Opinion: Nikki Haley and how fascist rhetoric functions


Written by Gabriel Reynolds, NEC student

I wrote this article around half a year ago, since then Nikki Haley has been transformed from a benign annoyance on the global stage to a genuine threat in the domestic political space. She has recently claimed that we should “Publish every name of the pro-Hamas protesters in our cities and universities” on her X account. This is not only a gross attempt to lead a harassment campaign against people using their first amendment rights but also a desperate attempt to hide the unpopular imperialist doctrine taken by the American government. It is also desperately trying to cover up the genocidal intentions of the Israeli government. It also paints pro-Palestinian activism as direct support and endorsement of terrorism. All of this despite her refusal to directly condemn the actions on January 6th. In this article, I dissect the fascist mechanisms taken by Nikki Haley in her April 27th, 2023, visit to New England College as well as mechanisms used in her political advertisements.

I should begin this article with the obvious fact of the matter, Nikki Haley is not a fascist. To accuse her of such would be morally reprehensible and factually unfounded. Her use as the example given in this article was only due to her presence at New England College and her strategies of rhetoric. Fascist rhetoric strategies are common on the American right, but I cannot in good faith argue that the American right are fascists. The American right does harbor fascists but the same can be said for most conservative groups throughout history, one can look to the churches of Spain or the military of Italy or even the attempts made at a fascist coup by the American capitalist class made during Roosevelt’s presidency. But this does not, in essence, make them fascists. However, it does make them more vulnerable to fascist rhetoric than the American liberals, less so the American left (as non-existent as they may be following Cold War repression.)

To realize this premise, I will be using the tenants of fascist rhetoric laid out by Jason Stanley in his book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, which he has laid out for free in a youtube video for the channel “Big Think”. This is a topic one must approach with a certain level of tact, a tact which as a first-year student in college, I am not sure I possess. Therefore, I have left my email address in a hyperlink with my name for those who wish to further inquire, question, or dispute my claims. I will attempt to respond in a timely manner and would love to have a good faith discussion on the article, my views, or even my failings. 

The methods Jason Stanley lays out will be discussed here.

1. The Mythic Past 

The Mythic Past refers to the idea that a nation was once great, calling back to a prior time period, but was corrupted by degeneracy lead by scapegoats (i.e., the left, gays, jews, feminists, etc.) leading to a dark age of economic and social degradation. The Mythic Past seeks to prey on national pride to motivate people to return the country to a golden age, led by a strong, charismatic leader. 

2. Propaganda 

The methods of propaganda of fascism follows a “friend enemy distinction” according to Jason Stanley. It uses the concept of the other coming to attack your traditions and way of life, viewing them as insidious, scheming, and without mercy. Oftentimes the other is viewed as fundamentally opposed to the nation, its ideals, and its way of life. 

3. Anti-Intellectualism 

This involves dismissal of facts which run contrary to the goals of the nation set out by the leader. The use of “alternative facts” and discrediting academia helps remove the competition in ideas, leaving only the dogma of the leader to follow. In Umberto Eco’s book Ur-Fascism, he states that “disagreement is a sign of diversity,” scarily mirroring the words of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez at New England College where he stated “Disagreement creates division” when speaking about regaining a sense of national pride. 

4. Unreality 

Unreality is the process of systematically lying to the population by denying them the truth. There is no ability to catch lies, there is no independent journalism, there is no academia and all of these institutions which create this discourse must be undermined and destroyed.

5. Hierarchy 

Hierarchy here is defined by a conception that one group is superior to another, be it race, gender, skull shape, or any other arbitrary method of classification. This was exemplified in Nazi Germany by the Aryan ideal which stated that the most fit men were tall, blond, had blue eyes, etc. It also plays on the idea that people are afraid to lose their spot on the top of the hierarchy, justifying oppression of those below them with this fear. 

6. Victimhood 

Following the establishment of a natural hierarchy, you can convince those at the top of this hierarchy that they are victims to the efforts towards equality. There is an adage that goes “When someone is accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression” which applies wonderfully here. This is commonly seen in American discourse when men feel as though they have been oppressed by the existence and progress of the feminist movement. 

7. Law and Order 

“The members of a minority group who accept their subservient role are law abiding, and the members of the dominant group are by definition law abiding.” Law and order are used as a justification for increased suppression of minority groups in this context. 

8. Sexual Anxiety 

Playing into the toxic masculine urge of the protector role, sexual anxiety convinces men that their women and children are under attack by the minority group. This is a justification commonly used throughout the oppression of the LGBTQIA+ community and more recently and focused, the trans community. This is also a common fear tactic used throughout the European Union about immigration of people of color and was prior used during the Jim Crow era of America for about the same reason. This can be found through the killing of Emmet Till, when Carolyn Bryant Donham claimed that he had whistled at her which led to his lynching. 

9. Rural/Urban Divide 

No political movement can succeed without the support of the agricultural working class. Fascism manipulates the agrarian peasantry by stating that cities are filled with immigrants, decadence, and the elites. Poising them to be distrustful of the industrial working class and urban voters. 

10. Arbeit Macht Frei “Work shall make you free” 

Written on the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp, reinforces the idea that those in the minority group are lazy and should be forced to work. This creates a permanent underclass of laborers too impoverished to threaten the dominant group. This is also a justification for a crackdown on organized labor historically, which can be seen in the 20th century of America before the Neo-Liberal era we inhabit now. “If fascism means anything, it means all-out government support for business and severe repression of anti-business, prolabor forces.” Michael Parenti writes in his book Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism. Michael here claims that fascism is a tool to mediate labor and capital, rather than give the workers concessions they can refocus their interests to scapegoats and create a large repressive state apparatus to maintain capitalist class interests. Additionally in his book Ur-Fascism, Umberto Eco says “one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.” 

With the extremely long introduction section over with, I think it’s time to move on to how Nikki Haley preforms many of these same tactics in her speeches and how broadly these tenants are held up.

in Republican discourse. To be clear, these talking points do exist in Democratic discourse, this is a larger issue than just one sect of the population, but the Republican party leans far heavier in this rhetoric that their slightly more left-leaning friends. 

Starting with the concept of the mythic past, Nikki Haley says “We got to stop this national self-loathing in this country. The idea that people are saying America is bad, or its rotten or even that its racist… America’s not racist, America is blessed.” She’s here dismissing the historical president that for nearly 250 years of America’s founding, people of color were slaves or massacred. By dismissing this historical fact, she can lay the groundwork for creating an idea that going backwards in our values would be beneficial to all regardless of race. “Kids need to know to love America. They need to say the pledge of allegiance when they start school every day. They need to know that America is worth fighting for. When we join together and claim what our national purpose is, that’s when people will join us.” There’s a lot to unpack in this section of the speech alone. There’s the implication that social studies programs in schools should tell of the mythic America, one devoid of problems and conflict. A narrative often pushed is that acknowledging the flaws in our country’s history is leading to a lack of patriotism. In reality, the argument can be made that the only thing it prevents is nationalism, and in fact breeds patriotism. Would you rather live in a country that accepts its past and uses it to move forward to a brighter future or one in denial of basic facts, whose ideology is based upon the idea that they are better than everyone else and incapable of wrongdoing? I, for one, know my answer. But moving beyond that point, the pledge of allegiance should not be mandatory under the first amendment. Forcing children to say the pledge of allegiance would go directly against the ideals of democracy. But this leads to the idea of “fighting for [America], given any other climate I would consider this typical saber-rattling patriotism. But following the events of January 6th, this has a more sinister feeling to it. To be entirely fair, Nikki Haley originally denounced trump following January 6th, but since then has made contradictory statements making her thoughts on the matter rather unclear. She also alludes to a “national purpose” but provides no insight into what that may look like, but one can presume based on her following statement that it means becoming more religious and becoming more homogeneous. 

She then follows this statement up with, “Do you remember when you were growing up, how simple life was, how easy it was? It was about family, faith and country. Your parents raised you to be a responsible citizen. You went to school, and you were taught what you needed to succeed. You went to church and that’s where you got your faith and your conscious. We can have that again; don’t you want that?” Now that is an incredibly dangerous sentiment in the making, one screamed to the heavens (pun intended) by the Evangelical right. Here she describes a homogenous culture without dissent. Of course, this ideal exists in a vacuum, American school systems were meant to funnel people into factory jobs, churches cannot supplant actual moral development and certainly aren’t responsible for it entirely. But it plants a seed in the listener, harkens back to a time when they were young and didn’t have to think about the political climate. By planting this seed, it creates the idea that dissent and subversion has taken away this utopia, that progress has made people miserable and the forcing on traditional values on the public is the only way to undo this social decay. 

Considering this speech wasn’t super big on imagery and propaganda, I was forced to scower through the Nikki Haley YouTube channel. Luckily, in her video Strong & Proud, Nikki Haley creates these “us” and “them” distinctions nearly right off the bat. “Some think our ideas are not just wrong, but racist and evil,” showing a video of the 1619 Project, a New York Times project made to tell American history based around African Americans, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic party’s progressive wing. This right off the bat kicks the propaganda into full gear, those who hate your values control the media and want to control the government. Following it up by saying that they hate you and your values, your way of life, and your country. This creation of an insidious force hellbent on destroying everything you love is meant to create fear and unrest in the target audience. History Professor James Walsh at New England College weighs in “When people are afraid, they’re willing to sacrifice their rights, they’re willing to sacrifice their freedom for security. And the more insecure they can make us feel, the more support they will get in elections.” Haley later states in this video, “The socialist left sees an opportunity to rewrite history,” once again calling back to this idea of domestic agents subverting the values of the nation. “China and Russia are on the march,” she once again promotes this idea that we should be fearful, about those who wish to destroy us both domestic and foreign. Nazu propaganda often viewed Jewish people as part of an international plot to subvert German values. They viewed domestic problems as a result of Jewish people, and foreign nations of run by Jewish people. This fear created by the us and them, creating a narrative of a group so hellbent on subverting their values and their way of life, it became easy to give rise to a fascist dictator. This same fear tactic is being used today with the demonation of the left, more specifically the Democratic party. 

Coming back to the speech, the focus in Haley’s speech on anti-intellectualism was very vast. The right wings current attacks on educators come in the form of accusations of critical race theory, a college level law doctrine I won’t even pretend to fully understand, and “woke”, a made-up buzz word which really doesn’t mean much of anything. The fact that none of these things are real or happening is by design, it’s an unknown force penetrating education that cannot be identified and removed. Haley exploits these fears with her statement, “You still have 90% of children under Critical Race Theory, where they go to a little girl in kindergarten and say, ‘if you’re white you’re bad and if you’re brown or black, you’re never gonna be good enough’.” This is a claim I have not been able to find any sort of credible backing for, and while I will admit there are limits to my knowledge, I don’t believe this is one of them. What she probably means is the theory that discussion of race relations in America between the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the colonization of America by European settlers, and the subsequent genocide will evoke a feeling of self-loathing amongst white students and a sense of vengeful hatred amongst students of color. In my own experience, I have not found this to be the case. To be fair, my time in kindergarten was a while ago but neither of those subjects were mentioned, they were more concerned about my ability to read and write, empathic development, and how much of a disruptive student I was. The earliest I remember reading about the civil rights movement was in the 2nd grade, where we were given a watered-down version of Martin Luther King Jr and his messaging, purposing racism as solved in the 60’s and encouraging us to treat everyone equally and remember what he fought for. I remember being moved by his famous “I have a Dream” speech, as we watched the video up on the old projector I felt chills down my spine, so proud to be of the same people as a man whose courage and whose words could change a nation. There were those who misconstrued the teaching, the teacher clumsily said, “Black people were treated no better than a cheese stick,” where in I, a white student, as repeatedly told that I was a cheese stick by other white students. But that small mishap didn’t really affect anyone’s broader worldview besides me being called a cheese stick for a day. 

Haley added later in the speech, “I’m doing this for my son who’s a junior in college, and I see him writing papers about things he doesn’t believe in just to get an A.” While I am sympathetic to this concern considering the vast amounts of concerning things I have written in essays throughout my academic career, I also don’t exactly believe that that is what’s at play. This is only speculation but, to my knowledge, teachers really only ask you to write about facts and if you can justify your thesis with facts then it shouldn’t matter how those facts are interpreted as long as it’s honest. What professors don’t like is unfounded rhetoric, I once submitted an essay for my class last semester with nearly no evidence and all rhetoric. My teacher pulled me aside and explained that it’s ok to make bold claims, but only if you can back them up. He clearly disagreed with me, as many teachers have before and since, but he was only concerned about my strength as a writer and my honesty as a student. I’m sure there are bad apples in the world, as there are in all professions, but the solution to that is not cowardice acceptance and submission. Quoting her mother Haley says prior, “Don’t complain about it, do something about it.” 

Moving quickly into unreality, Haley seems to be at least complicit election denial, at least currently. In a interview with Politico, Haley seems to be caught in the middle on the issue. She stated about the election fraud conspiracy formulated by Donald Trump “I understand the president. I understand that genuinely, to his core, he believes he was wronged,” she added “This is not him making it up.” On top of this, her pressure on culture war issues is also telling. Between the lies that Critical Race Theory is being taught to children, or the passive acceptance of Former President Donald Trump believes that there is a “shadowy cabal” out to get him. That is not an issue you can fence sit on, either there is a cabal of elites faking elections or there isn’t. Leaving any creditable doubt to that idea is the formulation of unreality, an unreality she can exploit to gain votes. Whether or not she actually believes the election was stolen doesn’t matter, Tucker Carlson didn’t, and yet he can be largely blamed for their propagation. By not telling the obvious truth, she is purposefully creating a culture of fear and unrest, a culture of unreality. 

I’m gonna do something a little bit backwards here, we’re going to skip the establishment of a hierarchy. I’m doing this because in the anti-immigration, victims of equality, and the Arbeit Macht Frei portion of this, she makes all the same points I would here. The only difference being that her rhetoric around a natural hierarchy is hidden in the subtext of her speech. It’s easy to tell what she means when reading between the lines because she strays away from actually addressing the elephant in the room (pun intended). I would hate for this article to be tedious and tread the same ground for its duration. 

For victimhood there’s a number of things we can call on. The myth of Conservative oppression has been a long-standing tradition of the culture war. There’s the aforementioned comment about her son, who she claims writes things he doesn’t believe in essays to receive a higher grade. The idea that academia is a hotbed for leftist thought is a common trope in the rights discourse, one that can even be traced back to 1930s Germany. In talking about the perceived lack of national security, Haley says, “I can tell you what the military is doing, they are taking pronoun classes.” We can call back to the mythic past as well, the idea that America once held those conservative values in a mythical golden age which has been stripped of them. The existence of dissent makes them uneasy; it threatens their domination culturally.

Law and Order is a longstanding talking point, but in order to have this discussion we need to divorce it from the use of the word we use normally. We are not talking about Nixon’s strategies or “Stop and Frisk” laws, we are talking about suppression of dissent by a dominant group. “For the first time in America people are worried about their children biking down the street. They’re worried about being carjacked going to a restaurant.” She then proceeds to mention illegal immigrants immeadiately following speaking about crime. This rhetoric links those two groups, criminals and immigrants, creating a fear around minorities. People don’t go around advertising their citizenship, this fear will lead to hatred and hatred will lead to suppression. But for starters, this is far from the first time in American history people are afraid about crime, that number has been overall largely consistant throughout the last 20 years. In fact, crime rates overall have been decreasing according to USAfacts.org since the 1990s. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an increase but generally I think that is down to the rise of poverty in the crisis and the botched government response. This sort of fear mongering exists to create a police state, a police state which are historically used to target minority groups. 

Sexual anxiety is a common talking point in the right, especially with the increasing prominence of the LGBT+ community. The accusation that gay men and trans women particularly are grooming children is nothing new, and while I’m sure there are isolated instances of this happening it cannot reasonably called a trend. “You’ve got boys playing in girls sports… my daughter played track in high school, I wouldn’t even know how to have that conversation with her.” Putting aside the need for a debate about the reclassification of sports categories, the blatant transphobia is on full display here. It would be a simple conversation, some people experience gender dysphoria, and they transition in order to mediate that dysphoria. She then follows this up by blaming this for the rise in women’s anxiety and depression. She then proceeds to name drop and misgender Dylan Mulvaney, saying that she is mocking women. This reveals a worldview where trans people are transgressing upon the norms of a traditional society, and a worldview where trans women are praying on cis girls. These “what ifs” mirror the narrative around African Americans following the end of slavery, that they would rape white women and children, inciting more fear in the hearts of the audience and a further dehumanization of them in the popular consciousness. It scarily mirrors how the Nazi Party crushed the first gay rights movement, burning books of trans and queer literature from the halls of Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Research. 

The idea of a rural urban divide was common in her rhetoric, though to probably the least extent of any of these categories. She came in 30 seconds in swinging with the idea that Washington DC could learn something from New Hampshire hospitality, inspiring distrust in the government from the rural population. While I agree with the words she said, the sentiments and meaning behind them are more insidious. Harboring a distrust of people from cities is a great way to divide a country, especially dividing the working poor whose jobs and trades have been snatched from them by the rise of globalization, corporation, and neo-liberal economics. Instead of meaningfully addressing the issues that face rural communities, it seeks to further isolate them in a world that has left them behind economically. 

Lastly but not least we have Arbeit Macht Frei, where Halley states “I raised [my daughter] to have good credit score, but now Biden is punishing her for that too.” The implication being here is that poor people are less deserving of loans. That efforts in this country to reduce inequality hurt the middle class and not uplift the working class. As Umberto Eco said fascism often manifests as an “appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.” Instead of meaningfully addressing the inheritance of poverty, the inequity of school funding, and the lack of infrastructure and opportunity for the working class, she directs the middle class’s attention towards a feeling of pressure. This rhetoric strives to make people feel as if they are more entitled to their socio-economic class than another would be, segmenting and demonizing the working class for making legislative strides towards further equity. 

That was all from one speech, one political advertisement, and one interview. Nikki Haley does not exist in a vacuum and the reason her rhetoric is so fascinating to me is that she is comparatively moderate compared to the other Republican candidates. Her rhetoric is comparatively moderate overall. She’s clearly a very talented politician with a head on her shoulders and for that I respect her greatly, but I cannot excuse the mechanisms of fascist rhetoric where they exist. The Democratic Party does this too, the idea that the “MAGA mob” is a group within our country threatening our values and traditions similarly plays into the us and them mentality. Well considering the attempted insurrection and overturned election I don’t believe this is entirely false, but the rhetoric is important. Often times when the Republican party moves to the right, the Democratic party moves in lock step with it, and both parties love some good old fashion authoritarianism. Do I think the democratic party is overtly or even covertly fascist? No of course not, but the rhetoric is effective and was proved so with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 (although you could make the argument the same was true for Nixon and Regan). The Democratic Party is adapting to what the American people respond to, and that eerily mirrors fascist rhetoric more and more each election cycle. Fascism is not a partisan issue, it is a rising threat on both sides of the aisle, and if you don’t start paying attention now…

It will happen here.

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