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Nikki Haley Somehow Made Her Civil War Gaffe Even Worse

In acknowledging slavery's role in the conflict, the presidential aspirant made clear the freedom she spoke about was that of the enslavers.

Former UN ambassador and 2024 Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley speaks to the press with New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu at a town hall campaign event at Kennett High School in North Conway, New Hampshire.
Joseph Prezioso/Getty Images
Former UN ambassador and 2024 Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley speaks to the press with New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu at a town hall campaign event at Kennett High School in North Conway, New Hampshire.

The whiggish conceit that history is one long march toward progress is tested sorely by the 189-year trajectory of the Republican Party. Founded in 1834 (by ex-Whigs, in fact) to oppose the spread of slavery, in 1860 the Grand Old Party gifted America with its greatest president. But the Republican Party peaked early. Today’s GOP continues to pay lip service to Abraham Lincoln, but with baggage such as his second inaugural address—which urged the destruction of Southern capital (“until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk”) and violent revenge against Southern job-creators (“until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword”)—the Great Emancipator wouldn’t stand a chance in the 2024 primaries.

Consider Nikki Haley, in whom the respectable wing of the GOP (such as it is) has invested all hope of preventing a second Trump presidency. On Wednesday, Haley got stumped when asked (in New Hampshire!) to explain what caused the Civil War. You’d think the candidate had been asked to elucidate Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Please bear with me as I quote the exchange in full:

Q: What was the cause of the United States Civil War?

Pause, as Haley blinks, turns around, smiles, exhales theatrically.

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.

Haley’s reluctance to say out loud that the Civil War was fought over slavery subsequently became headline news, forcing Haley to issue a Thursday clarification:

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?

But that just made it worse.

Haley stated correctly that slavery is “the easy part of” the answer to the question of what caused the Civil War. But if that’s true, then why did Haley find it so difficult (“don’t come with an easy question, right?”) to mention slavery on Wednesday? A YouGov poll from June 2023 sheds some light.

First the good news: a majority of self-identified Democrats and Republicans agreed that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War. But where 62 percent of Democrats said slavery was the primary cause, only 53 percent of Republicans said the same. That nine-point gap widened to 18 points when you compared 2020 Biden voters who said slavery was the primary cause (68 percent) to 2020 Trump voters (50 percent).

Let’s stay with that for a moment: There is no majority of Trump voters willing to say that slavery caused the Civil War. Half say it was slavery, and another 39 percent say it was “states’ rights.” (That is to say: the federal government’s infringement of states’ rights in seeking to bar the spread of, well, slavery.)

Which side was more justified in fighting the Civil War? In other words: Who were the good guys? Fifty-three percent of Democrats (and 64 percent of Biden voters) said the North was more justified, compared to only 40 percent of Republicans. Surprisingly, Trump voters were, by one measure, a little more enlightened than Republicans generally on this point: 46 percent said the North was more justified. But by another measure Trump voters came up short. Thirty percent said both sides were equally justified (shades of Trump’s “very fine people on both sides”), as compared to 28 percent of Republicans generally and only 16 percent of Democrats.

Well, you say, war is hell—don’t go looking for saints on the battlefield. The salient question isn’t who were the good guys, but which side would you join in the fight. Sadly, though, a large Democrat-Republican gap is found here as well. Sixty-one percent of Democrats would fight for the North, compared to 43 percent of Republicans. Fifty percent of Trump voters would fight for the North, which is a bit better, but that means half wouldn’t.

There were some good guys, actually—genuine heroes—in the Civil War. One of them was Lincoln, who died for the Union. I’m pleased to report that Lincoln still commands high favorables in the GOP (87 percent) and among Trump voters (86 percent). That’s higher even than Lincoln’s favorables among Democrats (82 percent) and about the same as Lincoln’s favorables among Biden voters (86 percent). I still contend, however, that once Lincoln’s 2024 Republican primary rivals reminded voters of the second inaugural, he wouldn’t last much longer than Mike Pence.

Haley was previously known for her courageous stand as South Carolina governor when she removed the Confederate flag from in front of the state house—albeit a courage acquired only after a white supremacist perpetrated a horrific mass shooting at a historically Black church in Charleston. She is courageous no more. Haley said Wednesday that the Civil War was about “capitalism” and “economic freedom” and “freedom to do or be anything they want to be without government getting in the way.” That made her sound like she was talking about the freedom of Southern enslavers. After all, the enslaved didn’t have any capital or economic freedom to defend, and their oppressor wasn’t the federal government but private plantation owners.

Is that a fair interpretation? Haley’s retraction Thursday confirmed that it is.

The tell was Haley’s use of the word, “but.” Haley said we mustn’t “go back to slavery, but what’s the lesson in all that?” If Haley were talking about freedom for the enslaved and their descendants, she wouldn’t have said “but”; she’d have said “and.” Haley was talking about the freedoms of enslavers and their descendants.

The Civil War did not actually resolve favorably for this group—not, anyway, until Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow took its place—so Haley’s mangling the history a bit here. But Haley needed to signal to Republican primary voters, and especially Trump voters, that even though she got cornered by the lamestream media into acknowledging the evils of slavery, she wasn’t going to make a big thing of it. It’s sad and strange to watch a woman of color downplay America’s original sin and treat the Civil War as if it were (as some Southern diehards still call it) a War of Northern Aggression. But that’s what Mr. Lincoln’s GOP now wants to hear. Time to put this ugly shrunken excuse for a political party out of its misery.