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Trump and his supporters continue to take jabs at Nikki Haley's identity

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley is the last major candidate still running against former President Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. At the beginning of the race, she was part of one of the most diverse fields of candidates the GOP has had in a presidential primary. Even though her bid remains a long shot, racist attacks from Trump and his supporters on the far right have been ramping up. NPR's Ashley Lopez reports.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Donald Trump shared a post on social media recently that suggested Nikki Haley might not be eligible to run for office because her parents weren't U.S. citizens when she was born. Of course, Haley is a natural-born citizen, so she is qualified. And when asked about all this, Haley has mostly brushed off Trump's behavior.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKI HALEY: Look. He's clearly insecure. If he goes and does these temper tantrums, if he's going and spending millions of dollars on TV, he's insecure. He knows that something's wrong. I don't sit there and worry about whether it's personal or what he means by it.

LOPEZ: And she's given a variation of this answer every time Trump has taken aim at her Indian heritage. That includes a set of social media posts making fun of her birth name, Nimarata Nikki Randhawa. Sara Sadhwani, a politics professor at Pomona College, says Trump has a history of taking aim at people of color in racially charged ways. She says you can just see the difference between how Trump has talked about his past challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, compared to Nikki Haley.

SARA SADHWANI: Trump was actually even running ads against DeSantis when DeSantis was the front-runner. There, it was largely about his failed policies or some sort of intellectual weakness. But here with Haley, we see Trump's attacks take a very particular personal sort of turn to attack her because of her race and because of her gender in particular.

LOPEZ: These attacks and personal rumors largely stay alive not because voters believe them, but because Trump and other political leaders keep breathing life into them. Jared Holt at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue says Trump picks these kinds of rumors because they reflect broader attitudes held by his base voters. Mostly, they get at this idea held by many of his supporters that America is a white Christian nation.

JARED HOLT: So this lane of attack against Nikki Haley, I think, can best be understood as an effort to other her in the eyes of people that have that kind of worldview.

LOPEZ: And while that may be fruitful for Trump during a primary, Sara Sadhwani at Pomona College says anti-immigrant rhetoric doesn't always land well with more moderate Republicans or independent voters. And as long as Nikki Haley stays in the race, Sadhwani says, a big chunk of those voters will stick with her.

SADHWANI: To me, her staying in the race continues to give that small but significant and present group of Republicans some voice. And we have to ask ourselves, where will they go in November?

LOPEZ: Sadhwani says these voters might stay home. They might support President Biden. They might look for a third-party candidate.

SADHWANI: It presents actually really important questions about what the outcome of November will actually look like, the fact that she's staying in and that people are continuing to support her, even if her chances are slim.

LOPEZ: They're slim because she's not contesting the Republican caucus in Nevada next week. And she's still lagging far behind Trump in her home state of South Carolina, which holds its primary in a couple of weeks. Ashley Lopez, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.