It's difficult to imagine a message more contrary to President Trump's entire ethos than the one offered Monday by his U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley.
Haley asked high-schoolers attending a Turning Point USA summit at George Washington University whether they had “posted anything online to quote-unquote 'own the libs,' " according to the Hill. ("Own the libs" or "trigger the libs" means doing something provocative to upset supposedly over-sensitive liberals.) The students reportedly raised their hands en masse and roared.
But then Haley went a different direction.
“I know that it’s fun and that it can feel good, but step back and think about what you’re accomplishing when you do this — are you persuading anyone? Who are you persuading?” Haley asked. “We’ve all been guilty of it at some point or another, but this kind of speech isn’t leadership; it’s the exact opposite.”
She added: “Real leadership is about persuasion, it’s about movement, it’s bringing people around to your point of view — not by shouting them down, but by showing them how it is in their best interest to see things the way you do.”
Again, Haley is a political appointee of President Trump. Trump's entire political strategy is basically about “owning the libs” — and, in the process, making his base rally around him. Haley's comments may not have been intended for Trump, but much like first lady Melania Trump's anti-bullying campaign, there would seem to be some cognitive dissonance here.
This is hardly the first time Haley has offered a somewhat discordant view from inside the Trump administration, but often that's been about establishing her personal independence. This is perhaps the most pronounced example of her separating herself from Trump's version of the Republican Party.
Haley's choice of venue to deliver those lines is particularly noteworthy: TPUSA is a fast-growing group of young conservatives, led by provocateur and Trump ally Charlie Kirk, that is "known for its anti-political-correctness, aggressive legal tactics and alleged associations with racism," as the Post's Eliza Gray wrote earlier this month. In other words, Haley decided to deliver this message to an audience that would likely not love it, but she decided to deliver it there anyway.
And while it might be a nice sentiment that is cheered across the aisle, it's not exactly the kind of attitude that is ascendant on the red team. Trump is more popular with the GOP base than basically any recent Republican president, and his bull-in-a-china-shop style has spurred culture wars in which most Republicans are happy warriors.
Haley's approach, then, is counterintuitive for someone who is considered to be a rising star within the GOP — and even a possible future presidential candidate. Haley, if she is interested in climbing the ranks, seems to be betting on a more genteel and pragmatic version of conservatism while the party in recent years has demonstrated it desires anything but. Trump's entire election was basically a middle finger to political moderation — both in policy and rhetoric.
It does seem to be working for Haley, though — at least for now. She appears to be the most popular member of the Trump administration, pulling off the unique trick of wooing Democrats with her independence while not alienating Republicans. (Democrats approved of her 55 percent to 23 percent after her “I don't get confused” rebuke of Larry Kudlow, and Republicans approved 75 to 9.) She's also extremely popular with the young conservative crowd she was speaking to Monday.
Haley's political Teflon dates to 2015, when she went where Southern Republicans generally didn't go by siding against the Confederate flag. She wound up bringing the party with her rather than suffering for her apostasy. And that trend has continued with her in the Trump administration.
But it has also worked as she has been a relatively infrequent presence on the national stage, occasionally popping up when the moment demanded or allowed for it. Were she to apply this kind of approach to a presidential or other campaign in the coming years, it would seem unlikely to catch fire — unless she's able to persuade the party to completely change course and abandon its newfound Trumpiness.
Whether it works is the big, unanswered question. But if she does have higher aspirations, she could provide one of the most interesting — and unique — voices in the battle over the future course of the GOP.
This post has been updated.