Despite winning bipartisan praise for her speech responding to the President’s State of the Union address Tuesday night, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley drew the ire of pundits and politicians on the conservative right when some interpreted her words as criticism of her own party.
“During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation,” Haley said in her response Tuesday night.
Haley also addressed immigration in her speech, saying it was necessary for the country to focus on "stopping illegal immigration. And it means welcoming properly vetted legal immigrants, regardless of their race or religion.”
She also referenced her own background, saying, "I am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants who reminded my brothers, my sister and me every day how blessed we were to live in this country.”
While Haley did not call out candidates or colleagues by name, she confirmed during a Wednesday appearance on the TODAY Show that Donald Trump was one of the “angriest voices” she referenced in her speech. “Mr. Trump has definitely contributed to what I think is just irresponsible talk,” she told Matt Lauer.
The division in Republican reactions to Haley’s speech highlighted the increasing divide within the party. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called Haley "weak on illegal immigration" on Wednesday, and conservative pundit Ann Poulter tweeted, “Trump should deport Nikki Haley." Others, including Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush and conservative pundit Matt Lewis, tweeted their support:
An email to the Republican National Committee seeking comment on the backlash within the party has not yet been returned.
Haley is the second Indian-American politician to deliver the Republican response to the State of the Union. She follows Bobby Jindal, then-governor of Louisiana, who was widely panned for his response speech in 2009.
Haley found herself in the national spotlight last summer when a gunman killed nine people at Mother Emanuel, a church in Charleston. Following the shooting, Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from state capitol grounds, marking a shift from previous remarks. During a 2014 debate, Haley also noted, regarding the flag's impact on South Carolina's image, “Perception matters, but we really kind of fixed all that when you elected the first Indian American, female governor.”
These comments generated criticism from those in the Asian-American community — particularly South Asian Americans, who viewed her comments as evading the problems of racial inequity.
In a June 2015 blog post, South Asian-American activist and writer Deepa Iyer wrote, “Our ethnicity should not be trotted out to justify racist symbols or actions.”
She called upon Indian and South Asian Americans to send a message to Haley to take down the Confederate flag, saying, “Just because Indian Americans are elected to political office, just because the halls of political power look more diverse, does not mean that racial injustice simply disappears.”