Tim Scott Knows What He’s Doing

Senator Tim Scott.
Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Like a lot of politicians, Tim Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, wouldn’t be here if he didn’t make a lot of people feel good about themselves. He’s never shied away from the impression that his career is a moral crusade, a counterpoint to the racism wafting off the modern GOP like a bad odor, and his inner showman has been glad to encourage it.

There was the time he nailed a copy of the Ten Commandments to the wall outside the Charleston County Council chambers in 1997, proclaiming that it contained “moral absolutes” that his fellow council members should obey. When the Justice Department sued Charleston County over its use of “at-large” districts in 2001, which the DOJ said diluted the voting influence of Black residents, Scott decried their alternative as a kind of segregation. He claimed that a switch to single-member districts falsely assumed that Black people could only be fairly represented by Black officials. The department helpfully pointed out that Black voters in Charleston County weren’t being denied fair representation because so many white people were getting elected there, but because people like Scott were, whom they’d voted against in overwhelming numbers.

But rather than hindering Scott’s prospects, this gulf between the broad preferences of Black South Carolinians and his own made him an ideal Senate appointee in 2013. The decision to give him the job was announced the same month that the GOP launched its postmortem of Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid, which would conclude — hilariously, in retrospect — that the party needed more “sincere” outreach to nonwhite voters to win future elections. Scott was the perfect avatar for this prospective shift. He took up the mantle with gusto — ”[It’s] important for me to be around the country … finding a way to build a more diverse representation in the party that I know is already more diverse,” he told Fox News in April — but has been most effective as a plausible-deniability conduit for the very animus that made his rise in conservative politics unlikely. “He earned this seat for the person that he is,” said Governor Nikki Haley when she appointed Scott, preempting the suggestion, basically a dictum among many of her fellow Republicans, that Black promotion is usually an unearned handout.

Scott’s popularity among voters and officials in the de facto party of white people can, in fact, be largely explained by his fierce opposition to handouts, or anything that might easily be demagogued as such. Among his more innovative would-be contributions to modern politics was a House bill he co-sponsored in 2011 that would’ve denied food stamps to anyone who became eligible because someone in their family was part of a labor strike. Add that to his later efforts to weaken the National Labor Review Board and his more recent attacks on President Biden’s increased social spending, and the senator’s knack for laundering the predatory economic tastes of his donors with moral grandstanding is a clear indicator of why his future in the party looks so bright. Last week, Scott reported a massive $8.3 million third-quarter fundraising haul — ample sustenance for a 2022 reelection bid in South Carolina, but also part of the groundwork, according to Politico, for a planned 2024 presidential campaign.

Scott’s emergence as one of his party’s top fundraisers is the culmination of a yearlong effort, on his part, to better leverage his unique position as a Black leader within the GOP. This has mostly meant cozying up to his party’s biggest donors, like Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, reports say, while tacitly reassuring them and his voters that giving him more money is also an investment in a moral project. The particulars of that project are evident in Scott’s rebuttal speech to the president’s address to Congress in April and his more recent torpedoing of police-reform negotiations in the Senate. Both cast him as an honest and credible broker on racial issues that Democrats aren’t actually interested in, other than to use for demagoguery and partisan advantage. “Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country,” Scott said in April, lamenting each facet of Biden’s agenda as a “partisan wish list” rife with wasteful spending. He expressed outrage at how — just as Black children were taught “a hundred years ago” that “if they looked a certain way, they were inferior” — “kids again are being taught that the color of their skin defines them, and if they look a certain way, they’re an oppressor.”

Last month, Scott further clarified his position by killing the last hope for a federal policing reform bill assembled in response to George Floyd’s murder. As my colleague Jonathan Chait wrote, Scott abandoned the talks, where he’d been leading the GOP side of negotiations since last summer, after souring on one of his own proposals. Back when the Democrats and Republicans were first writing their own respective versions of the bill, Scott’s compromise with what he felt was overzealousness on the Democrats’ part was to tie federal funding to federal standards, which local police departments had to adopt if they wanted the money — stuff like bans on chokeholds and no-knock warrants. But in recent months — spurred by a public-relations blitz by police unions and their flacks in the media, GOP-held statehouses, and on Capitol Hill — the false claim by Republicans that Democrats want to “defund the police” has become such a potent and politically volatile smear that Biden and his allies have dedicated a striking amount of energy to disproving it. They’re even encouraging localities to use pandemic-relief dollars to give more money to their cops: quite literally funding the police. Rather than keep negotiating, Scott flipped and joined the bad-faith salvo. “When you tell local law-enforcement agencies that you are ineligible for money, that’s defunding the police, there’s no way to spin that,” the senator said, spinning a politically self-serving mischaracterization of his own ideas into a principled stand.

The substance of that principle is, we are to believe, a concern for public safety and a rejection of the Democrats’ amoral and dishonest use of race to further an unrelated agenda. But it becomes clearer with time that a lot of Scott’s behavior can actually be understood in terms of his party’s unique expectations of him, and his of himself. He has routinely invoked the racial particulars of his American experience — “to be pulled over for no reason,” or “followed around a store while I’m shopping,” for example — to suggest a sincere passion for fixing problems that stem from racism, like racially disparate policing, and a willingness to buck his own party line and work across the aisle with Democrats to find solutions. But his willingness to flip that purported sincerity, in the middle of what otherwise seems like promising progress, into accusations that Democrats are actually racial cynics, has aligned too neatly with lazy GOP talking points and political priorities, and proven too good for his own coffers, to be merely the organic product of his sober analysis and moral soul-searching.

In other words, Scott has played his part ably — telegenic cover for whatever the GOP wants to get done, plausible deniability with a pulse. Thursday’s money haul was just the latest testament, a hint at the return on investment that Republican donors expect. Whatever tensions Scott might be wrestling with behind the scenes or in his own head, he knows and embraces that this is why he’s here.

Tim Scott Knows What He’s Doing