Haley Said that American Racism is Merely some 'Little Kinks' to Work Out, and We're Talking About Her Dress

Now that Nikki Haley has surprised everyone by staying in the presidential contest even after losing by double digits in New Hampshire, the standard narrative is that she is a poised, restrained, reasonable conservative of the old-school plutocratic style.  In previous columns, I have described her as a policy ignoramus, a ludicrous deficit scold, and the beneficiary of being able to stand on stages next to comically inept opponents who cannot help but make her look better by comparison.

In a Dorf on Law column on January 11, I added that although the differences between a Trump presidency and a Haley presidency would be real, we as a country would ultimately end up in the same place: one-party autocracy.  That is, there are numerous people who would be jailed or killed in a Trump perma-presidency, whereas there is no reason at this point to think that Haley would want to become a brutal autocrat.  In that sense, we should of course prefer the candidate who is not openly bloodthirsty and who seems not to want to be a dictator.

On the other hand, Haley is one of the most flippity-floppity politicians of all time, especially when it comes to Donald Trump.  Even more than other candidates, there is simply no way to know from day to day what position she will take (or re-take).  More importantly, my argument in that January 11 column was that it simply does not matter whether Haley herself would be consistent or inconsistent, because we know that the Republican Party has consistently moved ever further away from the nation's core (but always tenuous) commitments to democracy and the rule of law.

At best, a President Haley would do nothing to restore voting rights, nothing to undo gerrymandering, and nothing to appoint better judges.  At worst -- and this is almost certainly what would in fact happen -- she would gladly go along with what her party has been doing at least since Barry Goldwater's loss in 1964 and especially Ronald Reagan's "Southern strategy" in 1980.  Has Haley denounced how the leadership of her party stole a Supreme Court seat, or has she even acknowledged it?  Of course not.  Most of what brought us to this point is not Trump but the party that he easily took over.  Haley will make it look more civilized, but it will still end with one-party rule.

One can see the slippery game that Haley is playing in the way she dodges questions about a national abortion ban.  She keeps saying that she does not have to say whether she would sign a bill if it reached her desk because one would never reach her desk.  Why not?  Because that would take sixty votes in the Senate, and she is certain that there will never be that many votes to pass the bill.  But she deliberately ignores the fact that the filibuster rule can be changed, just as Republicans did to push through their Supreme Court picks on simple majority votes in the Trump years.  Points to Haley for slickness, but this is A-level dishonesty, pretending that she and her party will not continue to rig the game to reach their preferred outcomes.

Having said all of that, I want to address the issue that I teased in this column's admittedly click-baity headline.  After Haley's infamous inability/refusal to identify slavery as the cause of the Civil War, she went on CNN for an interview with Jake Tapper, clearly in an effort at damage control.  She appears to have succeeded in her mission as a matter of public relations, but that is only because no one seems to have paid attention to everything that she said.  Here are the third- and fourth-to-last sentences of her long answer:

But I refuse to believe that the premise of when [the Founders] formed our country was based on the fact that it was a racist country to start with. I refuse to believe that. I have to know, in my heart and in everybody’s heart, that we live in the best country in the world, and we are a work in progress.

Nothing particularly objectionable there, right?  Other than being committed to believing what she wants to believe -- that America is THE BEST -- what is she truly saying?  Her final two sentences answer that question:

And we have a long way to go to fix all of our little kinks. But I truly believe our Founding Fathers had the best of intentions when they started and we fixed it along the way. And we should always look at it that way.

Excuse me?  What are those "little kinks"?  Again, her words from a few moments earlier make the context clear.  Tapper had pressed her on the fact that the founding generation's supposed idealism was paired with the ugly institutionalized reality of "many racist precepts, including slavery."  Unfazed, Haley responded:

But when you look at, it said, ‘all men are created equal.’  I think the intent, the intent was to do the right thing. Now, did they have to go fix it along the way? Yes. But I don’t think the intent was ever that we were going to be a racist country.

The intent was everybody was going to be created equally. And as we went through time, they fixed the things that were not, ‘all men are created equal.’ They made sure women became equal too. All of these things happened over time. 

So what happened over time was that the not-racist country got out the little kinks such as institutionalized sexism and chattel slavery, along with a century of White supremacist terrorism -- not merely tolerated but abetted and often committed by governments that were not allowing Black Americans to vote.  Note her assertion that "we fixed it along the way."  Past tense.  We have apparently reached the pure, non-racist utopia that Haley assures us was the founders' intent all along.  It is not a work in progress but a done deal.  Congratulations, America, we did it!

The most perplexing aspect of Haley's insistent blindness is her willingness to make an argument that is utterly nonsensical about the nature and origins of national pride.  In her litany of "I refuse to believe bad things about this great country" nonsense, she pressed a point that other Republicans have also been making, which is that people (especially schoolkids) become disillusioned when they learn about bad things in our past and present.  Florida's never-to-be-President governor even used that argument to push through and sign a state law prohibiting teachers and professors from telling our (White) students anything that would make them feel "anguish" or guilt about their race.

How did Haley justify her commitment to stubborn historical denialism?  It was not merely the "think of the children" defense, but one with a new twist: Think of the brown and Black children!!  Even earlier in her long answer to Tapper, she said this:

Because for every brown and Black child out there, if you tell them they live or born in a racist country, you’re immediately telling them they don’t have a chance. ... And so, I think it is important that we tell all kids that, ‘Look, America is not perfect, we have our stains, we know that, but our goal should always be to make today better than yesterday.' It’s hugely important.

And that’s the problem that I have. We have too many people with this national self-loathing – it is killing our country. We have got to go back to loving America.

... I want every brown and Black child to see that and say, ‘No, I don’t live in a country that was formed on racism. I live in a country where they wanted all people to be equal. And to make sure that they have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’”

Here, I want to make a point not about Republicans and Democrats or even about how much racism still plagues the country.  Simply put: Why would anyone not "go back to loving America" merely because we tell them about the country's original sin?  Indeed, why would children of all races not love a country more after learning the horrible facts about its origins and then learning about the country's genuine progress (halting and incomplete progress to be sure, all of which is now threatened by Haley's party and the man she says she would support and even pardon after he is convicted of felonies)?

Let us look again at the first sentence in the block quote immediately above: "Because for every brown and Black child out there, if you tell them they live or born in a racist country, you’re immediately telling them they don’t have a chance."  Just think about how insane, how dishonest, even how defeatist that assertion is.  If children learned the truth, that the country's founding was poisoned by a monstrous crime against humanity but that we have proved that progress is possible, why would that not be inspiring?

Republicans constantly misconstrue their favorite line from Dr. King: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."  Everyone in that political party, from its bland backbenchers to its worst fire-breathing racists, uses that line to say that we must not talk about race at all and that "reverse racism" is bad because King wanted everyone to be judged on the content of their character.

But King's words were not about reality in 1963 or today.  There were "a dream" of a time when this nation had made it possible to become post-racial.  That is not the America that Nikki Haley or any of us lives in, no matter how much she wants to pander to the racists who dominate her party by insisting so.  Even if it were, we would still want to teach the ugly history to future generations, both to prevent future regress and also to tell an inspiring story of national progress -- and thus a true reason for pride.

This is the difference between the satisfaction of putting in hard work to overcome genuine obstacles and, in the memorable words once used to diminish the first President Bush, "being born on third base and thinking he hit a triple."  There is nothing bad about facing up to our history in all of its complicated ugliness, beauty, and everything in between.  The people Haley is trying not to alienate do not want to hear that, however, because it suggests that we might want to make even more progress.

Again, however, Haley is the hail-Mary candidate who must now not be criticized, lest the last speed bump in front of Trump be removed.  Better to mock Trump for mocking her dress.  Even if she were not a presidential candidate, however, this would be shocking and confusing.  We were not racist because we never intended to be racist?  The struggles to overcome bigotry and to become a more genuine democracy were the working out of "little kinks"?  Telling children the truth about the past and the present will stifle progress?

I was going to describe this as "fatuous," but that word seemed a bit tame, so I went to thesaurus.com to find an alternative.  Among the options: vacuous, witless, moronic, and -- wait for it! -- birdbrained.  How perfect is that?