Opinion

The Fox Newsification of Nikki Haley

Here’s what I think is one of the most intriguing questions in American politics today: How would Nikki Haley talk about the country and its challenges if Fox News didn’t exist?

Here’s why: We’ve learned a lot in recent days about both Fox and Haley, the former South Carolina governor who has just started running for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

Let’s start with Fox News. We all sort of knew the truth about Fox, but now there can be no doubt: Fox News is to journalism what the Mafia is to capitalism — same basic genre, but a morally corrupt perversion of the real thing.

Before, during and after the 2020 election, it was not crazy to assume that Fox’s main prime-time hosts — Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham — actually believed some of the pro-Trump, election-fraud conspiracy theories and theorists that they were putting on the air. But now we have learned from a batch of recently disclosed text messages and emails that they didn’t believe any of it.

The internal messages reveal that the three prime-time hosts, as well as others at Fox, privately made fun of, and were at times appalled by, the election-fraud claims of Donald Trump advisers like Sidney Powell and Rudolph Giuliani. But they mostly kept their skepticism hidden from viewers. Having gotten the Fox audience totally aroused by — and addicted to — claims of election fraud, Fox News’s leaders were afraid to stop. Why? They feared they would lose viewers and ad revenue to even crazier networks — Newsmax and OAN.

The Fox News text messages, emails and testimony that expose all of this to public view are from depositions and discovery contained in a recently released legal filing in Delaware state court by Dominion Voting Systems. It is part of the company’s lawsuit against Fox News for broadcasting what it allegedly knew were false claims that Dominion machines helped to rig the 2020 election. The cynicism they reveal is breathtaking.

The depth of it is best summed up in this account by The Times last week of an exchange dated Nov. 12, 2020: “In a text chain with Ms. Ingraham and Mr. Hannity, Mr. Carlson pointed to a tweet in which a Fox reporter, Jacqui Heinrich, fact-checked a tweet from Mr. Trump referring to Fox broadcasts and said there was no evidence of voter fraud from Dominion. ‘Please get her fired,’ Mr. Carlson said. He added: ‘It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.’ Ms. Heinrich had deleted her tweet by the next morning.”

Yup, Fox hosts and the Murdoch family were OK with discrediting the core engine of America’s democracy — our ability to peacefully and legitimately transfer power — if it would hold their audience and boost their stock.

Now enter Nikki Haley, who also last week announced her presidential bid.

I’ve never met Haley, but from afar it seemed that she had a reasonably good story to tell — a successful South Carolina governor from 2011 to 2017, Trump’s first U.N. ambassador and the daughter of Indian immigrants. Her mother, Raj, studied law at the University of New Delhi, and after immigrating to South Carolina, earned a master’s degree in education and became a local public-school teacher. Her father, Ajit, earned a doctorate from the University of British Columbia and then taught as a biology professor at Voorhees College for 29 years. On the side, they even opened a clothing boutique.

The whole family is a walking advertisement for how America has been enriched by immigration.

And as governor, Haley’s best known — and most courageous — political act came in the aftermath of a white gunman killing nine Black parishioners during a June 2015 prayer session inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. After it was discovered that the gunman had posed for numerous photos with Confederate symbols and was linked to a racist manifesto, Haley called for legislation that led to the removal of the Confederate flag that had flown on the State Capitol grounds since 1962.

“We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer,” Haley declared.

Good on her. Now fast forward to Haley announcing her run for the presidency. Imagine all the ways she could have differentiated herself from Trump and Ron DeSantis.

She could have said: “Friends, in the last two years, Congress passed bills to upgrade our infrastructure, our capacity to make advanced microchips and advanced clean energy systems. The first two were passed with bipartisan majorities. This legislation constitutes a launching pad that could enable America to dominate the 21st century. And I know how to get the most out of those launching pads.

“During my time as governor, Greenville, S.C., became one of the nation’s most important hubs of wind energy innovation. As South Carolina’s Upstate Business Journal recently wrote, ‘According to a new study from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, inventors in Greenville were responsible for 172 wind energy patents over the past five years, more than any other metro area in the country.’ You bet! That’s because we made Greenville home to General Electric’s Power & Water energy engineering team.”

Haley could have added, “I also know a lot about building infrastructure for high-tech manufacturing, because during my time as governor I helped to make South Carolina one of the nation’s most active hubs of advanced manufacturing — from advanced aircraft to cars to tires.”

Haley could have then pivoted to explain that every one of those manufacturers today is telling us that to realize their full potential they need workers schooled in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). But they can’t find them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2025 America could need one million more engineers and other STEM professionals than we can produce at home at our current rate. She could have said the only way to fill that gap is by welcoming the world’s most energetic and high-skilled immigrants.

Legal immigrants grow our pie and invent things that enhance our national security. As the daughter of two such immigrants, Haley could have committed to forging a long needed compromise that would truly halt illegal immigration while expanding legal immigration. As a governor who dared yank down the Confederate flag, she could boast that she had the spine to pull the country together to do big, hard things.

Sure, that kind of speech would have challenged the Republican base, but I bet it would have energized many others — particularly independents and moderate Republicans looking for alternatives to Trump.

But Haley said none of it.

Here’s Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal on Haley’s presidential announcement: “I found myself thinking not about her candidacy but about the launch itself, which was creepily stuck in the past. A horrible, blaring song from a Sylvester Stallone sequel pumped her in as she strode out in the white suit. … An introducer said she will ‘lead us into the future’; she added, ‘America is falling behind.’ It was all so tired, clichéd and phony.”

And here’s Washington Post political analyst Dan Balz on Haley’s opening campaign video, which twice featured The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project” — which details the persistence of racism in American history — as red meat to the anti-woke crowd: Haley’s “video also highlights the 2015 mass shooting at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where a white stranger killed nine Black people at a Bible study class. It does not mention Haley’s subsequent action to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House after years of controversy.”

And now for the perfect ending to Haley’s presidential announcement events. The evening of her speech she appeared on — wait for it now — Hannity’s show on Fox, where she complained that the G.O.P. needs a message to “bring in” a variety of people and it must do a better job at messaging — but offered no actual message.

The woman whose family immigration story could have so linked up with a concrete strategy for American renewal, the woman whose political courage in taking down the Confederate flag could have served as the perfect opening message to bring more minorities into the G.O.P., chose instead to do a bad imitation of Ron DeSantis.

Why? Because like Hannity, Ingraham, Carlson and the Murdochs, Haley was more interested in following the Fox base than shaping it, let alone leading it to a better place.

As I said, imagine what Nikki Haley might have sounded like if Fox News didn’t exist.

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