Nikki Haley speaks into a microphone during a town hall event.

I Can’t Decide Which Is Worse: Nikki Haley’s Embarrassing Civil War Comments or Her Failed Attempt to Backpedal

At a town hall event in New Hampshire on Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley was asked an extremely basic question about American history: “What was the cause of the Civil War?” Her answer was a spectacular disaster.

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At the event Wednesday, Haley responded to that voter’s question by saying, “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,” Haley said. She then tried to get the voter to answer the question, to which the person reasonably replied, “I’m not running for president. And I wanted to see what you think was the cause of the Civil War.”

If you notice something missing from Haley’s brief response, you’re not alone! The voter told Haley, “In the year 2023, it’s astonishing to me that you answer that question without mentioning the word ‘slavery.’”

An attempt to backpedal

In the moment, Haley responded to that voter’s comment with a terse “What do you want me to say about slavery?” and an even terser “Next question.”

By Thursday morning, Haley was ready to backpedal. In an interview with The Pulse of NH, Haley said, “Of course, the Civil War was about slavery. We know that, that’s the easy part of it.”

If it’s so easy, one might wonder why Haley didn’t just say that in the first place. Haley also insisted, “Yes, I know it was about slavery. I’m from the South, of course I know it’s about slavery.”

In fact, Haley is the former governor of South Carolina, the first state to secede from the union. In its Declaration of Succession, the state explicitly cites slavery as the cause multiple times, including in the first sentence. Seems like Haley could have mentioned that!

She continued: “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.”

Yes, Nikki, it was about the “economic freedom” and “individual right” to enslave people! She went on to say that “our goal is to make sure we never go back to the stain of slavery,” which is a dangerously simplistic read of American history and systemic racism. Sure, I guess it’s a “goal” to never return to institutionalized slavery—although that institution is still alive and kicking in the form of incarcerated labor so mission already failed, Haley.

A better goal for Haley might be to educate herself about the ways in which the history of slavery still impacts Black Americans and fuels racial divides across social, political, and economic lines to this day—and, as a politician, to work to combat those institutional inequalities. By refusing to acknowledge that slavery was the major cause of the Civil War because that answer seems too “easy,” Haley makes it clear that she is refusing to grapple with that actual history and its continued effects.

She should have stopped talking

From there, Haley takes a bizarre turn into tinfoil hat territory.

In a sudden pivot, Haley says that the media is refusing to “connect the dots” on what she thinks really went down at that town hall. According to Haley, the entire thing was a set-up using a “Democratic plant” to trip her up.

“It was definitely a Democrat plant,” Haley said in the interview. “That’s why I said, ‘what does it mean to you?’ And if you notice, he didn’t answer anything. The same reason he didn’t tell the reporters what his name was.”

That voter “didn’t answer anything” because that’s not the way a town hall works. She’s the one running for president, she has to answer the questions.

Also, the voter—who did identify himself to reporters as Patrick according to CNN—probably didn’t give his full name or other identifying info because he was concerned Haley might sic a bunch of angry Republicans accuse on him by accusing him of being a “Democratic plant” in a radio interview!

It doesn’t matter if “Patrick” is or isn’t a Democrat. He asked an extremely basic question that Haley should have been able to answer. And Patrick was only going off the precedent Haley set for herself. He told reporters that he was following up on a similar answer Haley gave when she was running for governor of South Carolina back in 2010.

“The answer that she gave was very similar to the answer that she gave tonight,” he said. “I was just curious if she would answer it any different.”

(featured image: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.