Much of President Obama’s final State of the Union address was an implicit rebuke of the angry, nativist forces that have propelled Donald Trump to the top of nearly every Republican presidential primary poll.
But the American people didn’t just hear one anti-Trump speech Tuesday night. They heard two.
And the remarkable thing is that the other speech came from a member of Trump’s own party: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
Never before has a SOTU responder used the address to criticize his or her party’s presidential frontrunner. Which just goes to show how divided the GOP is right now — and how much anxiety mainstream Republicans are feeling over Trump’s continued dominance.
To be sure, Haley hit the usual marks in her response.
She criticized Obama, pointing to “a crushing national debt, a health care plan that has made insurance less affordable and doctors less available, and chaotic unrest in many of our cities” as proof that his “record has often fallen far short of his soaring words.”
She also claimed that a Republican president would do better.
“We would end a disastrous health care program and replace it with reforms that lowered costs and actually let you keep your doctor,” Haley said. “We would make international agreements that were celebrated in Israel and protested in Iran, not the other way around.”
But the most memorable parts of Haley’s speech were the ones directed at The Donald and his followers.
“Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory,“ Haley said. "During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.”
Making it clear that Trump was her target, Haley immediately moved on to his signature issue: immigration.
“No one who is willing to work hard, abide by our laws, and love our traditions should ever feel unwelcome in this country,” she said. “I have no doubt that if we act with proper focus, we can protect our borders, our sovereignty and our citizens, all while remaining true to America’s noblest legacies.”
Haley is herself the daughter of Indian immigrants. But for much of her governorship — she was elected in 2010 and reelected in 2014 — she was hardly a civil rights crusader. During her initial run for governor, Haley even opposed removing the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House, saying the flag was “not something that is racist,” but rather “a tradition that people feel proud of.”
Yet after 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African-Americans at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during a June 17 prayer service, Haley’s views began to change, and over the summer, she wound up leading the charge to take down the flag.
In her response Tuesday night, Haley pointed to that experience as a “lesson” for her party — and, in particular, its divisive frontrunner.
“In many parts of society today, whether in popular culture, academia, the media or politics, there’s a tendency to falsely equate noise with results,” Haley said. “Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.”
Haley is everything Republicans wanted in 2016: youth, diversity, inclusion. Trump is what they got. Her SOTU response was a reminder of what could have been.