Nikki Haley's dull war on socialism
Dark money and a blandly reactionary messaging campaign: What’s up with the former UN ambassador’s bespoke thinktank?
Nikki Haley mailed my parents some devalued Venezuelan currency in the spring of 2021.
“This Venezuelan banknote is called a ‘Bolivar’ and today because of socialism it’s worth less than a dime,” stated the enclosed letter from the former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor. “You’d need a wheelbarrow full of ‘Bolivars’ just to buy a loaf of bread.”
The letter and the crisp 100-bolivar banknote were tucked into an envelope along with a “Referendum on Socialism” containing instructions for donating to Haley’s nonprofit organization, Stand For America. My parents brought the envelope over to my house figuring I’d get a kick out of it.
It certainly piqued my interest. As a native South Carolinian who had watched Haley’s ascent from state lawmaker to governor to Trump-appointed UN ambassador, I had been curious about her next move after leaving her UN post in December 2018. She had proven herself ambitious if nothing else, and the more hyperactive horse-race-watchers in the political press were speculating that she might run for president or a state-level office.
But she hasn’t run for office since resigning as UN ambassador. Instead, she moved home to South Carolina and bought a $2.4 million mansion on Kiawah Island. She briefly joined and then departed the board of Boeing, a company she had previously helped on the union-busting front. Her only other notable public activities since 2018 have been to go on the occasional right-wing talk show, pen some saber-rattling opinion columns, reassure the RNC that “America is not a racist country,” and launch the organization that sent my parents 100 bolivars in the mail.
What is Stand For America? According to paperwork filed with the IRS in 20191, Stand For America Inc. is an organization whose mission includes “promoting public policies that strengthen America’s economy, culture, and national security” while “defending American culture, promoting border security and public safety, stopping socialism, and promoting term limits.”
Stand For America Inc. reported receiving $7.8 million from unnamed sources in 2019. The organization is exempt from paying federal income tax and disclosing its donors thanks to Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(4), a tax loophole for self-described “social welfare organizations.” (A separate Stand For America Political Action Committee, formed in January 2021, has been described in the political press as a trial balloon for a presidential run in 2024. It raised $5.5 million in its first 6 months.)
I’ve been wading through Stand For America Inc.’s slurry of conservative agitprop online this past month, and it’s not at all clear how this organization distinguishes itself from the Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, PragerU, Turning Point USA, or the solar system of near-interchangeable think tanks and media organs already orbiting a cluster of U.S. billionaires.
Haley’s fundraising letter from the spring of 2021 was hardly unique in flogging Venezuela as the exemplar of socialism, or in blaming the Venezuelan people’s problems on the specter of “socialism” (as opposed to devastating U.S. sanctions, centuries of imperial plunder, or the inherent instability of modern petrostates). The letter served up the same pabulum cable news anchors have been feeding viewers for decades.
So, again, what is Stand For America, and why does it need to exist? I submitted some information requests to the IRS this spring, and I got a few answers.
In its 2019 application for nonprofit recognition, Stand For America said its largest category of expenditure (an estimated 38% of the budget) would be for “Digital Education and Organizing.” To that end, the organization has spent more than $1.5 million on advertising via Facebook and Instagram to date, according to records from the Facebook Ad Library.
To put that figure in perspective, $1.5 million is a little less than the median lifetime earnings for a U.S. citizen — but it’s chump change when it comes to conservatives blowing money on Facebook. Dennis Prager’s brain-liquefying video factory PragerU, for example, spent more than $1.5 million advertising on Facebook just in the last 90 days.
Scanning the Stand For America Facebook page, I saw a lot of familiar nonsense: fretting about the federal deficit, fearmongering about immigrants, and inchoate screeching about “critical race theory,” with a sprinkling of hopelessly outdated memes for conservative teens. Notably, I also saw a couple of attack ads against Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, who lost his election last night to a Republican who went all-in on the anti-CRT gimmick.
On the foreign policy front, Stand For America Inc. told the IRS in 2019 that its focus would be on “China, Russia, Iran, and Latin America.”
“We will promote a strong foreign policy that puts America’s interests first,” stated an attachment to Form 1024-A.
The media arm of Stand For America has cranked out a stream of op-eds and blog posts advancing foreign-policy goals that would be deemed megalomaniacal if they were written in support of any other country. In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, for example, Haley argued that the sovereign nation of China was violating US sanctions by purchasing oil from Iran.
The stances advanced on Stand For America’s various platforms are objectively deranged but, again, not much different from the output of a dozen other right-wing media outlets.
In terms of strategy, I noticed a few interesting trends. For one, Stand For America buys custom domain names for its campaigns, including stopcommunistchina.com, stopraisingourtaxes.com, and confirmherpetition.com, a now-defunct URL that hosted a petition to confirm right-wing judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.
SFA also tends to present fundraising requests as “petitions” without an addressee or specific list of demands. “STOP Censoring Conservatives,” reads a page that contains only an email signup that leads to a fundraising request. “SIGN NOW: END critical race theory,” read a Facebook ad in September that was actually selling bumper stickers.
In its initial IRS paperwork, Stand For America Inc. said its other spending priorities besides “digital education” would include student outreach (25.5% of expenditures), public speaking (15%), policy development (12%), earned media (7.5%), and a podcast (2%).
Can’t wait to hear the podcast, y’all.
Haley is the figurehead and honorary chairwoman of Stand For America Inc. Her face appears all over the website; her signature appears on fundraising letters; the organization’s social media accounts amplify and repeat her every public statement. At times Haley has spoken of the organization as if it were her personal megaphone.
“We started a policy platform because at the end of the day I’m still a policy girl and that’s what I love,” she told conservative Facebook star Ben Shapiro in April 2021. “And so we started Stand For America, and it lets me talk about all kinds of issues: domestic policy, foreign policy. We’re really trying to develop a grassroots conservative group that, 1, follows what I’m doing, but 2, talks about all the good that’s out there and all the dangers that we need to be careful of.”
Stand For America lets her talk. But if you read the paperwork that Stand For America Inc. filed with the IRS for calendar year 2019, Haley’s name appears nowhere in the list of officers, employees, or contractors. Instead, her husband Michael Haley is listed as the president of Stand For America Inc., a 40-hour-a-week position with zero reported compensation.
Michael’s previous job experience includes working for the South Carolina National Guard and as First Gentleman of South Carolina. I sent several questions via Stand For America’s online contact form in early October, including a question about why the organization had appointed Haley’s husband as its president. I received no response.
Stand For America brought on some familiar names from the South Carolina GOP machine. Chaney Adams (director of communications, $147,000/year as of 2019) was Haley’s press secretary during her time as governor. James Burns (treasurer/secretary, uncompensated) previously served as Gov. Haley’s chief of staff and as chairman of the South Carolina State Ethics Commission. Ken Farnaso (director of media relations, per LinkedIn) is best known for his work as press secretary for U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-South Carolina).
Other hires came from the broader conservative ecosystem. Tim Chapman (executive director) was a senior communications advisor to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) during the reactionary heyday of the Tea Party before serving 10 years as executive director of Heritage Action for America, the lobbying and activist arm of the Heritage Foundation. Lisa Dewees (director of policy, $127,000/year in 2019) worked at the U.S. Mission to the UN during Haley’s tenure and followed her to Stand For America Inc.
Who put up the cash?
By the design of the U.S. tax code, we can’t know who fronted the money to start Stand For America Inc. in 2019. I can tell you that in March 2019, two months after publicly announcing its existence, Stand For America had signed a $10,000-a-month lease on a New York City office and spent a quarter-million dollars, according to documents attached to its nonprofit application.
In all likelihood, someone — a political entity or perhaps a single person — had to put up the cash to start Stand For America Inc.
I could make some guesses, but Haley has publicly kissed the rings of so many billionaires, it’s hard to narrow down the list. Could it have been T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oil tycoon whose ranch she visited during her first year as governor? Charlie Yalamanchili, the Houston real estate investor who exploited a loophole in state campaign finance law to pump money into her 2014 re-election effort? Maybe one of the Kushners? What about Foster Friess, the Wyoming investor and prolific Super PAC backer whose death Haley mourned on Twitter in May? For that matter, what about the 16 billionaires who donated to the Stand For America PAC when it launched in 2021?
I can’t tell you where the money came from, but I can tell you where it goes: to Facebook, to a handful of staffers, and to political consultants. In 2019, Stand For America Inc. reported the following payouts to independent contractors:
$668,564 to Image Direct of Frederick, Maryland, for printing and postage
$620,472 to Coldspark Digital of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for consulting, media, and website development
$506,186 to Fifth Influence Inc., of the same address in Pittsburgh, for consulting, digital technology, and media
$297,720 to HSP Direct of Ashburn, Virginia, for production management
$223,613 to Nova List, of the same address in Ashburn, for direct mail
$95,000 to MKJ Inc. of Bethesda, Maryland, for professional fundraising
All this in service of a political messaging apparatus that, again, has not distinguished itself from the pack in any meaningful way. Good work if you can get it.
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If you appreciated today’s newsletter, you might appreciate this previous issue about Nikki Haley’s “America is not a racist country” speech.
Up next on the podcast, look for an episode on the official extinction of the ivory-billed woodpecker, featuring a guest who led the months-long search for survivors in the Congaree Swamp.
The IRS mailed me a copy of Stand For America Inc.’s completed Form 1024-A, an application for tax exemption under Section 501(c)(4). I also read the organization’s Form 990 for the calendar year 2019, which is available online via ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer. I requested the same form for the year 2020, but an IRS representative said it was not available for public inspection yet.