What Makes Nikki Haley Tougher Than the Rest

Politics is a tough business, so you’d think most politicians would be tough people. In fact, in my experience they’re often not. A lot of people go into politics because they want to be universally liked, and from Abraham Lincoln on down, many of them have detested personal confrontation. Several years ago it occurred to me that in every administration I had covered to that point — from Reagan through Obama — the White House staff seemed to fear the first lady more than they feared the commander in chief.

This has obviously changed in recent times. Donald Trump was tough, mean and self-pitying (a nifty combination). President Biden is tougher than he looks. And the woman who is now Trump’s chief challenger, Nikki Haley, is one of the toughest politicians in America — by which I mean confrontational, willing to hammer her foes.

When you read accounts of her days in South Carolina, her bellicosity fairly ripples off the pages. In a fantastic 2021 profile in Politico Magazine, Tim Alberta quotes a former South Carolina Republican Party chair: “Listen, man. She will cut you to pieces. Nikki Haley has a memory. She has a memory. She will remember who was with her and who was against her. And she won’t give a second chance to anyone who she thinks did her wrong.”

But the most telling quotation is the one Haley gave to Alberta herself: “I don’t trust, because I’ve never been given a reason to trust.”

She grew up in the only Indian American family in a small working-class South Carolina town. The stories she tells about her girlhood are often about exclusion: being disqualified from a beauty pageant because it was set up to allow for only one Black and one white winner (though some locals dispute this); a fruit-stand vendor calling the cops because her father was a brown-skinned man wearing a turban. She once described her childhood as “survival mode.”

Today, many people think of Haley as part of the older Republican establishment, a political descendant of the Bushes and Mitt Romney who suddenly finds herself trying to thrive in a party dominated by Trumpian populists. This is not quite right. Haley entered politics as a Tea Party maverick. As Hanna Rosin noted in The Atlantic in 2011, the Tea Party was female-led, and most of its supporters were right-wing women who, among other things, wanted to take on the Republican old boys network. Women like Haley and Sarah Palin presented themselves as whistle-blowers, taking down corruption.

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