In the days and weeks following the Mother Emanuel church shooting, Governor Nikki Haley spoke a great deal about being changed by the tragedy. The change, and her willingness to discuss it, got glowing press coverage, locally and nationally, pushing her back into the national spotlight. This would be expected of any public figure following such an act of terrorism and violence, but in this case it also reignited the idea of Haley as a new kind of Republican, maybe even one that could save the party. Gov. Haley's star, after all, was rising again.
This was the same Gov. Haley already touted from the start as one of the new faces of the GOP: young, minority, female (not poor, though, that will never change). Did it matter that most of her political rhetoric was an echo, no — a perfect digital copy — of the same tired, right-wing verbal spew of the old white guys who for so long have ruled not just South Carolina, but the entire nation? Not in the least. All that mattered was her rising star status, new face, and most importantly her "change" — even if we couldn't quite understand what any of it meant.
We can't understand what it means, because it means absolutely nothing. Just as empty, vacuous, lazy political writing surrounds rising stars and new faces, the talk of Haley's change is equally meaningless. In fact, it would be borderline sycophantic had the writers not already left the border behind in the headlong rush to portray Haley as changed. Governor Haley had learned from tragedy and wanted to share what she'd learned.
What she learned is what many of her constituents have known for decades: that the Confederate Flag at the Statehouse had to come down. She never went so far as to note that it should never have been there in the first place, though. But at least she was finally listening to someone other than the corporate CEOs she regularly chatted with, and it only took nine people dead in a church to do it.
But, there had to be more to Haley's change and the glowing media write-ups which followed, complete with in-the-moment, candid pictures of a pensive looking Governor. What did it all mean? In the fawning words of a piece in the Post and Courier, it meant Haley's transformation "from a publicly guarded, often rehearsed, on-message partisan to a very human, deeply grieving governor."
This touching sentiment, written just days after a tragedy that no one could really come to terms with, projected a kinder, gentler Nikki Haley whose purpose was to promote a new brand of Republican in a new South Carolina in, you guessed it, a New South.
Yet, the sentiment wore thin almost immediately as Haley began modifying her patronizing post-Walter Scott "hugs not riots" speeches to include the Emanuel 12. Her comments weren't merely rehearsed anymore; they were ingrained — reflexive incantations repeated ad nauseam at almost every opportunity and in front of any willing audience. They were constant reminders that South Carolina was no longer the home of vicious racism, but rather of love and unity and peace.
So thoroughly convincing was this act that it led to cheers when Haley this spring called Sen. Lee Bright's anti-transgender bathroom bill "unnecessary." Surely, this was the New South shining through in Haley. But hiding in her words was the truth. Nikki Haley's New South rhetoric isn't about accepting transgender people, it's simply about expediency and efficiency. The Old GOP and Old South aren't gone; they're merely waiting to rise again as the New South.
A clearer example is the signing of yet another ill-advised piece of legislation banning abortions in the 20th week of pregnancy. The bill was a clear nod to the Old GOP's anti-science, anti-choice agenda and Haley dutifully signed it. If that didn't put the torch to the idea of a New South, her ceremonial signing of said garbage law at a private special needs care center certainly did. Here was the essence of the Grand Old Party mind set, written in large, gaudy letters.
This crass attempt at reinforcing her position in whatever is left of the Republican Party after November makes a mockery of the notion of her change. The ceremonial signing hit all the high notes of the low rhetoric of the New/Old GOP: Governor Haley isn't pro-life because she's a Republican, it's because she is a mother. That was her choice, just as it was a choice for the women whose children are cared for at the facility where she held her blatant press and photo op. Life is so precious that our choices must be mandated as your choices.
This is Haley's brilliance as a politician, whether or not anyone realizes it, and it's also what is sadly going to get her onto that national debate stage in 2019 and 2020 — she makes her lies and half-truths sound homely, even warm and convincing. She’s able to sound rational, maybe even modern, on some issues (the bathroom law, domestic violence, education) while tossing out good old GOP red meat on others (abortion, taxes, small government). Her new, unrehearsed, very human self still gives voice to tired ideas of the reactionary right and its war on everything in today’s America.
Governor Haley is still a member of the GOP. Regardless of how she, or a loving press, might spin her “change” into the antidote to the Trump brand of conservatism currently ravaging the Party, that still just makes her yesterday’s Republican. And that’s not a step forward by any means.