Nikki Haley, now second in polls for the Republican presidential nomination, is being portrayed as a broadly appealing, pragmatic alternative to Donald Trump. In fact, she’s a proud union buster with a bloodthirsty neoconservative streak, not a moderate.

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley takes the stage for the NewsNation Republican Presidential Primary Debate on December 6, 2023 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Nikki Haley is having a moment, or at least something a few pundits are currently insisting is one. A recent national poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal put Haley in second place for the Republican presidential nomination — just ahead of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, whose campaign has been more or less in free fall since the day it began.

To some, the former UN ambassador and South Carolina governor exudes a “Southern charm” and a genteel gift for repelling her critics. Despite her hard-line conservatism, Haley is said to possess broad appeal for an “increasing number of independents, moderate Republicans and curious Democrats,” as well as a pragmatic streak that could make her the “perfect non-MAGA alternative to Trump.” Haley’s recent debate performances have earned her effusive write-ups in the nation’s op-ed pages, where they have been called “deft yet serious, quick-witted yet substantive” and seen her labeled a “charismatic and savvy communicator” and “agile and sharp-tongued.”

It’s all a little ridiculous. Haley’s ascent in the polls, such as it is, still puts her nearly fifty points behind Donald Trump, who has so thoroughly remade the Republican Party in his own image that it would probably take divine intervention to prevent him from winning the nomination. Nevertheless, the idea that there’s some better, saner, less scary GOP to be saved from Trump’s clutches remains an article of faith in some parts of the commentariat, and Haley — if only because she’s less personally weird than the perpetually awkward DeSantis — seems to be its flavor of the month.

Again, it’s pretty absurd. Haley, like her fellow candidate Chris Christie, dutifully served as a loyal Trump ally before she reinvented herself as one of his critics. Her campaign has also recently had to walk back the Orwellian suggestion that no American should have the right to post on social media anonymously and, as Jeet Heer points out, her bloodthirsty (and often conspiratorial) streak of neoconservatism belies any claim that she’s a moderate.

Aside from her debate performances and subsequent media kayfabe, the single biggest factor in Haley’s supposed ascent in the polls has been a surge in interest and campaign cash from big donors and Wall Street power brokers. Having spent $5.7 million on advertising so far, Haley’s allies at the Charles Koch–connected super PAC Americans for Prosperity have recently pumped out some $4 million worth of pro-Haley ad spending. Ken Griffin, head of the multinational hedge fund Citadel (and the thirty-seventh richest person in the world) is reportedly giving her campaign a look, as is fellow billionaire and hedge fund manager Bill Ackman. Speaking to an audience of wealthy corporate leaders last month, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon offered his endorsement, saying: “Even if you’re a very liberal Democrat, I urge you, help Nikki Haley too. Get a choice on the Republican side that might be better than Trump.”

Haley’s edge in the Wall Street primary comes as no surprise given her tenure in South Carolina. As governor, Haley was so deferential to big business and so openly hostile to workers and unions that her record stands out even within the decidedly chamber of commerce–aligned and anti-labor party to which she belongs. As the Huffington Post’s Dave Jamieson details, Haley has never hidden her virulent hatred of unions and, despite her state boasting the lowest union density of any in America at just 1.7 percent, she never relented in her crusade to purge it of union jobs altogether. “Any truly objective review of South Carolina’s business landscape notes the benefit we get from the minimal role unions play in our state,” she declared in a 2015 address to the state’s legislature. “We don’t have unions in South Carolina because we don’t need unions in South Carolina.”

Haley wasn’t being the least bit hyperbolic. Even before she was first inaugurated, she appointed a “union avoidance” lawyer (her choice of words) to run the state’s labor department, and, once in office, she signed an executive order that prevented striking workers from collecting unemployment benefits, even though such a law was already on the books. In 2014, she said she’d favor no jobs coming to South Carolina over unionized ones, adding, “We don’t want to taint the water.” Determined to prevent workers at a North Charleston Boeing facility from unionizing with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), Haley personally appeared in ads for the company in an effort to discourage them. The atmosphere she helped to create proved so fanatically hostile to union drives that the IAM was forced to delay the vote, citing an “atmosphere of threats, harassment and unprecedented political interference” that saw several of its organizers threatened at gunpoint during a canvas.

As Jamieson points out, neither historic levels of popular support for unions nor the attempts made by some of Haley’s GOP colleagues to sound less avowedly anti-worker have seemed to shift her position even one iota. “I was a union buster,” she recently boasted to Fox News while taking aim at striking autoworkers. “I didn’t want to bring in companies that were unionized simply because I didn’t want to have that change the environment in our state.” Among other things, Haley’s anti-union posture clearly yielded dividends for her donors and wealthy investors: in addition to its record-low union density, South Carolina’s median wage today stands at just $37,250 (or forty-seventh in the country).

Like DeSantis, Tim Scott, Mike Pence, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Chris Christie, Nikki Haley is not going to be the Republican nominee for president. Still, her candidacy is a revealing case study in how absurdly easy it has become for conservative politicians to earn the seal of moderation and win plaudits from those in the anti-Trump camp who are more put off by the former president’s outer-borough accent and lack of manners than by his actual policies.

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