BAMBERG, South Carolina—Nikki Haley, an accomplished opportunist in the risky world of President Donald Trump’s cabinet, was born in 1972 here in the “black belt” of rural South Carolina.
It’s an agricultural region where most people have African-American backgrounds and, as Haley wrote in her 2012 memoir, “The railroad tracks divided Bamberg. On one side lived the black residents, on the other the white.” Today the town of 3,000 people is so small and fast-diminishing that it no longer has a hospital or a supermarket. But Haley’s fading picture still graces two welcome signs erected when she was the governor of the state.
Haley has not been back to Bamberg since Trump appointed her America’s ambassador to the United Nations in January 2017, according to several residents and officials here. Never mind. Haley remains Bamberg’s homegrown VIP, and the town’s main claim to fame.
This week in New York City, Donald Trump will be looming large on Haley’s turf at the U.N., making major speeches and presiding over the Security Council (and perhaps distracting from the D.C.-encompassing allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh).
But Haley will be someone to watch as well, starting with Sunday’s talk shows. She has boundless ambition, and more than once in her political career has managed to step out of the shadows onto center stage. Indeed, for those who have watched her closely at the U.N., her performance makes the most sense not as a matter of diplomacy, but as a campaign for the big prize in 2024, or even 2020, with a hungry eye on Trump’s core supporters.
Haley’s family, Sikh immigrants from the Punjab region of India, moved to the white side of Bamberg in 1969, before she was born. They lived first in a ranch house on a corner lot, then in a larger two-story house on a three-acre lot with a brick entrance that President Trump might admire for its attempt at grandeur.
Haley’s father, Ajit Randhawa, had immigrated to the United States after a stint in Canada, taking a job as a biology professor at a liberal-arts institution, Voorhees College—a “black school,” Haley notes—in the nearby town of Denmark, S.C. While Haley’s mother, Raj Randhawa, was an elementary-school teacher, she set up a home importing business selling what Haley called “treasures imported from all over the world.” When she moved the enterprise to Bamberg’s main street, she added clothing to the mix.
As a local white official said of the business, “We all shopped there,” adding that the Randhawas may have stood out—the mother wore saris, the father a turban—but they were considered “well mannered” and were “very respectful of everyone.” As Haley said in her memoir, they “tried to fit in” even though they were “brown.”
The store, Exotica International, is where Nimrata “Nikki” Randhawa got her real schooling: helping to run a small family business that she said eventually turned into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. People here in Bamberg easily conjure Haley as a person who was driven, who “held her own” as one resident put it.
“I think she could be the first female president—she’s a Cracker Jack,” said a white town official, who said he has been following Haley at the U.N., which he called “dysfunctional.”
“Why have the U.N.? She knows that everyone [there] needs to step up to the plate. Other countries need to do their share. They all criticize the United States; it’s not right. You got to have that leadership, to walk with a big stick. The past administration, it did nothing.”
In 1996, Nikki married Michael Haley, an officer in the South Carolina Army National Guard, the same year she converted from Sikhism to Christianity.
For Haley’s entrepreneurial immigrant family, taxes seemed burdensome, and she easily adopted the politics of those who said they’d reduce taxes and keep government out of people’s noses.
That powerfully felt ethos is at least as old as the Carolinas, but it had a national resurgence in the form of the Tea Party soon after Barack Obama was elected, and Haley embraced it with charismatic enthusiasm when, as a three-term state representative, she ran and won her first campaign for governor in 2010.
In her memoir, Haley called the Tea Party “the movement,” noting ponderously: “Government is the dead weight we all drag behind us,” and then rapturously, “I love the Tea Party.” She was determined to bless her fellow Carolinians, she said, with policies that would make them again “a free and striving people with a limited and accountable government.”
In a state with a wildly skewed sense of its own Lost Cause history, she suggested that freedom had been the rule “for centuries” and was somehow taken away by modern government, even though for most of those centuries blacks were neither free nor allowed to strive, and most white farmers were dirt poor. To look back centuries in South Carolina is to look back to the rule of a tiny majority that owned most of the wealth in the form of plantations—and slaves—and eventually persuaded thousands of people to die protecting the rights of the rich. (It’s worth remembering that the firebrands of the slavocracy likened their goals to the pre-Revolution “tea party” as well.)
On a local level, while lamenting taxes, Haley’s mother had also worked for Bamberg public schools, obviously financed from the public till. And of course Bamberg provided basic taxpayer-funded services like fire and police departments. But the mantra that “government is dead weight” has always gone over well with the majority of voters in one of America’s poorest and least educated states.
While Haley was governor, South Carolina ranked 47th out of 50 in state literacy at the fourth-grade reading level. In a 2018 a U.S. News & World Report survey, South Carolina’s health care ranking was 41 in the U.S. Some numbers looked good: it grew economically and scored high on “long-term fiscal responsibility.” But what that meant in concrete terms was that the rich were getting richer while those dependent on public services suffered.
In 2014, when Haley was governor, the state had the ninth-highest poverty rate in the country, with women more likely than men to be poor and nearly a third of both African-Americans and Hispanics categorized as poor, compared with 13.5 percent of whites.
As an African-American motel desk manager in South Carolina said of Haley, she wasn’t too popular and we’re “glad to see her go.”
This was the legacy she brought to New York.
Plucked out of the governor’s mansion in 2017 by Team Trump, which needed a female in its heavily-male cabinet, Haley carried Tea Party attitudes—efficiency and evisceration—like a suitcase to her destination in Manhattan.
For Haley, over the course of 20 months as the U.S. envoy in New York, most of what she’s pulled from her baggage aims at cutting the United Nations peacekeeping and general U.N. budgets, regardless of the dangers on the receiving end.
Nobody questions that there’s waste that needs to be addressed, bloat that needs to be deflated in the U.N. But that’s not what Haley’s campaign is really about. Mostly, in fact, it’s about her, and that means keeping an audience attuned daily to her performance as she arrives late for Security Council meetings and then reads her cellphone more often than not as her fellow Council members read their speeches.
Haley’s goal appears to be to show she has saved money no matter the consequences, as long as she can brag about it. As she did, alarming the somber world of the U.N., in the spring of 2017, when she tweeted: “Just 5 months into our time here, we've cut over half a billion $$$ from the UN peacekeeping budget & we're only getting started.”
Among her early targets: the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the tinder box country of Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In March of last year Haley successfully pushed—against the wishes of the French delegation and other powerful members of the Security Council—to cut the troop size of the Congo mission by about 3,000 soldiers in an operation that is required to protect civilians in a place where innocent people must fend for themselves more often than not.
She scored that goal the same week that two U.N. experts working in the Congo—an American and a Swedish-Chilean—were found dead in the bushes, murdered apparently by members of a local militia. The timing was out of her control, but her determination to slash the Congo mission looked ruthless.
It should be obvious that the U.N. is not a small state in the American South, and that Carolina is not tasked with saving people’s lives around the world. The United Nations is not a business either, whether family owned or transnational like Boeing (which has a major operation in North Charleston with the motto “Changing the World”). The United Nations is a whole other animal, requiring an understanding of its unique purpose: to save the world from humankind’s worst impulses—murder, discrimination, hatred, greed, selfishness and, indeed, annihilation.
If Haley is aware that shrinking the U.N.—and possibly weakening its stature and power along the way—may have global consequences that court disaster, she hasn’t let on. But she has honed her skills at self-promotion, dashing off press releases that castigate countries like Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Iran. Haley realizes that to sound firm and tough may sway some of the U.S. public who think that American greatness depends on slap-them-around politicking.
“I wear heels, but it's not a fashion statement,” Haley said at a program put on by AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “It's because if I see something wrong, I'm gonna kick 'em every single time.”
Does that sound like wannabe Sarah Palinism? No surprise. When Palin landed in South Carolina to endorse Haley as governor in her first election campaign, giving it a crucial shot in the arm, Haley couldn’t have been giddier —“We were all jumping up and down,” she wrote in her book, a sentiment echoed in a news report, in which she said, “It is a tremendous honor to receive Governor Palin’s endorsement.”
By 2011, however, Haley said she didn’t feel she owed Palin anything. When Palin was considering a presidential run, Haley stuck with the pragmatic choice: Mitt Romney.
Indeed, Haley has a long record deriding “old-boy networks,” but she’s actually pretty comfortable with them if they can meet her goals.
When she was representing Lexington County S.C. in the state legislature, she discovered the assembly was run by “leering, grinning boys” who planned to remove her from an influential committee. But she learned a lesson, she wrote, which was to be prepared to fight, “by winning.” And to be sure, things got ugly in the 2010 GOP primary for governor when one of her fellow South Carolina Republicans told a talk show, speaking of then-President Barack Obama and then-candidate Haley, “We already got one raghead in the White House. We don’t need a raghead in the governor’s mansion.”
When Haley arrived at the U.N.—even though she’d previously admitted she knew nothing about it—she suggested it, too, was an old boys’ club and that might make her job more difficult. In fact, regardless of gender, the national representatives there have the power of their governments behind them, and the United States is the main player. And Haley is not the first but the eighth woman to serve as U.S. ambassador or acting ambassador to the United Nations.
Haley’s passion for diversity appears to stop with her. Her disregard for the African-American community in South Carolina (on the other side of the tracks here in Bamberg) couldn’t have been bolder than when she wrote in her memoir after she selected her gubernatorial cabinet that some members of the Legislative Black Caucus complained of a lack of diversity in her administration.
“The identity-politics bean counters had done the math,” she wrote. “I had appointed nine white men, three white women, and one African American woman. One black caucus member scolded, ‘There’s no excuse in 2011 not to have diversity in the governor’s office.’ I guess the governor herself doesn’t count!”
More recently, in New York, Haley’s been remembering her old-boy Republican friends and allies from South Carolina as she seeks to get appointments for Americans in key U.N. posts, most visibly, for fellow ex-governor David Beasley to run the World Food Program.
In the Trumpian vein of claiming firsts and mosts, Haley is using her position in the rotating presidency of the Security Council this month to promote herself in a way few other U.S. ambassadors have done before her, calling her program of work for September a plan of “firsts.” And when Trump arrives at the annual General Assembly annual gathering on Sept. 24, he, too, will use the boys’ club to promote his America “first” agenda.
Haley even claims that she is the first person to raise the single topic of human rights in the U.N. Security Council, where the U.S. is a permanent member along with Britain, China, France and Russia. But this claim can be subjected to facts: the U.N. peacekeeping mandates, for instance, regularly encompass human rights in their reports and the topic regularly comes up in the Council. And in the meantime the U.S. has pulled out of the U.N. Human Rights Council because it didn’t like some of the unsavory company—countries that could now dominate it more so.
In any case, Haley’s criticism of human rights offenders is highly selective, with Trump buddies like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, who has encouraged thousands of extrajudicial killings.
While Haley has talked about fighting an overweight U.N. bureaucracy—arguably a worthy challenge—her real goal is similar to that of Trump’s current national security advisor, John Bolton, which is to undermine and weaken the institution as a whole. (Bolton was U.N. ambassador himself with an undistinguished record in 2005-2006, at the height of the George W. Bush administrations debacle in Iraq and just as Iran re-started its nuclear program with a vengeance.)
Channeling Bolton, she hasn’t stopped pushing for “reform,” as she calls it, in U.N. peacekeeping operations—not only trying to reduce mission budgets each time they come up for renewal, but also demanding that missions hold productive peace talks, otherwise they will be closed.
The demand for a political track, especially in longstanding missions like the one in Western Sahara, in North Africa, or in Cyprus is not disputed by anyone in the U.N. Secretary General’s office. Yet threatening to end a mission if no peace talks are reignited could have dire results, especially in Cyprus, which is one of the most militarized places, per capita, on earth, with two NATO allies, Greece and Turkey, potentially squared off against each other.
Very few diplomats at the U.N. will argue that the institution cannot afford to pare down, either, yet Haley’s dogged approach to ending duplication, improving efficiency and phasing out programs that don’t work or no longer are needed, while it sounds good, offers no proof that her program will leave the U.N. a stronger place able to deliver on the goals of ending poverty, ensuring universal human rights and—its original and still its most important objective—stopping or preventing wars.
The U.N. is deeply imperfect, but it has provided a framework for checks and balances in a world that otherwise might long ago have gone mad. But in the age of Trump, as we know, checks and balances are regarded not just with suspicion, but derision. And at U.N. headquarters there is a widespread feeling that Haley’s underlying ambition, along with Bolton, is to turn the U.N. into an enfeebled, dying organism so that the U.S., as the world’s largest military and economic giant, can skirt universal norms and treaties—and swat away diplomacy—as it competes for dominance with China and Russia.
That might sound good to folks on the white side of Bamberg, but for the world, and ultimately even for little towns in South Carolina, unmediated global confrontations may soon leave a string of catastrophic results.