The Shameless Opportunism of Nikki Haley
In the Coen brothers’ acerbic spy-thriller send-up, “Burn After Reading,” George Clooney, playing an unfaithful, fitness-obsessed blockhead, disabuses his lover, a vicious Tilda Swinton, that her CIA analyst husband has quit his job to pursue “a higher patriotism.” “Yeah,” he tells her, “well, most of the people in this town who quit were fired.”
It is a truism wrapped in a falsehood. John Malkovich’s Princetonian analyst, the perfectly named Osborne Cox, did in fact quit, but only because he was about to be fired, or at least severely demoted.
Widely considered a minor Coen feature, “Burn After Reading” received mostly lukewarm reviews in that hopey-changey year of 2008 for its bleak, even misanthropic tone. One dissenting voice has been The New Republic’s Jeet Heer, who judged the film an extraordinarily prescient take on the future Trump Era and a small masterpiece.
More than just a satire on espionage, the movie is a scathing critique of modern America as a superficial, post-political society where cheating of all sorts comes all too easily. Unlike movies such as Citizen Kane, Burn After Reading doesn’t offer any easy one-to-one character analogies to Trump and his cronies. Rather, it captures the amorality that leads people to become entangled in mercenary treason.
And so we come to Nikki Haley, our soon-to-be ex-U.N. ambassador, who, as of this weird, warm week in October, was either fired or quit.
The poor New York Times Editorial Board—a collection of self-important, moron-despising Osborne Coxes if ever there was one—seemed close to tears. “Indeed,” it bleated, “a replacement in her mold may be the best to hope for from Mr. Trump.” Operating on the scant evidence that Haley once sententiously proclaimed, “I don’t get confused,” after some daily—hell, hourly—confusion of the administration for which she worked and the anecdotal and frankly unbelievable tale that she “developed a good relationship” with the U.N. secretary-general, the Editorial Board clutches at a last brick of normalcy in the wreckage of its antiquated worldview.
Why did she go? After six years as governor of South Carolina and two as ambassador, Haley said she simply needed time off. It is certainly an odd feature of Washington that some people can go years—and even decades—evincing no particular dedication to family, then suddenly acquire a yearning to spend more time with theirs, whereas others—a Chuck Grassley, who managed to be both somnolent and indefatigable in “plowing” through the Supreme Court nomination of an alleged sex abuser—can spend 60 years in official life without the slightest indication that they ever intend to retire.
Of course, it is far more stressful, busy and taxing to be a governor, even of a small state, than to be a U.S. senator, a member of a body that exists in a condition of collective torpor bordering on catatonia, a towering retirement community without the charm of bingo or the stimulating activity of bus trips to the local symphony.
Ordinarily, a U.N. ambassador falls far to the Senate side of active life. One need only show up to make the occasionally requisite bellicose speech, to harangue some little country for doing what the United States of America does a hundred times a week. But Trump’s foreign policy team, especially Rex Tillerson, his first secretary of state, made the aquatic pace of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson look positively rocket-like. It does seem clear that Haley functioned as something closer to a shadow secretary and national security adviser, at least until Mike Pompeo maneuvered his way into Tillerson’s spot and John Bolton waddled back ashore from the spume of a frigid sea.
Haley did not actually do much in her tenure. The Trump administration has been remarkably successful at the Washington nomination game and at dismantling the American regulatory state where its only opposition is the Democrats, but the world has proven less feckless. The U.S. military has continued to bomb where it would have under a Clinton presidency—where it had been bombing under Obama—but the great deal-maker president has mostly gotten fleeced. He was outmaneuvered by North Korea. China defies him. The renegotiated NAFTA treaty may not survive a new president in Mexico or federal elections in Canada.
Across the Atlantic, Europe is slowly pulling away, despite its exposure to U.S. financial markets and France’s Trump-manqué Emmanuel Macron making grandiose declarations about internationalism any time he notices a microphone in his vicinity. Even the Iran deal, which Haley condemned and Trump tore up, has really just returned to the status quo ante: not ideal, certainly, not good, but something. The best chronicler of this chronic bombast combined with stagnant policy has probably been Daniel Larison, the conservative Trump critic at The American Conservative, who took Haley particularly to task for her ceaselessly aggressive rhetoric.
The Trump administration did manage to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, or at least announce that it was going to do so, although like so much else with this administration it is hard to tell if there is any real “doing” behind the announcing. It cruelly and unnecessarily announced it would block any Palestinian from a senior U.N. post, and apologized ceaselessly for Israel’s reckless violence in Gaza. But even this—a sop to the evangelical base—evaporated into the endless hot air of Trump-world.
Hard-line support for Israel has been Haley’s one consistent foreign policy position during her political career. Beyond that, it is hard to know precisely what she believes, if she believes anything at all. Her conservatism in South Carolina seemed moderate, at least by our increasingly bonkers standards. She did not support gay marriage, but neither did she endorse a South Carolinian “bathroom bill.” She was broadly pro-business, but she also removed the Confederate flag from the state Capitol in the wake of the Dylann Roof shooting in Charleston.
Why she felt so strongly about Israel is anyone’s guess—mine, admittedly, is that it began as pure political calculation, a not-so-subtle signal to the conservative Christian electorate in her state that she, a woman of Sikh heritage who still practices the faith, along with Christianity, was reliably one of them. It’s a remarkable feature of our American Christianity that regular churchgoing is lesser proof of faith than an ostentatious love of the Jewish state.
In another telling coincidence, her own original gubernatorial candidacy was saved by the intervention of that marvelous proto-Trump, Sarah Palin, who swept in to endorse Haley when she was running last in a contested primary. Then, several years later, when Trump appeared as a presidential contender, Haley began as a critic, calling for him to release his taxes and drawing his ire on Twitter, to which she famously responded, “bless his heart.” That was taken as a sign of authenticity and gumption, but in reality she was no less an opportunist than any of the rest of them, ping-ponging from Rubio supporter to Cruz partisan as they appeared to mount creditable challenges to the Trump phenomenon before signing on with Trump when the inevitable, inevitably occurred.
It is rumored that she befriended Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, at least if Michael Wolff is to be believed, and I see no reason to doubt the point. In resigning, she praised them as heroes and Kushner as a genius. I see no reason either to suspect that she was the “anonymous” author behind the masturbatory anti-Trump insider op-ed, especially given her own public writing against it. But I find it hard to imagine that she did not, like the president’s fool daughter and son-in-law, see herself as one of the real adults, a deft and more sophisticated character entirely than the volcanic, mercurial president. In this, they all resemble the bumbling gym employees who form official Washington’s opposite number in “Burn After Reading”: Greed and overestimation of their own abilities lead them—most of them—to death and destruction at the hands of the very people they think they’re outsmarting.
There are of course other rumors that Haley will mount some kind of political challenge to Donald Trump, an absolute fantasy. She will, I suspect, reinvent herself in precisely the mold of a John Bolton, a peripatetic cable news beast who will lurk through whatever modest Democratic backlash Trump’s insanity unleashes, until a cleverer and subtler fascist in the early 2020s achieves power again and brings her back into the fold. “This is our opportunity,” says Frances McDormand in one of the film’s best scenes, “You don’t get many of these. You slip on the ice outside of, you know, a fancy restaurant . . . or something like this happens.”