A South Carolinian's guide to Nikki Haley
She's running for president, unfortunately
Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is expected to announce a 2024 run for U.S. president on Feb. 15, according to the Associated Press. As a South Carolinian who lived through Haley’s administration, I’m duty-bound to explain why you should never vote for this person.
Given Haley’s on-again, off-again political alliance with celebrity racist Donald Trump, I won’t be shocked if her end game here is to drop out and become his running mate. She has said in interviews until recently that she wouldn’t run if Trump was running. But who knows? I’ve given up predicting things. Assuming she really is running for president, here are some things you should know about her.
The meme factory (2019-Present)
Nikki Haley hasn’t held or run for a political office since leaving her Trump-appointed post at the United Nations on Dec. 31, 2018. She lives in a vaguely Mediterranean mansion on Kiawah Island, a wealthy enclave of our crushingly poor state, posting memes about how unfair the world is to rich people and periodically calling in to speak on Fox News talk shows. It’s a lifestyle akin to retirement, and I don’t understand why she wants to give it up.
Much of Haley’s torrential meme output comes courtesy of Stand For America, Inc., a sort of bespoke small-batch thinktank staffed by fresh-faced Young Republicans, Heritage Foundation-adjacent toadies, and former staffers from the offices of Haley, Sen. Tim Scott, and ex-Sen. Jim DeMint. I started digging into Stand For America and pulled some of the group’s IRS filings after they mailed my parents a John Birch-style fundraising letter containing devalued Venezuelan currency.
Stand For America, Inc., reported receiving $7.8 million from unnamed sources in 2019, its first year of existence. In an application for nonprofit status, the organization listed its largest budget expenditure category (38% of the budget) as “Digital Education and Organizing.” To that end, the organization has launched a boilerplate conservative agitprop newsletter called The Stand and spent more than $1.5 million on Facebook and Instagram ads to date.
The memes are not great. They lack both the catty panache of a Trump tweet and the polished propaganda style of a PragerU video. Ideologically, they convey the pro-war, anti-welfare, stridently neoconservative views of SFA’s donors, including the New York hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer and the Nevada casino billionaire Miriam Adelson. When cable news hosts are frothing at the mouth about “critical race theory,” so is Haley’s thinktank; when someone at the Pentagon wants to start a war with Iran, Haley’s team is ready with an op-ed urging the president to drop some bombs.
This one made me laugh out loud last year on the 4th of July, at least:
Haley’s most successful catchphrase during this phase of her career came from her 2020 speech to the Republican National Convention, where she assured the Party of Donald Trump that “America is not a racist country.” She probably wasn’t the first to say it, but it’s become one of her trademark rhetorical moves.1
It’s not clear how Haley makes her money. She briefly held a seat on Boeing’s executive board earning $350,000 a year after engaging in union-busting efforts at a North Charleston Dreamliner plant, but she stepped down from the board in March 2020. While she serves as the figurehead of Stand For America, Inc. (and of the separate Stand for America Political Action Committee), with her face on the memes and the merchandise, she hasn’t reported drawing a salary on nonprofit forms filed with the IRS. Neither has her husband, Punisher skull dude Michael Haley, who is listed in the 40-hour-per-week position of president at Stand for America, Inc.
We do know, thanks to a tax document leak in Politico last year, that Stand For America, Inc., is funded by the same gaggle of oligarchs as many other conservative pet projects in this country, including the aforementioned Singer and Adelson, investor Stanley Druckenmiller, and GOP megadonor Joe Ricketts (she has not, to our knowledge, been hooked up to Peter Thiel’s cash gavage yet). Stand For America, Inc., also raked in $500,000 apiece from New Jersey health executive and Democratic megadonor Vivek Garipalli and his mother, Lakshmi Garipalli, who contributed $500,000 apiece, plus New York Knicks tickets valued at $20,000.
“The reality is that some potential candidates are relying on a small handful of very wealthy donors as they map out their political future,” said Brendan Fischer, deputy executive director of the political transparency organization Documented, in the Politico story. “And if those candidates win office, they’re going to owe an immense debt of gratitude to those secret donors.”
Bear that in mind the next time Haley portrays herself as a scrappy underdog.
The UN gig (2017-2018)
On a media tour last month, one of Haley’s flacks said that she “went toe to toe with tyrants and despots” during her time as Donald Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. That’s fair to say in some cases (Russia and Myanmar come to mind), but in other cases it would be more accurate to say she stood shoulder to shoulder with them.
To name one egregious example, she stood by as U.S. ally Saudi Arabia committed war crimes in Yemen. In her official capacity she provided support and cover for Saudi armed forces as they dropped U.S. bombs on ports, farms, food warehouses, and a school bus full of children. The result has been an ongoing famine affecting 23 million people, one of the largest humanitarian crises on earth.
“Yemen's hunger crisis is born of deliberate policies, pursued primarily by a Saudi-led coalition backed by the United States,” the Washington Post reported in December 2018, at the tail end of Haley’s time at the UN.
Haley also voted against a UN resolution condemning the death penalty when "applied arbitrarily or in a discriminatory manner.”
In keeping with decades of U.S. foreign policy, Haley vehemently vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to protect the lives of Palestinian civilians after Israeli soldiers opened fire and killed dozens at a protest.
One thing that might come up on the campaign trail is the theological-ideological underpinnings of Haley’s commitment to Israel. She has consistently allied herself with hard-right Christian Zionists and groups like Christians United For Israel (CUFI).
Stand For America published a policy book in 2021 containing a chapter on Israel foreign policy called “Why Every American Should Stand With Israel.” It was written by Texas televangelist and CUFI President John Hagee, who once predicted that a series of blood-moon lunar eclipses coinciding with Jewish holidays in 2014-2015 would usher in the apocalypse.
If the name John Hagee doesn’t ring any bells, it’s probably because most politicians have kept him at arm’s length since John McCain distanced himself from the pastor in ‘08. Hagee is an apocalyptic end-times prophet who has taught that Adolf Hitler was sent by God and descended from “murderous half-breed Jews,” and that Jewish people brought the Holocaust on themselves by disobeying God.
If you’re interested in reading the rest of American Strength, the Stand For America policy manual, you can download and read it here. I summarized it at the link below. All this ideological baggage is suddenly relevant again.
The state she left behind (2011-2017)
When Nikki Haley was my governor, she ordered cabinet agency employees to answer the phone with the greeting, “It’s a great day in South Carolina. How can I help you?”
I was an education reporter during this time period, so let me tell you about the great days our schools were having:
Every budget passed during the Haley administration included a loophole that allowed districts to forego caps on classroom sizes, taking a Great Recession-era emergency provision and effectively rendering it permanent. Classroom sizes ballooned to unmanageable levels as a result.
Average teacher salaries lagged behind inflation and never caught up, so that teachers effectively earned 7% less in 2018 than they did in 2008.
Under a South Carolina law that was prompted by old school buses catching on fire with children inside of them, the state was supposed to replace one-fifteenth of its school bus fleet every year, with a priority on taking the most flammable ones from 1995-96 off the road. Six of the seven state budgets that Haley signed while in office ignored that mandate, and buses older than some students’ parents remained in service. Between 2012 and 2017, 24 South Carolina school buses caught on fire.
Under a South Carolina law designed to help poor districts pay for the basics of education, the state legislature is required to fund a “Base Student Cost,” a per-pupil amount re-calculated every year based on inflation. Throughout her tenure, Haley signed state budgets that underfunded the Base Student Cost by hundreds of millions of dollars, leaving our schools with a roughly half-billion-dollar annual deficit of state funding by the time she left office.
Haley’s signature education policy, the 2014 Read to Succeed Act, mandated extra testing in the third grade and required students to be held back if they weren’t reading on grade level. This policy was copied from model legislation written by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing bill mill.
Nikki Haley’s Read to Succeed Act cost the state $214 million in its first four years, added to the paperwork and testing burden of elementary school teachers, and failed by every objective measure. During the same time period, South Carolina 4th-graders slid from 39th to 47th in the nation on the reading portion of the NAEP exam. Jody Stallings, a middle school teacher and then-director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance, described the policy as “an insane waste of resources.”
Haley wielded the culture wars in her assault on South Carolina public schools, too. In the summer of 2014, Haley joined the conservative panic du jour and signed a bill rejecting Common Core, a flawed but politically innocuous set of education standards sponsored by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers.
She signed the bill on May 30, when many school districts had already received their textbooks for the year. One U.S. history textbook from McGraw-Hill had to be sent back and reprinted, with the only difference being that references to Common Core standards were deleted from the ends of chapters. As a result, two weeks into the 2014-15 school year, high school U.S. History students in Charleston County did not have textbooks.
That’s just what Haley did to our schools. Here are some other highlights of her administration:
Haley and the Republican-controlled legislature denied adequate funding to the SC Department of Health & Environmental Control. Due to these budget cuts, “the ability to respond to a large-scale infectious disease event would be severely limited,” SCDHEC wrote in 2012.
Haley vetoed funding for programs including the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Office of Rural Health Benefit Bank, Commission on Indigent Defense, South Carolina Arts Commission, and the First Steps pre-kindergarten program.
Haley and Attorney General Alan Wilson perpetrated the “zombie voter” hoax, claiming that about 950 dead South Carolinians had cast ballots in the 2010 election. After Haley and the legislature used this story to pass restrictive voter ID laws, an exhaustive investigation by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division found no evidence of votes being cast in the names of dead people.
Haley and Wilson teamed up again in 2014 to defend South Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage after a federal court overturned the state law as unconstitutional. This decision ended up wasting an untold fortune in billable hours fighting the inevitable in Bradacs v. Haley. "The citizens of South Carolina spoke ... spoke something that I, too, believe, which is marriage should between a man and a woman," Haley said at the time. Eventually the state was forced to reimburse $135,000 in legal fees for plaintiffs who had to fight them until the bitter end. She later went on Fox News to complain after getting heckled at lunch during a New York City Pride parade.
That was “a great day in South Carolina.” I don’t think y’all are ready for a great day in the United States of America.
A correction: This issue of the newsletter initially said South Carolina’s school buses built in the 1980s were the most prone to catching on fire. While there were some ‘80s buses on the road during the Haley administration, the most flammable model years were actually 1995-96. On New Year’s Day 2019, the state cheerfully announced it had decommissioned the 1995-96 buses after buying their replacements with one-time funds, partly from the Volkswagen pollution settlement.
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Her least successful catchphrase in recent months has been her attempt to rebrand South Carolina as the “Beast of the Southeast,” supposedly a moniker referring to her state’s devotion to manufacturing interests. I have lived my whole adult life here and never heard that phrase outside of a Haley interview, for what it’s worth. Someone on her team really wants to make that nickname A Thing, so expect to hear it on the campaign trail, I guess.