Philip Delves Broughton on the US politician now being tipped as America’s first female president
The most popular member of Donald Trump’s overwhelmingly white, male cabinet is the daughter of Sikh immigrants, a woman who entered politics at the age of 31 as a mother of two young children who also keeps the books for her mother’s clothing shop.
Fifteen years since her first campaign, Nikki Haley has risen to be the governor of South Carolina, and now the American ambassador to the United Nations. Next to the US President himself, she is the leading voice of American foreign policy.
In an abnormally turbulent administration, she has pushed the President’s agenda without being burnt — retaining her independence without being charged with disloyalty.
A poll released last week showed her approval rating among Americans at 63%, versus 39% for Trump. Among Democrats it is 55%, versus the president’s 5%. Women, minorities and the young like her in numbers Trump can only dream of.
Haley was first inspired to run for office when she heard Hillary Clinton give a speech urging women to “dare to compete”.
Now she, rather than Clinton, stands the better chance of being America’s first female president.
If she can survive the Trump years intact, she could be the Republicans’ best shot at returning to the political mainstream.
Haley grew up in the small town of Bamberg in South Carolina. Her parents, Ajit and Raj Randhawa, had immigrated from Punjab State in India.
When Haley ran for office, her opponents ran advertisements using her given name, Nimrata, and calling her a “raghead”.
But their racism made little impact. Haley was an insurgent and a political novelty, going door-to-door with boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, convincing voters that she, a young mother, an accountant, the wife of a National Guardsman, could bring common sense to the unruly state government.
After five years as a state representative, she ran for governor and won again. She ran the state as a buoyant, pro-business conservative, instructing state employees to answer the phone with: “It’s a great day in South Carolina.”
Her ability to shuttle between the conservative and modernising wings of her party was first put on national display in 2015.
After Dylann Roof, a young white supremacist, killed nine people praying at a mostly African-American church in Charleston, she called for the Confederate flag, a symbol of the old segregated South, to be removed from the grounds of the State Capitol.
She spoke of her experience growing up as the child of immigrants and the feeling of “being an other” in America.
It was one of the few times she has spoken about race. The flag came down.
Haley did not support Trump at first. When he called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering America, she called his proposal “absolutely un-American”.
Her preferred candidate was the more centrist Marco Rubio, a Senator from Florida. Her distaste for Trump led him to tweet: “The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley!” Within half an hour, Haley tweeted slyly back: “Bless your heart.”
But once Trump was President and looking for cabinet members, Haley was high on his list. She turned down the offer of the State Department in favour of the UN, a quieter place in which to expand her political repertoire.
It didn’t take her long. She told her new staff of diplomats that her personal motto was “kick ’em with a smile”.
In 18 months in New York she has pulled together additional UN sanctions against North Korea after it tested nuclear missiles, and worked to unpick the multilateral deal with Iran.
She has also stood up to the chaos from the White House. In December she was asked about the women who claimed to have been harassed or abused by Trump, and said “We should all be willing to listen” to his accusers.
After Syria’s use of chemical weapons, Haley said the US would be imposing further sanctions on Russia.
When senior White House officials said that she was confused, she issued a statement: “With all due respect, I don’t get confused.” It turned out the White House had intended to impose sanctions, then changed its mind without informing Haley.
That she could rebuke the White House without incurring a Tweet-storm from the President is testament to her stature within the administration.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote recently that Republicans see in Haley “someone somehow respectful enough of Trump to hold on to her job, but defiant enough to hold on to her dignity”. She has the right stuff. Her immediate risk, though, may be her boss, who resents any threats.
At a lunch last year for UN ambassadors, Trump joked: “Does everybody like Nikki? Otherwise, she could easily be replaced.”
The more popular she becomes, the less funny he’s going to find her.