How Nikki Haley Rose Through Republican Ranks

The Punjabi American, who was South Carolina’s youngest governor, has the unparalleled ability to adapt to her party’s changing winds.

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President Donald J. Trump and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley arrive Monday, Sept. 24, 2018, to the UN Headquarters in New York City, where they participated in the Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Kiran Misra


September 2, 2020


20 min

At both the Democratic and Republication National Conventions, Indian American identity has been front and center. In Milwaukee, Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris paid homage to her Tamil roots with references to her South Indian mother and chittis. Just a few days later, former United States Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Nikki Haley invoked her Punjabi heritage at the Republican National Convention (RNC) to make the bold claim that America is not a racist country. Before the night was over, the memes were already spreading. The most memorable compared Haley with Harry Potter’s Dolores Umbridge for their eerily similar phrasing, posture, and magenta garb.

Haley isn’t new to the spotlight. She frequently makes headlines for attention-grabbing stunts, such as standing up and exiting a meeting of the UN Security Council when the Palestinian delegation started speaking about the murder of Palestinian civilians at the hands of Israeli forces, or having the U.S. leave the UN Human Rights Council after the body attempted to hold U.S. allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, accountable for war crimes and genocide.

These conspicuous displays are no coincidence. “Being a minority in the Republican Party has already skyrocketed her profile,” explained Nitish Pahwa, a writer at Slate who has covered Haley’s career. “If you're a bona fide diplomat, even if you're extremely Zionist, you're probably going to at least sit in that session. But if you get up and walk out in some big show of protest, a move like that is definitely to generate publicity. And I think she sees that if she can just keep herself in the news cycle in various ways, she can keep herself out there and be recognized.” 

From growing up as a Punjabi girl in a one-stoplight town in South Carolina to becoming one of the most prominent faces of the Republican Party, Haley has an unparalleled ability to adapt to the changing winds of the party. Her rise has been meteoric, and there’s no sign that she’s stopping any time soon.

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