Nikki Haley deserves no grace for Civil War gaffe

There is a reason why it is so hard for the former South Carolina governor to simply call out slavery as the cause

By Heather Digby Parton


Published December 29, 2023 9:16AM (EST)

Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley addresses the crowd during a campaign stop at the Nevada Fairgrounds community building on December 18, 2023 in Nevada, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley addresses the crowd during a campaign stop at the Nevada Fairgrounds community building on December 18, 2023 in Nevada, Iowa. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

If there's a worse time to drop a nuclear-powered campaign gaffe than the week between Christmas and New Year's less than a month before the primaries begin, I don't know when it is. Many people are off work, sitting around watching TV, talking about world events with relatives and otherwise tuning into the news with a focus and attention they usually don't have time for. Meanwhile, the news is usually pretty slow this time of year so any gaffe is going to get outsized attention because the media is desperate for campaign stories that aren't dull as dishwater. Something that might be one little item in a crowded news cycle becomes The Major Story and a campaign is pushed back on its heels. 

If you're one of those who tuned in over the past 36 hours, you've heard about former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley's massive gaffe in New Hampshire on Wednesday when she was asked a very simple question at a town hall meeting: "What was the cause of the United States Civil War?" That's not a trick question or a gotcha. The answer is very simple: "slavery." But what Haley said was absolute gobbledygook:

A: Well, don’t come with an easy question, right? I mean, I think the cause of the Civil War was basically how government was gonna run. The freedoms and what people could and couldn’t do. What do you think the cause of the Civil War was?

Q: [Inaudible]

A: I’m sorry?

Q: I’m not running for president. I wanted to see [what your view was] on the cause of the Civil War.

A: I mean, I think it always comes down to the role of government. And what the rights of the people are. And we, I, will always stand by the fact that I think government was intended to secure the rights and freedoms of the people. It was never meant to be all things to all people. Government doesn’t need to tell you how to live your life. They don’t need to tell you what you can and can’t do. They don’t need to be a part of your life. They need to make sure that you have freedom. We need to have capitalism, we need to have economic freedom, we need to make sure that we do all things so that individuals have the liberties, so that they can have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to do or be anything they want to be without government getting in the way.

Q: Thank you. And in the year 2023, it’s astonishing to me that you answered that question without mentioning the word, “slavery.”

A: What do you want me to say about slavery?

Q: No, you’ve answered my question, thank you.

She did answer the question, in a way, and it wasn't good. All of her babbling about freedom seemed to be aimed at the freedom of the enslavers, not the freedom of the enslaved. It's absolutely the case that those rich plantation owners "wanted the freedom to do and be anything they wanted to be without the government getting in the way." That's why they seceded from the union. 

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It took many hours before she amended her statement which was an act of political malpractice in a situation like this. And what she finally said made it even worse:

Of course the Civil War was about slavery. We know that. That’s the easy part of it. What I was saying was, what does it mean to us today. What it means to us today is about freedom. That’s what that was all about. It was about individual freedom, it was about economic freedom, it was about individual rights. Our goal is to make sure, no, we never go back to slavery, but what’s the lesson in all that?

If it was so easy, you'd think she might have mentioned it. And again she doesn't seem to be talking about the enslaved with all that freedom talk. People held in bondage didn't have any capital or individual rights and the federal government was the least of their problems — they were held against their will by private individuals. 

All of her babbling about freedom seemed to be aimed at the freedom of the enslavers, not the freedom of the enslaved.

No, Haley was trying to incorporate standard libertarian dogma up there in the Live Free Or Die state and ran smack into an internal contradiction of that philosophy. "Keep the government out of our lives ... so that we can continue to expand slavery" was the fundamental demand of the confederacy. 

Remember, that statement of hers was supposed to be the clean up and it's almost as incomprehensible as her first answer. And that leads to the real question about all this. Why was it so hard for her to answer this question like virtually any normal American in 2023 would answer it? 

Sadly, the answer to that is in the number of Republicans who don't believe that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. YouGov did a poll a few months back about this very subject and it's disheartening. First of all, there are large numbers of Americans who apparently know next to nothing about the Civil War one way or another. But among those who do have opinions about it, only 50% of Trump voters believe that slavery was the cause of the Civil War. Only 40% of Republicans said they believe the North was more justified, with a large plurality of Trump voters saying that both sides were equally justified.

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Nikki Haley has been trying to finesse this question going all the way back to 2010 when she first ran for governor and defended the Confederate flag. She later recanted and had the flag removed but only after the mass killing of innocent Black churchgoers in Charleston by a racist, Confederate flag-waving monster. In New Hampshire, she tried to frame the question in Libertarian language in an attempt to appeal to the independents she needs to have a good showing and did a shockingly poor job of it. But she's looking at going back to her home state in a few weeks, where Donald Trump is way ahead of her, and she knows that any discussion of slavery will be a death knell in that primary. 

Haley knows all about this— she's from South Carolina — and as she's done with the issue of abortion, she was trying to have it both ways. Her spectacular clumsiness with this question at a very bad time in the campaign news cycle is likely to hurt her but not because of the slavery question which, as we've seen, isn't any kind of deal breaker among Republicans. It's because it exacerbates her existing image as someone who doesn't have any real center and isn't her own person. This is a person who publicly promised not to run against Trump and is now doing it anyway while holding back on criticizing him and refusing to rule out becoming his vice president. (For what it's worth, Don Jr. says he would do everything in his power to stop that and he's not the only one.) 

Haley's bump in the past few weeks has been based on the idea that she's a better general election candidate than Trump. This controversy cuts into that argument and frankly she doesn't have a better one. A gaffe only matters if it reinforces an existing belief about a person and this one illustrates her central problem perfectly. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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Civil War Commentary Confederacy Confederate Flag Elections 2024 Slavery South Carolina