Nikki Haley is right: She doesn’t get confused. In fact, she’s one of the shrewdest operators on the scene.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations made headlines this week with her acerbic response to White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow’s insistence that she had been mistaken when she announced on television that the administration would impose harsher sanctions on Russia. And although some said Haley looked like a dupe, flattering coverage over the past few days suggests that she actually achieved a coup by positioning herself as a truth-teller apart from a cabal of liars.
It goes without saying that the Haley-as-hero narrative demands some skepticism. Liberals may rejoice to see her display disdain for an administration they abhor, but they should remember that her agenda is, by and large, President Trump’s agenda — just as her record in South Carolina hewed close to the Republican party line. And Haley is hardly ready to break away from the Trumpian fold. On Tuesday, she delivered reporters a reassurance that her relationship with the president remains “perfect,” complete with a thumbs-up signal.
But more interesting than whether Haley deserves the admiration she has earned from both sides of the aisle is how she has earned it. One strain in progressives’ praise of Haley is particularly revealing: They’re not heralding her merely as a rare example of a Cabinet member pushing back against the commander in chief. They’re heralding her as an example of a strong woman pushing back against an overbearing man. And that could explain why Haley so far seems immune to the ignominy that has befallen many a member of the Trump administration.
When Michael Wolff smeared Haley in “Fire and Fury” by suggesting that she had had an affair with the president, she chose to take control of the controversy rather than stay silent. In an extended interview with Politico, Haley said, “I’ve noticed that if you speak your mind and you’re strong about it and you say what you believe, there is a small percentage of people that resent that and the way they deal with it is to try and throw arrows.”
Haley appeared to have realized then that the answer was to shoot arrows back. The citizens who took up arms for her were lashing out against Wolff, but they were also lashing out against the idea that a woman’s reputation would suffer for the past sins of a powerful man. Haley has harnessed this energy before: A New York Magazine profile of her suggests that she disguises her manly ambition in the “genteel fashion” of the South, and offers as an example a tweet that she sent to Trump when he criticized her during the Republican presidential primary: “Bless your heart.”
The same quote, no surprise, turns up in this most recent round of fawning as another one of Haley’s famous “clapbacks” — a woker version of a comeback. It’s a method of responding in a more elevated way than the hand-measuring contests and other juvenalia that Trump’s male adversaries have engaged in. Haley fits the mold of a woman who has had it up to here with men acting like they can say and do anything at all, and the president and the policies that his administration promotes seem to epitomize male entitlement. So when Haley appears to check them — even if her efforts are no more than rhetorical, and even if her primary motivation is positive PR — much of the female population yearns to cheer her on.
The “adult in the room” narrative attached to a number of officials early on in Trump’s administration has mostly collapsed. Rex Tillerson drew criticism for his “castration” way back when, and now he and H.R. McMaster aren’t even in the building. John Kelly has stuck around, but he has leaned in to many of Trump’s worst impulses rather than restrained the leader. Some hope against hope that Jim Mattis still maintains the “adult” mantle, but if last week’s strike against Syria is anything to go on, his influence is limited. It has become tiring to tell ourselves the same optimistic story, so for the most part we’ve stopped.
But we’re not tired of seeing a woman play a man’s game and win — especially when the man currently in the dealer’s seat has been credibly accused of preying on women, and when the rules he’s trying to set trample on their autonomy. The Trump administration’s retrograde attitude toward women, it turns out, has ended up empowering at least one of them. And there’s really nothing confusing about it.