fit into either category. “I was different,” she says in the video. “But my mom would always say, ‘Your job is not to focus on the differences but the similarities.’” So Haley did.
She continues to do so at a time when understanding our differences, sitting with them patiently and uncomfortably, is essential to leading a fractured nation. Failing to do so will only make the breaks more profound.
In the 3½-minute video, Haley shunts aside, ignores or demonizes the differences that influence the ways people view this country and their place in it. She sees the common desire for safe streets and business opportunities, but she turns a blind eye to the systems and circumstances that make achieving those things in some neighborhoods and for some people more challenging. She highlights a heartbroken community that joins in prayer after a mass killing, but she fails to note that salvation may not be defined in the same way by everyone at the altar. She notes that even on their worst days, her parents reminded her and her siblings of how blessed they were to live in America. But she does not seem to consider whether another family, bearing a different kind of burden, feels blessed or – if only for a moment – simply resigned.
Her campaign video is a study in contradictions and tensions. It’s a gleaming short story of someone who believes in a melting pot rather than a mosaic. Someone who believes that history has been written in stone rather than on parchment.
Haley is smiling. The sun is shining – or rising in a golden glow, or setting in a fiery orange glory. The wind is blowing gently through the flora. Haley wears a cinnamon quilted jacket over a navy crewneck. (Later, she’s in a cobalt blue.) A palmetto tree and crescent moon – emblems of South Carolina – hang from a chain around her neck. Her hair is smooth. She is smiling as she complains that the Washington establishment is failing the American people even though she was, in fact, part of the establishment, albeit based in New York, as the ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration.
She doesn’t mention Donald Trump. She doesn’t actually mention the United Nations, either. But these are the two reasons she is able to lay claim to recent foreign policy experience. When she talks about the shooting of nine Black congregants in Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church in 2015 when she was South Carolina’s governor, she doesn’t mention that the shooter described himself as a white supremacist or that she agitated to have the Confederate flag removed from the state’s capitol grounds, which was then seen as a powerfully symbolic act. Instead she shows pictures of herself at a statewide day of prayer and notes that the community “turned away from fear and turned to God,” which does little to explain the hate, history and privilege that was compressed into that tragic moment.
She strips her résumé of the details that might help a viewer better understand her political point of view, her cultural perspective, her waxing and waning on Trumpism or even her moral vantage point. She is a glossy headshot framed against a soft-focus backdrop. She is an easy-listening candidate, the one who doesn’t scream about critical race theory or woke politics in her three-minute riff on her qualifications. What did children learn in her state when she was governor? That “it’s a great day in South Carolina.”
In this video, she is an ambitious blur.
The freshly minted presidential candidate mentions President Biden and the socialist left and accuses them of not merely disrespecting history, but also wanting to rewrite it. “Some think our ideas are not just wrong, but racist and evil,” she says. And she offers warnings about how such a rewrite is being attempted with video clips of televised conversations about the “1619 Project,” which examined the impact of slavery on contemporary America. She includes a snippet of pundits discussing lasting effects of slavery. There’s a picture of protesters wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts and holding a placard reading “racism is a pandemic.” There is a burning American flag but no explanation of who is burning it, when they are doing so and why – or that a hallmark of freedom in this country is that the ability to burn the flag is a form of symbolic speech that’s protected by the First Amendment.
Haley is not focused on differences, which is to say she isn’t focused on other people’s identity and history and lived experiences. She’s not interested in the fact that most Black Americans do not have an immigrant story; they have an enslavement story. Some of them have no story at all because it was never recorded. They’re not trying to rewrite history, but to get it down on paper for the very first time.
Haley is keen on pointing out the similarities, but in her short video she manages to make it clear that only certain similarities are worth celebrating. Certain similarities are American, and others are not. Celebrating similarities has been weaponized as a way of silencing the troublesome and disavowing the outliers.
In the second half of Haley’s announcement video, she’s out shaking hands with folks in a restaurant. She’s smiling and tapping shoulders and delivering good eye contact. She’s greeting law enforcement officers with a firm grip. There are similarities among these folks. They’re mostly older and they’re mostly White. As Haley says, she isn’t focused on differences.
(The views expressed are not necessarily those of Parikh Worldwide Media/News India Times)