Yes, slavery caused the Civil War, but Nikki Haley needs the voters who won’t admit that

South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union in 1860, the first state to consider secession at the outset, and the first state to take up arms in the insurrection that ultimately became known as the Civil War. As its former governor, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley knows full well that the preservation of slavery was the reason that South Carolina enjoys such an infamous place in our history.

But Haley is not running for the post of presidential historian. She is attempting to become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, and she faces the daunting obstacle of winning over a Republican primary electorate almost completely in thrall of Donald Trump. And like the other Republican hopefuls Trump has left floundering in the detritus of his wake, she knows that her only path lies in somehow distinguishing herself in the eyes of those voters.

And if that means pandering to their fantasies about themselves and their forefathers’ motivations, then so be it.

And we must make no mistake about those motivations. As the Charleston Mercury put it so eloquently on Nov. 3, 1860:

The issue before the country is the extinction of slavery. No man of common sense, who has observed the progress of events, and who is not prepared to surrender the institution, with the safety and independence of the South, can doubt that the time for action has come—now or never. The Southern States are now in the crisis of their fate; and, if we read aright the signs of the times, nothing is needed for our deliverance, but that the ball of revolution be set in motion. 

[…]

The existence of slavery is at stake. The evils of submission are too terrible for us to risk them, from vague fears of failure, or a jealous distrust of our sister Cotton States. 

But Haley’s in it to win it, and she’s chosen which voters she thinks can help her do it. That’s why, when asked a simple question during a New Hampshire town hall on Tuesday, she chose to refuse—quite pointedly—to acknowledge that the Civil War was fought over slavery.

Watch:

The backlash was swift, and it was scathing. This example comes with a handy transcript for the video above.

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As The Daily Beast’s David Rothkopf noted, Haley’s outrageous response simply cemented her status as a “morally and ethically adrift word salad bar.” But it was a sacrifice she was prepared to make if it meant sending a signal to the Republican electorate that yes, she’s one of them! She can be trusted to protect the illusion and salve the consciences of that segment of the voter base that minimizes the brutal and shameful legacy of the Confederacy.

As pointed out by Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing in 2015 for The Atlantic, South Carolina’s declaration of secession was anything but a dry and tedious pronouncement about, as Haley stated Wednesday night, the “role of government.” It was instead a blistering diatribe citing President Abraham Lincoln’s “hostility” toward the entire institution of slavery—a position that South Carolina’s legislature characterized as “destructive” of the state’s “beliefs and safety.”

Coates quotes directly from that document:

 … A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that “Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,” and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.

To her credit, Haley’s convoluted response did get a couple things right. The Civil War was certainly about “capitalism,” and even “economic freedom” for many white Southerners. As Coates observes, the preservation of an institution that violently forced Black people—under pain of torture or death—to work in bondage under degrading conditions until they outlived their usefulness was the indispensable component driving the South’s economy prior to the Civil War.

Coates explains:

It is difficult for modern Americans to understand such militant commitment to the bondage of others. But at $3.5 billion, the 4 million enslaved African Americans in the South represented the country’s greatest financial asset. And the dollar amount does not hint at the force of enslavement as a social institution. By the onset of the Civil War, Southern slaveholders believed that African slavery was one of the great organizing institutions in world history, superior to the “free society” of the North.

So yes, in many ways the Civil War certainly implicated “capitalism,” but probably not the kind of capitalism people envision when playing Monopoly, for example. 

By Thursday—facing outrage she doubtlessly anticipated—Haley tried to walk back her statement, saying, “Of course the Civil War was about slavery. We know that. That’s the easy part of it.” But not without accusing the unnamed questioner of being “planted” by the Biden campaign.

As reported by NH Journal:

“If you watch my town halls, this happened in my entire last race. It’ll happen this time, too. Biden and the Democrats keep sending Democrat plants to do things like this, to get the media to react. We know when they’re there. We know what they’re doing,” Haley said.

For Haley, asking a Republican candidate about the Civil War can only be a Democratic “plot,” a revealing admission in itself. Then again, Haley is someone who only flip-flopped on her public stance about the Confederate flag when a shooting massacre perpetrated by a white supremacist forced her hand. It’s fairly impossible to determine what, if anything, she actually believes. 

More to the point: Haley’s clumsy effort to whitewash the history of slavery in this country is emblematic of a deeper rot suffusing the modern Republican Party to this day, one that instinctively seeks to blur, and ultimately obscure, the pervasive racism still so prevalent among its rank and file voters.

It’s the same sort of rot that spawned the self-serving “Lost Cause” mythology. The rot that prompted the reversal of social, political, and economic advances for Black people that threatened white Southerners during and after Reconstruction, leading directly to the imposition of Jim Crow and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s the same rot that prompted southern Democrats to flip to the Republican Party in the wake of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. 

And it’s the same rot that currently drives the modern Republican Party in its efforts to suppress and gerrymander the Black vote, while its most ardent supporters continue to revel in the nakedly racist rhetoric of Trump.

As Coates illustrated in his 2015 essay, it’s a sad testament to the unyielding impulse of racism and the absolute refusal of a large segment of white America to let it go that explains why—still, in these final days of 2023—it remains politically useful for a Republican presidential candidate to pretend not to know what caused the Civil War. Republican candidates know that the very worst thing they can do is remind their own voters of that war’s shameful origins. After all, they’ve spent over 150 years trying to sugarcoat, rewrite, or minimize them.

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