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Opinion Nikki Haley reveals how Republicans will absolve themselves of Trump

Then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in the White House Oval Office with President Trump on Oct. 9, 2018. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

Many Republicans fear that when President Trump is gone, there will be some kind of moral reckoning for their party, not just for what they did to directly support him but for everything they have become. But they have an answer: Don’t blame us, they’ll say. Liberals made us do it.

This is the message of a truly remarkable op-ed in The Post on Thursday written by former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who also served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. In it, Haley pushes back against criticism she got for a recent interview in which she recalled how as governor she led the successful effort to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state house after white-supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in a church in Charleston.

What got people so mad was Haley’s comment that Roof “hijacked everything that people thought of” about the Confederate flag, where instead of standing for “service, sacrifice, and heritage,” it became something ugly that could no longer be tolerated. In 2015.

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But now Haley is deeply concerned. In fact, she says, if the same controversy happened today, the Confederate flag — the banner of the treason launched against the United States to preserve slavery, the flag the white South Carolina government put up in 1962 as a symbol of defiance against the civil rights movement — would never have come down. Why? Because liberals are so mean:

When I was working hard to encourage the South Carolina General Assembly to vote in favor of removing the flag, I met privately with the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives. In that meeting, I told them about the discrimination my family faced when I was a young girl growing up in rural South Carolina. My father, as an immigrant from India who wears a turban, was not always welcomed in shops and community events. It was painful. I made the case that no child should feel unwelcomed at our state capitol because the Confederate battle flag was flying there. A large majority of Republican legislators ended up voting in favor of removing the flag.
Today’s outrage culture would instead have made the case that everyone who respects the Confederate flag is an evil racist. Not only is that untrue; but more to the point, if I had tried to make that argument, the flag would never have come down. As Hillary Clinton has learned, calling people “deplorable” is not the best way to win their support.

There’s an important distinction we have to keep in mind: Everyone who supports the flag is not evil and racist, but the flag itself is evil and racist, and if you support it, that’s what you’re supporting. Not service, not sacrifice, not heritage. You can’t force other people to walk under it, then claim it means something it doesn’t, any more than you could put a giant Nazi flag atop your house and tell people who got angry that it’s nothing more than a tribute to the beautiful symmetry of right angles.

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It’s nice to hear that once Haley hipped her fellow Republicans to the existence of discrimination, they came around. And she isn’t wrong in that, as a general principle of persuasion, confrontation often leads people to cling more fiercely to their preexisting beliefs.

But in this case she’s arguing that if conservatives take the most despicable positions, like supporting racist symbology, the fault is only that of liberals and not conservatives themselves. Haley excuses them, saying that only “a small number of hardened white-supremacist racists” share Dylann Roof’s “sick and twisted view of the flag.”

In fact, white supremacists, Roof included, have a perfectly accurate view of what the Confederate flag represents, one they share with most every liberal: that it’s a symbol of hate and oppression. They just think that’s a reason to fly it, not a reason to take it down.

But now Haley argues that her fellow Republicans, with their benevolent and warm-hearted view of the Confederate flag, are so sensitive that criticism from liberals will cause them to embrace positions they shouldn’t. This is something we’ve been hearing since the beginning of the Trump presidency, echoed in the words of every domestic abuser: Look what you made us do.

We didn’t want to line up behind someone as corrupt and immoral as Trump, but what choice did liberals give us? They were so mean, we just had to. They called us racists, so we had to become racist. They called us extremists, so we had to become extremist.

“This is how you got Trump,” conservatives said every time some liberal excess emerged. We Republicans would much rather have made a less repugnant politician our champion, but once Hillary Clinton said half of Trump’s supporters were deplorable, it hurt our feelings so much that the rest of us just had to become deplorable, too.

Yes, we supported ripping children from their parents’ arms and putting them in cages. We said it’s fine if the president gives White House jobs to his family members and directs taxpayer money to his own bank account. We defended him for pressuring a foreign government to help his reelection campaign. We nodded along at his bigotry, his misogyny, his hate-mongering, his corruption, his dishonesty, his contempt for basic human decency. But it’s not our fault.

The issue of the Confederate flag in South Carolina may be settled. But make no mistake, Haley is arguing about the future, not the past. Hers is the template for how Republicans will excuse and explain away all their actions during the Trump years.

Whenever they’re called to account for their role in enabling everything Trump has done and the way their party has been so thoroughly fashioned in his image, they’ll insist that they bear no moral responsibility for what they became and what they abetted. Don’t let them get away with it.

Read more:

Nikki Haley: My position on the Confederate flag has been constant. Our country’s culture has changed.

Adam H. Domby: Nikki Haley gets the history of the Confederate flag very wrong

The Post’s View: The Confederate battle flag is not worthy of respect

Max Boot: The GOP is now the party of neo-Confederates

Michael Gerson: The GOP’s galling accommodation of Trump