Nikki Haley speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition's 2023 Annual Leadership Summit a in Las Vegas, Nevada Nikki Haley speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition's 2023 Annual Leadership Summit a in Las Vegas, Nevada. Source: Gage Skidmore - Wikicommons / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-SA 2.0

Republican candidate Nikki Haley’s denial of slavery’s connection to the US Civil War is part of a larger right-wing attempt to defend the racist past and present, argues John Clarke

While campaigning for the Republican nomination in the US presidential election, Nikki Haley generated a storm of political controversy with a public display of reluctance to accept that the question of slavery was at the heart of the Civil War of 1861-85.

On 27 December, Haley attended a town hall meeting in Berlin, New Hampshire, where a man in the audience asked her what ‘was the cause of the United States Civil War?’ She appeared surprised by the question and replied, ‘I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run, the freedoms, and what people could and couldn’t do. What do you think the cause of the Civil War was?’

Faced with a follow-up question on why she hadn’t mentioned slavery as a factor in the conflict, Haley could only ask ‘what do you want me to say about slavery?’ Once this exchange produced a shocked public reaction, she fell back on the claim that she was a victim of a political stunt staged by her Democratic adversaries.

Pattern of racism

That Haley should be so befuddled by someone raising the role of slavery in US history, and so obviously reluctant to tackle the issue, is very revealing. It isn’t surprising that she was compelled to back pedal after the event, admitting during a radio interview that ‘of course the Civil War was about slavery.’ Yet, the question that leaps out is why an experienced political player like Haley had to face a major scandal before she would admit historical reality.

It should be stressed that Haley was the governor of South Carolina for six years and, in that capacity, had to deal with the practical results of the legacy of slavery in a state that had been part of the rebellious Confederacy. Indeed, ‘she has been pressed on the war’s origins before.’

Running for governor in 2010, Haley gave an interview in which she suggested that the Civil War was fought ‘between two disparate sides fighting for “tradition” and “change,” and said the Confederate flag was “not something that is racist”.’

Haley consistently supported the flying of this symbol of the slavocracy in the South Carolina Statehouse grounds and only agreed ‘to remove the flag from its perch near a Confederate soldier monument, following a mass shooting in Charleston, where a white gunman killed nine Black church members who were attending Bible study.’ Even then, however, she claimed that ‘the flag had been “hijacked” by the shooter from those who saw the flag as symbolizing “sacrifice and heritage”.’

One of Haley’s rivals in the race for the Republican nomination, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, was quite ready to exploit her stumble. He gleefully ‘recirculated video of the exchange on social media, adding the comment, “Yikes”.’ However, his own track record shows that this pattern of racism is not any personal quirk on the part of Haley.

‘DeSantis faced criticism of his own over slavery early in the campaign, when Florida enacted new education standards requiring teachers to instruct middle school students that slaves developed skills that ‘could be applied for their personal benefit.’ The frontrunner in the campaign, Donald Trump, has an entirely unsurprising history downplaying the significance of slavery. In 2020, he suggested that those who create awareness of the impact of slavery in the United States were ‘trying to indoctrinate school children and shame their parents’ “whiteness.”

While Republican presidential candidates shouldn’t be accused of just cynically faking their racist views, they are also very deliberately playing to a receptive social base and drawing on a long and dismal history of refusing to accept the reality of slavery. In 2016, a poll conducted among Trump supporters found that a full 20% of them went so far as to oppose Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the freeing of slaves in the US.

Historical revisionism

It is important to make clear that slavery denial hasn’t been confined to right-wing Republicans. Contrary to Trump’s view of the education system, it has long involved efforts to create a benign picture of the period in which slavery existed.

In 1916, a book called A Child’s History of North Carolina asserted that slaves ‘were allowed all the freedom they seemed to want, and were given the privilege of visiting other plantations when they chose to do so. All that was required of them was to be in place when work time came. At the holiday season they were almost as free as their masters.’

Even a liberal opponent of slavery like Henrietta Christian Wright, who condemned it in her 1886 Children’s Stories of American Progress, suggested that abuses occurred ‘because the white man chose to use his greater intelligence to oppress instead of befriend them.’

Decades later, the US system of education is still by no means free of such racist apologetics. In 2018, parents in San Antonio, Texas complained to school authorities when their children were given a homework project that required them to ‘list positive and negative aspects of slavery.’ This was based on a textbook in use by the school that suggested that of those forced into slavery ‘that many may not have even been terribly unhappy with their lot, for they knew no other.

We see similar right-wing efforts to conceal the crimes of the past at work in other countries. This is clearly the case when the blood-soaked history of the British Empire is sanitised. In Canada, shocking revelations about the brutal residential-school system that Indigenous children were forced into have been countered with disgraceful attempts to present these hideous institutions as benevolent and well intentioned. An increase in this kind of historical revisionism is very much a symptom of the present period and the social forces that are being set in motion.

Nikki Haley’s performance in New Hampshire was very much related to a growing determination on the part of a wide section of the US right to silence any evaluation of the country’s past that acknowledges injustice and oppression. Indeed, the notion of a mythical golden age is captured in Trump’s infamous call to ‘Make America Great Again.’

Though the reactionary MAGA slogan is rejected by the great majority in the US, a national poll suggests that some 24% view it favourably. The Republican presidential candidates are well aware, however, that this large minority forms the core of their political base and they understand that the slave past and its enduring legacy within US society is dangerous territory best passed over as quickly as possible.

The far-from-radical US think tank, the Brookings Institute, felt it necessary to state in 1998 that the ‘United States of America, “a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” began as a slave society.’ It added that ‘a terrible price had to be paid, in a tragic, calamitous civil war, before this new democracy could be rid of that most undemocratic institution.

Such expressions from within the US establishment have been commonplace and it had been considered prudent to denounce the institution of slavery and to even acknowledge that its devastating legacy has persisted down to the present day.

Nikki Haley and the reactionary base she cultivates, however, are increasingly ready to dispense with any and all forms of social compromise. To them, the racist past is glorious and the racist present is a work in progress they heartily support. Their rising boldness and desire to cast aside any and all pretences are danger signals that should be taken very seriously.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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