The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s unsubtle crusade to cast foes as less American comes for Haley

Then-U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley shakes hands with President Donald Trump after she announces her plan to resign in October 2018. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
5 min

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: One of Donald Trump’s chief political foes is the non-White offspring of at least one immigrant parent. So he baselessly suggests they are ineligible to serve as president and proceeds to make their name sound more exotic.

It happened with Barack Obama and then Kamala D. Harris. And now it’s come, abruptly, for Nikki Haley.

Trump in recent days has applied this altogether familiar playbook to portray his most significant rival in the New Hampshire primary as alien or different.

Last week, it was promoting a shoddy legal analysis suggesting Haley was ineligible to serve because her parents were legal immigrants but not citizens when she was born. Late Tuesday, it involved referring to her given first name, Nimarata, which Trump misspelled as “Nimrada.” (Judging by Trump’s many efforts to suggest his opponents are dullards, that would seem to be an attempt to evoke “nimrod.”)

Haley’s given first name — along with her maiden name, Randhawa — has long been an object of fascination for certain corners of the ill-informed political internet.

To some on the left, her choice not to use it betrayed a supposed effort to hide her heritage. In fact, “Nikki” is Haley’s middle name, and she has gone by it since she was a small child. It’s also a Punjabi name, which Haley was given and went by long before the name was popularized in the United States. She became “Haley” nearly three decades ago, when she, like about 8 in 10 women in opposite-sex marriages, took her husband’s last name.

But as Haley has risen as a Republican presidential contender, it’s suddenly become of interest to her opponents on the right. Vivek Ramaswamy, who is also of Indian heritage, got the ball rolling on that by referring to her as “Namrata Randhawa” — also misspelling her given name — for no apparent reason while attacking her on his website.

Now Trump, who hired Haley as his United Nations ambassador, has referenced it for the first time less than a week before the most competitive primary on the 2024 calendar.

The proximity of Trump’s birther attack on Haley and his sudden use of her given name isn’t particularly subtle. Nor is it possible to separate these from his long history of employing such tactics, which are clearly intended to “otherize” his foes.

For example:

  • Obama: Trump spent years baselessly suggesting he wasn’t born in the United States and might be ineligible to be president. He also referred to him by his full name, “Barack Hussein Obama,” and even as “Barry Soetoro.” (That last one refers to the last name of his Indonesian stepfather, which Obama used while growing up in Indonesia. Obama’s time in Indonesia has long been used to feed baseless theories that he’s Muslim.) And he referred to Obama as the “founder of ISIS,” the radical Islamist terrorist group.
  • Harris: Trump baselessly suggested she might be ineligible when she was selected as Biden’s running mate in 2020, because her parents weren’t citizens when she was born. (Trump’s attack on Haley is virtually the same, even though it was debunked in 2020.) He also repeatedly mispronounced and drew out her first name on the 2020 campaign trail.
  • Ted Cruz: Trump briefly espoused a birther attack on the Texas senator, who was born to an American citizen and a Cuban father in Canada and once had dual citizenship. He repeatedly linked Cruz to Canada early in the 2016 campaign, including suggesting he might favor that country as president.
  • Elaine Chao: Trump has repeatedly linked his Taiwan-born former transportation secretary turned critic to China, calling her “Coco Chow” and Sen. Mitch McConnell’s “China-loving wife.”
  • Jewish Democrats: Trump has repeatedly accused them of disloyalty, evoking the bigoted “dual loyalty” trope involving Israel.
  • The Squad: He told its members to stop criticizing the U.S. government and “go back” to “the crime infested places from which they came.” This even though three of the four members — one Black, one Arab American and one from Puerto Rico — have been Americans since birth.
  • Glenn Youngkin: Trump said his name “sounds Chinese” when the Virginia governor flirted with a 2024 presidential campaign.
  • Gonzalo Curiel: Trump suggested that the judge, who is a child of immigrants, couldn’t be fair to him because he was of Mexican heritage.

That last one came in 2016, during Trump’s first presidential campaign. And the response from Republicans — then — was swift, even as Trump was their presumptive presidential nominee at the time.

Then-House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) called it the “textbook definition of a racist comment.”

Sen. McConnell (R-Ky.), then majority leader, added at the time: “It’s time to quit attacking various people you competed with or various minority groups in the country and get on message. … I hope that’s what he’ll do. We’re all anxious to hear what he’ll say next.”

Eight years later, Trump has said plenty more along these lines — including about McConnell’s wife and, now, Haley — repeatedly inviting his supporters to believe his foes belong to another, less American and less loyal class of people.

And Republicans have largely lost the will to fight it anymore.