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Tim Scott and the Republican Id
The sunny, optimistic senator seems to be running for the nomination of a party that no longer exists.
WATCHING TIM SCOTT’S ANNOUNCEMENT SPEECH, I was struck by how differently I would have responded to his message 10 years ago. In 2013, I was a conservative, partisan Republican. In March of that year, commenting on the budget battle then raging between President Obama and the Republicans, I wrote:
It’s to their credit that Republicans are obsessed with getting the government to address its unconscionable and unmanageable debt, freeing up the productive private sector to create economic growth, and maintaining the nation’s military preeminence. But there’s something almost pathetic about the way leading Republicans complain that the president doesn’t negotiate in good faith. Of course he doesn’t. He’s not interested in governing—at least not with Republicans. He’s determined to campaign from now until November 2014 so that he can replace them.
Ten years on, I’m sadder and (hopefully) wiser. As the intervening years have shown, the GOP has abandoned good faith altogether. Some remnants might be found at the McCain Institute or the Jack Kemp Foundation, but Kevin McCarthy and his band of nihilists wouldn’t recognize good faith if it hit them on the fanny. The Republicans who are beating their chests for “fiscal discipline” were obedient lapdogs when Trump increased deficits by 50 percent—and that was before COVID. In total, they grinned along to an additional $7.8 trillion in national indebtedness. Did I mention that they quietly raised the debt ceiling three times during Trump’s term?
The good senator from South Carolina, Tim Scott, was along for the ride on all of this, so when he objected on Monday in his presidential campaign announcement that we have “spent decades getting deeper and deeper into debt to the Chinese Communist Party,” it rings a little hollow. It put him in mind, he said, of a Biblical quotation that “the borrower is slave to the lender.” Was his Bible sealed shut from 2017 to 2020?
It’s not that there is nothing to like or admire about Scott. He did rise from poverty. His grandfather picked cotton. His parents divorced when he was seven and he was raised by a struggling single mom. When he says, “my family went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime,” he has every right to be proud. And while he wasn’t exactly a profile in courage in calling Trump out, he wasn’t a total sniveling coward either. After the Charlottesville “fine people on both sides” disaster, he went to see Trump to express concern, a meeting he later called “painful.” Though his words couldn’t penetrate the narcissistic heat shield around Trump’s brain, he did tell Vice afterwards that “What we want to see from our president is clarity and moral authority. And that moral authority is compromised. . . . There’s no question about that.” And when Trump declined to denounce white supremacy during a debate with Biden, Scott spoke up: “White supremacy should be denounced at every turn. I think the president misspoke, and he needs to correct it. If he doesn’t correct it, I guess he didn’t misspeak.” Well, yes.
I confess to loving one particular moment in Scott’s career. In 2017, a random troll tweeted that Scott was a “house n****” for voting for tax cuts. Scott replied: “Senate.”
He’s a smart guy. When asked about raging inequality, Scott talks about education, praising the work of entrepreneurs like Eva Moskowitz, whose Success Academy schools have made such a dramatic difference in the lives of poor kids. “The quality of your education shouldn’t depend upon the accident of your ZIP code,” he declares. Even after years of bitter disillusionment with conservatives and (especially) Republicans, I still believe that our schools are a disgrace and reforming education is the best route to reducing poverty and hopelessness. Maybe I wouldn’t use the expression “less CRT and more ABCs,” but okay, it’s politics. Let that pass. One cheer on policy.
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I would also offer one cheer on message. During his announcement speech, Scott insisted that “We must show compassion for those who disagree with us,” arguably not the most congenial sentiment for the perpetually roiled GOP base that has moved from laughing at cruelty to cheering on brutality.
Scott’s boosters hope that his message of patriotic optimism (he even used Reagan’s “city on a hill” cliché) will be an implicit rebuke to the dark turn the party has taken with Trump, to which one can only say, lots of luck. A party that makes Kyle Rittenhouse a pinup, dangles pardons for convicted murderers of Black Lives Matter protesters, and describes the January 6th rioters as citizens “engaging in legitimate political discourse” doesn’t seem to be pining for a return to sunny optimism.
DOES SCOTT HAVE one unique advantage here? Sure. Republicans do love black conservatives. Clarence Thomas is an icon and Candace Owens is a star. In 2011, Herman Cain, whom almost no one had heard of, roared into first place (briefly) in the Republican presidential primary polls, and in 2015, Ben Carson surged ahead of Trump for a moment (that’s when Trump accused him of child abuse) before fading.
I used to think Republicans lavished so much love on black candidates and others (like Condoleezza Rice) because they were keen to prove that they harbored no racism in their souls. But since 2015, it looks different. The mask has slipped so often: Trump’s Charlottesville outrage. The “shithole countries.” The smearing of immigrants. A senator said Democrats favor reparations for “the people who do the crime.” Marjorie Taylor Greene and Tucker Carlson mainstreamed the “great replacement” theory.
So Scott’s pitch that his life is proof of America’s virtue and lack of racism seems discordant. It seems less an affirmation of patriotism than a cynical play for Republican votes: “I’m the candidate the left fears the most.” I’m the black candidate who affirms your racial innocence. And a bonus: The left hates me so I scratch your partisan itch at the same time. It wouldn’t have seemed so to me in 2013, but now, after what we’ve witnessed in the Trump years, the appeal has a rancid flavor. “We can choose victimhood or greatness,” Scott intones. “Grievance or greatness.” Sure, there are people on the left who wallow in grievance, but what fair-minded person can fail to notice the victimhood and grievance that billows from every GOP outlet? “I will be the president,” Scott promises, “who destroys the liberal lie that America is an evil country.” Seriously? It’s more like he will be the candidate who erects the biggest straw man to attack.
Is this unjust to Scott? Perhaps, though someone once said, “No matter how cynical I get I just can’t keep up.” Here is Scott, the breath of fresh air, the neo-Reaganite, on the events of January 6th: “I was in the chamber when the rioters were coming over. I was taking my jacket off, my tie off, rolling my sleeves up, just in case I had to fight. The chances of me understanding and appreciating the severity of the situation is 100 percent. The one person I don’t blame is President Trump.” And here is his 2022 response to Maria Bartiromo on whether he’d be open to the VP spot with Trump: “I think everybody wants to be on President Trump’s bandwagon, without any question. One of the things I’ve said to the president is he gets to decide the future of our party and our country because he is still the loudest voice.”
If you’re keen to prove that America is not an evil country, maybe start by ruling out running with or even voting for a truly evil figure.