Gov. Nikki Haley is everything Donald Trump’s critics say he is not: a unifier, a moderating voice, a darling of the Republican mainstream. As governor of South Carolina, she’s been an outspoken opponent of white supremacists, a proponent of immigration, including properly vetted Muslim refugees.
And, obviously, a woman. One who sharply criticized him during the presidential campaign.
In that light, her nomination Wednesday as ambassador to the United Nations marks something new for the coming Trump administration. Some of the president-elect’s previous picks have been beset by claims of racism and bigotry. Governor Haley represents a hairpin turn.
Those who have seen Gov. Haley’s improbable rise say the daughter of Indian immigrants is a force to be reckoned with, who has earned considerable respect among black South Carolinians, most of whom are Democrats.
“It is a kind of symbolic appointment by Trump, to beat back charges of bigotry and misogyny and to be able to make the case that he doesn't hold grudges against those who stiff-armed him during the primary,” says Issac Bailey, a veteran African-American journalist in South Carolina. “The only [reservation] I have is that it might convince some people to forget the ugliness upon which Trump rose to the highest office in the land, and that should not be allowed to happen.”
Facing down hate
Haley herself called him out for such ugliness during the campaign, and its potential for violence. She is no stranger to prejudice, from being disqualified from her hometown's Wee Miss Bamberg Pageant as a girl to a white senator calling her a “raghead.” Then last year, she mourned with the families of the nine black churchgoers killed by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C.
"We saw and looked at true hate in the eyes last year," Haley said, referring to the Charleston shooting. Pivoting to Trump, she added: "I will not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the KKK, that is not a part of our party, that is not who we want as president, we will not allow that in our country."
In the wake of that shooting, she led a bipartisan effort that removed the Confederate flag from State Capitol grounds.
"These grounds are a place that everybody should feel a part of," she said. "What I realized now more than ever is people were driving by and felt hurt and pain. No one should feel pain."
Haley has also triumphed in becoming the first female governor of a state where women have traditionally been marginalized from the political process, says Mr. Bailey.
“She is an Asian-American woman governor of a state whose constitution was written to weaken the governor's office just in case a non-white man won the office one day, a state that still has one of the worst records of female legislative leadership in the country. She was the first to breakthrough, has made her mark and ended up being the governor to bring the Confederate flag down,” he says. “I’m not sure people outside this state understand the incredible nature of that set of facts. Everything about it … was either extremely improbable or thought to be impossible. And, yet, she's made it all happen.”
“That's why I don't doubt what she can do on the national or international stage, even when I disagree with her policy decisions,” he says.
Derided by conservatives
Haley has no shortage of critics. When she delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address in January, conservative columnist Ann Coulter called on Trump to deport Haley for not being stringent enough on immigration. Another conservative pundit, Michelle Malkin, criticized her as tone-deaf amid a populist upsurge. Everything wrong with Haley's State of the Union response could be summed up in her telling Americans tired of being ignored to “turn down the volume.”
Trump himself went after her on Twitter: "The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley." To which she responded, "Bless your heart."
Fellow Indian-Americans have chastised Haley for assimilating into American culture, using an American first name (instead of her given name, Nimrata), and migrating from her Sikh background to the Methodist church. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that an Indian-American in possession of gubernatorial dreams must be in want of a name like Nikki or Bobby,” began a New York Times magazine article earlier this year by Anand Giridharadas, “How Nikki Haley Was Redeemed by Donald Trump.”
She's also faced allegations of ethics violations and extramarital affairs.
And then there is the actual job that awaits Haley at the United Nations if she is confirmed by the Senate, at a time when the world is facing crises from Syria to Russia. Most of Haley’s foreign work trips so far have involved air shows and auto trade fairs.
‘She is 21st-century America’
While the appointment of a woman with no foreign policy or national security experience has mystified foreign diplomats, she is more palatable than what many were bracing for, according to Poilitico.
“Diplomats were expecting Trump to send an angry white man to the UN,” said Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The mere fact that Haley is not an angry white man is good in terms of political optics.”
Bailey is less cautious in his assessment.
“She is 21st-century America, and that alone sends a strong signal to the rest of the world that even with the craziness of this past election, this country has not fully turned away from the progress it has made on so many issues,” he says. “And while she doesn't have the kind of professional background we usually see in this post, she is more than capable of handling the job.”