Nikki Haley’s Civil War Comments Were No Accident

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Former South Carolina Gov. and 2024 Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley is drawing scrutiny for failing to say slavery was the cause of the Civil War when asked by a voter on Wednesday. She’s trying to clean up the mess now, but Haley’s latest comments reflect her longstanding political approach. 

“I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was going to run,” said Haley, the former U.N. ambassador, at a New Hampshire town hall. “The freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do.” 

When the audience member who asked the question said he was “astonished” she didn’t mention the word “slavery,” Haley responded: “What do you want me to say about slavery?”

Haley attempted to do damage control Thursday morning: “I mean, of course the Civil War was about slavery,” she told radio host Jack Heath before claiming that the voter who asked her about it was a “Democrat plant.”

In recent months, Haley has surged in GOP presidential primary polls and has emerged as the top challenger to former President Donald Trump. Haley’s comments about the Civil War stand to threaten her image as “reasonable” and “likable” among the New Hampshire primary voters she will need to make the race competitive — though it’s also easy to imagine a world in which it helps her with Republicans’ MAGA base.  

Haley’s reluctance to blame the Civil War on slavery should not come as a surprise, though, as it’s consistent with her past efforts to avoid criticizing the confederacy and maintain appeal with far-right elements in her party. 

Democratic National Committee chairman Jaime Harrison, who led the South Carolina Democratic Party when Haley was governor, posted on X (formerly Twitter) that Haley’s comments were “[n]ot stunning if you were a Black resident in SC when she was governor,” adding: “Time to take off the rose colored Nikki Haley glasses folks.” 

As governor of South Carolina, Haley represented the first state to secede from the Union. The first sentence in the state’s ordinance of secession mentions slavery, and the ordinance cites among its causes an “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding states to the institution of slavery.” 

The Confederate flag was previously flown on the dome of South Carolina’s state Capitol — and Haley supported it for some time.

“You know, for those groups that come in and say they have issues with the Confederate flag, I will work to talk to them about it,” Haley said in an interview during her 2010 campaign for governor. “I will work and talk to them about the heritage and how this is not something that is racist. This is something that is a tradition that people feel proud of and let them know that we want their business in this state. And that the flag where it is, was a compromise of all people that everybody should accept as part of South Carolina.”

As part of that interview, Haley said she believes that states have a constitutional right to secede. She also defended South Carolina’s “Confederate History Month,” saying that “it’s part of tradition.”

Haley changed course on the Confederate flag in 2015, calling for its removal from the state capitol after White nationalist Dylann Roof murdered nine people in a mass shooting at a historically Black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

She said the Confederate flag at the capitol “should have never been there,” adding: “These grounds are a place that everybody should feel a part of. What I realized now more than ever is people were driving by and felt hurt and pain. No one should feel pain.”

Earlier this year, a campaign spokesperson touted the move, telling CNN: “Nikki Haley’s groundbreaking leadership on removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Capitol grounds is well known.”

Haley’s campaign did immediately respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.

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On Thursday, Haley’s campaign sent an email to supporters touting her trip to New Hampshire for a series of town hall events.

“Thanks to grassroots support, my New Hampshire swing is off to a strong start!” the candidate wrote in the email, adding: “I’m ready to answer as many questions as I can, meet with voters across the state, and earn the confidence of every Granite Stater.”

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Nikki Haley’s Civil War Comments Were No Accident

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