In the year of our Beyoncé 2023, there is only one acceptable answer to give about the start of the U.S. Civil War. It’s an answer so obvious that it seems almost passé, but it’s also the right one. Importantly, because it’s so irrefutable, it is the kind of response that many people want to complicate, often for deeply nefarious and disturbing reasons. And so should always be offered in its simplest, least complicated, most easily understood form: It was about slavery.
This basic task of civic and historic fluency was apparently too much for Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and person running for the nomination of the Republican Party—you know, the Party of Lincoln. Instead, when asked a straightforward, point-blank question about the start of the Civil War, Haley first said it was a difficult question (no), deflected to “government intervention” in some abstract “freedoms” (to own and traffic human beings), and then got communism involved somehow.
It was bad.
And the worst part about the whole, rambling response wasn’t the outrageous ahistorical nature of it, or the empty babbling about freedom, or even the contemptuous counter-interrogation she ended it with, but the fact that Nikki Haley so clearly knew the right answer and was too cowardly to give it. This woman was governor in South Carolina when a white supremacist murdered a church full of Black parishioners, and when that brazen act of terrorism reignited the backlash against the symbol of slavery and Jim Crow flying over the statehouse. She made the call that ultimately removed the Confederate flag from its place of honor. Haley knows the facts of the Civil War. She just didn’t want to admit it.
Now, this isn’t her first brush with neo-confederate apologia—as South Carolina’s governor, it was practically a requirement—but in the context of the current Republican Party and the rolling aftermath of Trump’s coup attempt, Haley’s half-hearted slavery denial hits different. Like every non-Trump campaign, Haley has argued that she can salvage the party from Trump’s grip, reconstitute Republicans as a force to be reckoned with absent the criminality and scandal, and provide a fresh, new voice and ideology for the future. Yet when met with the most basic, straightforward, obvious statement of historical, political, and incontrovertible fact, the easiest way to separate from the Trumpian impulses of lies, deceit, manipulation, and cruelty, Haley blinked.
With that simple failure, Haley revealed her campaign and the entire primary for what it was: a sham. If a Republican candidate for the nomination of the party can’t vocally defend the foundations of its existence, affirm the importance of the Union, and denounce fucking slavery, then there’s no party at all. There is only Trump and the bubble of personal grievance and alternate reality that GOP voters insist on reinforcing at any and all costs. Nobody has anything else to offer. Nobody even wants to try.
Way too late, Haley acknowledged what we all know to be true: slavery was the cause of the Civil War. But it doesn’t matter. She demonstrated that there’s nothing left of the Grand Old Party now that it has renounced its own legacy, just a hollow, decrepit core where principle once was. There’s no “after Trump” or alternative routes; there’s no reclamation or redemption for what the party has become. Because while she was avoiding slavery as the cause of the Civil War, Nikki Haley gave us another truth through her inaction: Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.