Is Nikki Haley’s path a thermometer for the evolution of the Republican Party?

Nikki Haley, then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, smiles as President Trump compliments her last October in the White House after she announced plans to leave the job. (Washington Post photo by Calla Kessler)

Like most politicians, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has for years kept an eye open for upward paths. Early in 2016, that path seemed to wind through opposition to Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. When Trump won, the path veered to the right, and Haley moved with it, adeptly walking the border between a skeptical establishment and an enthusiastic MAGAverse. By Monday evening, though, it seemed that Haley’s path had taken her somewhere else.

Appearing on the prime time Fox News show of Trump supporter Sean Hannity, Haley dismissed the idea that the killing of Iranian Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani was lamented by anyone – except for American Democrats.

“You’re not hearing any of the Gulf members, you’re not hearing China, you’re not hearing Russia – the only ones that are mourning the loss of Soleimani are our Democrat leadership and our Democrat presidential candidates,” she said, using the by-now familiar “Democrat” diminution. “No one else in the world.”

“That is sad,” Hannity replied, laughing.

It’s also obviously untrue. The conservative site Free Beacon has tracked the responses of Democratic presidential candidates precisely in an effort to demonstrate how Democrats are expressing skepticism about the strike that killed Soleimani. But even they note that most Democratic candidates largely prefaced questions about the rationale for and effects of the attack with descriptions of Soleimani as a threat to the United States. One can probably find individual Democrats who’ve praised Soleimani, as one might find any member of any party who’s embraced any bizarre or uncommon theory. But there’s no evidence that Democratic candidates or leaders are “mourning” Soleimani – just that they’re skeptical either of how his death came about or of the extent to which President Donald Trump considered responses.

What Haley’s tapping into here, though, is a swifter current than simply the last week of criticism about the strike on Soleimani. Hannity’s rapid, unquestioning embrace of Haley’s line was certainly on-brand for Hannity, but it also reflected that, to Hannity and many other Republicans, Democrats are seen as unpatriotic or, worse, traitorous. It’s not a new idea in politics, but it’s a newly powerful one, embraced by Trump himself and by his campaign.

Last year, Pew Research Center released an assessment of the extent of the divide between the parties. One aspect of that research included a look at how partisans viewed their opponents and themselves on a number of metrics. More than 6 in 10 Republicans said Democrats were less patriotic than other Americans while more than 7 in 10 Republicans said they themselves were more patriotic than others. A majority of Democrats said both they and Republicans were about as patriotic as anyone else.

It’s worth putting that finding into the broader context of Pew’s partisanship research. Their data shows an increase in hostility between the parties, including a 2016 assessment in which they found 45% of Republicans saw Democratic policies as a threat to the United States – up from 37% two years prior. Forty-one percent of Democrats said the same about Republicans, up 10 percentage points from 2014.

In other words, Haley’s declaration that Democrats were sympathetic to an obvious opponent of the United States was planted in already fertile soil. Trump has echoed Haley’s suggestion somewhat less directly, including retweeting criticism from Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., of how the Democrats have responded.

“[H]ere we are,” Meadows wrote, “where Democrats are falling all over themselves equivocating about a terrorist, and writing a resolution to prevent POTUS from responding. Wow.”

Trump’s campaign has been slightly more direct. In an email sent to supporters on Sunday, a joint fundraising committee for the campaign and the Republican Party wrote above Trump’s name that “Soleimani was a monster responsible for THOUSANDS of American deaths, and the world is a better place without him in it.” However, the email continued, “radical Democrats like Elizabeth Warren, Ilhan Omar, and Bernie Sanders are busy criticizing me for eliminating a deadly terrorist.”

The conflation here is the same as the one used by Haley, though with a less direct implication: Criticizing Trump’s decision to strike Soleimani is necessarily a defense of Soleimani himself. It’s an ironic position for Trump to take, given that he has repeatedly criticized the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 – a decision that resulted in the death of Saddam Hussein. In that case, Trump separates the outcome from the process but, here, overlaps them to his own political benefit.

Again, the context is important. Trump has spent months disparaging his opponents as traitors, quite literally. He accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., of committing treason as the House impeachment inquiry moved forward.

After the House voted to impeach Trump, the campaign sent out an email.

“Democrats have declared open war on American democracy,” it began. “229 Democratic TRAITORS voted to impeach President Trump for NO REASON other than the fact that they don’t like him.”

As with so many other political trends in the Trump era, this is not new to Trump. What’s new is the extent to which these lines of argument have become central and amplified. What’s unique is that it’s a line of argument embraced by the president himself and, therefore, encouraged among his supporters.

If Haley is a thermometer for the evolution of the Republican Party – something she seemingly is quite eager to be – her comments this week were a grim indicator. A politician who rose to national attention on the basis of her stand in opposition to the use of the Confederate flag in her home state has decided falsely accusing her opponents of sympathizing with an enemy of the United States is at least politically safe if not politically advantageous.

Perhaps she, like many Republicans, actually believes Democrats are unpatriotic and not simply questioning Trump’s judgment. It’s worth remembering the following quote, though, from three years ago this week:

“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”

That, of course, was Nikki Haley, tacitly critiquing Republicans being wooed by Trump’s rhetoric.



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