Though today’s Republican party is viewed increasingly through the lens of the seemingly rudderless Donald Trump and his populist adherents, many on the right are disenchanted with this vision, and they’re ready for a change.
Unsettled conservatives would do well to turn to South Carolina senator Tim Scott, a man who has illustrated in just a few short years that he has both the desire and the capacity to rebrand conservatism for a new age.
When Scott entered the U.S. Senate in 2013, he was the first African-American senator from the South since Reconstruction — and, like those earlier senators, a Republican. While he has consistently refused to use his race as a trump card or to score cheap political points, he never shies away from the reality of his upbringing. And there is no question that his story uniquely situates him to step forward as a conservative leader in a time of bitter political division.
Over the course of a day I spent with the senator — on Capitol Hill and in Anacostia, a neighborhood in Washington, D.C. — a picture of Scott as a vocal, visionary leader came into focus. He’s the man of the hour, though he might not know it.
If he does know, he certainly won’t admit it. This spring, he and his best friend in Washington, congressman Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.), co-authored a memoir on bipartisanship, Unified: How Our Unlikely Friendship Gives Us Hope for a Divided Country. One section of Gowdy’s acknowledgements is addressed to Scott’s mother, Frances:
This book was supposed to be about your son Tim and your family. It was supposed to be about your hard work, your faith, and your determination that your children would turn out as well as they did. But you raised a son too modest to write a book about himself. Maybe one day we can convince him to do that.
When I mention this snippet to Scott, he chuckles ruefully and shakes his head, as if to say, “I didn’t want him to write that, either.” Truth is, Scott never intended to take up the self-glorifying business of politics. He wanted to be a minister.
I put this to Scott as we sit in his office on Capitol Hill, the senator’s feet propped up on a table and clad in a pair of hot-pink socks speckled with blue polka dots. When you read Unified, I suggest, it becomes fairly obvious that Scott has never quite shaken the desire to go into the ministry. “I almost teared up right there,” he admits. “When I became a Christian in 1983, my first thought was to go to seminary.” But when he visited the seminary, he got the feeling that serving as a clergyman wasn’t in the cards for him.
Not ready to accept the message his gut was sending him, he tried again a little later, preaching a sermon at his church in South Carolina. Afterwards, his pastor told him that he had a gift for reaching people, but that he believed God had called him to politics instead. “I was like, ‘You just don’t want me to play a part in your church! That’s a lie!’ I was deflated. I was dejected. And here I sit as a United States senator because he was right.”
Still, even after the doors of ministry were closed to him, Scott wasn’t sure that national politics would be an option. “I had never been to Washington before I got elected to Congress,” he tells me. “I am a reluctant warrior, though I am a joyful warrior. I am thankful that it worked out the way that it has.”
As we head to an event at which Scott is scheduled to speak later in the day, I ask if he’s glad that he can sit back and breathe a little for the first time since coming to Washington. This is the first election cycle since he arrived in Congress in which he does not face reelection. After winning in South Carolina’s first congressional district in the tea-party wave of 2010, he ran for the House again in 2012. That December, the then–governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, announced that she would appoint Scott to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy left by Jim DeMint’s retirement. He officially took his seat on January 2, 2013. In 2014, Scott won a special election to finish DeMint’s term, and in 2016 he ran yet again, that time for his own full term.
But this year, Scott can finally focus full-time on his legislative agenda — at least in theory. He’s not quite sure he’ll be able to take advantage of it. “My friends will find a way to fill my free time, I’m sure,” he tells me with a grin. “They’ll put me on the road.”
It isn’t difficult to understand why Republican politicians would be desperate to have Scott stump for them. It’s also the first election cycle since Donald Trump swept into the presidency, and with the talk of an impending “blue wave,” Scott is the perfect figure to reconcile the splits among Republicans and present a congenial face to moderate voters. If his bipartisan legislative work on Capitol Hill can be taken as an indication, he even has the ability to appeal to Democrats.
Scott is the perfect figure to reconcile the splits among Republicans and present a congenial face to moderate voters.
Part of his growing influence stems from his balanced approach to the divisiveness within the GOP and between the two parties since 2016. Scott has been much less critical of the president than have, say, his colleagues Jeff Flake and John McCain (both Republicans from Arizona). But he has not been a pushover, either. As he sees it, he has found a prudent balance in deciding when to speak and when to keep silent.
“The best advice is not to speak every time there’s something to be critical of, especially if you don’t speak every time there’s something to be positive about,” he tells me as we’re driving up to the Capitol. “But if you find something that is jugular, speak up. I think you should pick and choose your battles, so to speak.”
Easier said than done. But so far, Scott has done well. He hasn’t earned a reputation as an anti-Trump firebrand on the right, but a few months ago, he censured Trump for referring to several Latin-American and African nations as “sh**hole countries.” His most scathing critique of the president followed the white-supremacist march in Charlottesville last August — which resulted in the death of a young woman — when Trump repeatedly insisted that there had been good people on both sides of the violence.
“I’m not going to defend the indefensible. I’m not here to do that,” Scott said in an interview at the time. “[Trump’s] comments on Monday were strong. His comments on Tuesday started erasing the comments that were strong. What we want to see from our president is clarity and moral authority. And that moral authority is compromised when Tuesday happens. There’s no question about that.”
Directly after these remarks, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders asked Scott if he would meet with the president, and he agreed. While Scott tells me that he and Trump failed to reach a resolution, some good did result.
“We did not see eye to eye on the racial rhetoric or the divisive rhetoric,” Scott says. “But he said, ‘Give me something that I can champion that can help people stuck in distressed communities.’ I offered my opportunity-zone legislation, and he said yes. The next day, he was on Air Force One talking about the prospects of the Investing in Opportunity Act, and because of his support . . . we were able to get it across the finish line.”
As a result of the president’s backing for Scott’s signature legislation — which encourages long-term investment in distressed communities by offering tax relief to investors — Republican leadership incorporated it into the tax-reform bill that passed Congress at the end of last year. This was a huge victory for Scott, whose focus on opportunity and entrepreneurship is embodied perfectly by this bill, perhaps the most consequential legislation he’s effected since joining the Senate.
Scott has demonstrated an uncommon ability to make conservative values appealing to people who have never given the movement a second look.
Predictably, his efforts were overshadowed by left-wing nastiness — not a new experience for the Republican senator. When legislators gathered at the White House celebration, Scott stood close to the president for a photograph and addressed the audience. Moments later, a HuffPost blogger, Andy Ostroy, tweeted: “What a shocker . . . there’s ONE black person there and sure enough they have him standing right next to the mic like a manipulated prop. Way to go @SenatorTimScott.”
With his typical sangfroid, Scott replied later via Twitter: “Uh probably because I helped write the bill for the past year, have multiple provisions included, got multiple Senators on board over the last week and have worked on tax reform my entire time in Congress. But if you’d rather just see my skin color, pls feel free.”
In many ways, Scott’s deft handling of these dustups has proven him both a conservative stalwart and a capable representative for Americans baffled by intensifying polarization. Perhaps more important, and often as a result of his life experience, Scott has demonstrated an uncommon ability to make conservative values appealing to people who have never given the movement a second look.
During the era of Donald Trump, Scott’s willingness to criticize the president — coupled with his emphasis on a constructive politics rather than one of racial division — has put him on the radar of many at home in South Carolina and in the nation’s capital. But his ability to sell a solidly conservative agenda with an authentic bipartisan spirit makes him a much more promising politician than his relatively low profile would suggest.
In the summer of 2016, for example, as a debate over police violence and shootings of African-American men ravaged the country, Scott gave a deeply personal speech on the Senate floor. As he does to this day, Scott preferred to stay out of the limelight, but at this national turning point, he related several stories of having been targeted by police since becoming a lawmaker.
As recently as 2015, Scott said, he had been stopped by a Capitol police officer, even though he was wearing his member’s pin. “The officer looked at me, full of attitude, and said: ‘The pin, I know. You, I don’t. Show me your ID,’” the senator explained. “I’ll tell you, I was thinking to myself, either he thinks I’m committing a crime — impersonating a member of Congress — or what?”
It wasn’t the first time a Capitol officer had stopped him to make a similar inquiry. What’s more, during just one year as an elected official, Scott was stopped seven times by law enforcement while driving. The vast majority of those encounters, he said, were the result of “nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood, or some other reason just as trivial.”
It was a landmark moment for the senator. Not only did he praise police officers and note that improper use of violence was rare — echoing the Right’s general line — but he also echoed the concerns of many on the left. For Republicans inclined to dismiss complaints about unequal racial treatment, Scott’s stories were a force to be reckoned with. That day on the floor, Scott showed himself an able communicator, a measured conservative, and a man capable of teaching the Right and reaching the Left by being honest about his life, recognizing that his race mattered while avoiding the toxic, fatalistic conclusions of those who peddle identity politics.
When he came to Washington in 2011, anyone watching Scott closely might have predicted that he’d turn out this way. Though he was pushed by his colleagues to run for freshman-class president, he opted for the much less glamorous job of representative to the Elected Leadership Committee (ELC), which makes most major decisions for the House Republican caucus. When I ask why he decided on this role, his answer is characteristic.
“The strategy of being helpful is better than the strategy of being seen. For me, being freshman-class president would’ve been cool, but being a part of the ELC was strategically helpful to forming the relationships that today I depend on,” he replies, listing colleagues with whom he formed relationships on the ELC. “Had I gone a different route, I think I would’ve been maybe a little more popular temporarily, but less effective.”
Understanding this blend of pragmatism and service is essential to understanding Scott as the Republican of the moment. It was evident, too, in his choice not to join the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). “I work with CBC members on initiatives that I think will have a pronounced impact in the black community, when I agree,” he says of that decision.
For Scott, skin color and political party will always take a back seat to principle.
“But I’ve always been kind of a mix between old rock group Journey and Motown. I kind of like to mix it all up,” Scott adds, chuckling. “It’s kind of who I am: ‘Don’t Stop Believing.’ I mean, truly. I got a little Air Supply in me, too.”
For Scott, skin color and political party will always take a back seat to principle. “I am more conservative than I am Republican,” he tells me. As much as possible, he prefers finding areas where Left and Right can agree — his opportunity-zones legislation was co-sponsored by Cory Booker (D., N.J.), for example. But even so, and over the last two years in particular, the senator has taken to frequently denouncing the identity politics of the left, and he calls tribalism one of our greatest national-security threats.
Scott’s perspective is deeply shaped by the fact that he was raised by a single mother who worked several jobs to keep her two children fed, clothed, and in school. “From seven to 14 I drifted, flunked out of high school as a freshman, failing world geography, and civics, and Spanish, and English,” he tells me. “I did a pretty good job of failing out because I figured, I’ll just drift. I found my way back because I got a strong mentor, a guy who helped me understand that there was unlimited potential within, and a mother who continued to pray for me.”
When we spend the afternoon in Anacostia touring new local businesses, Scott enjoys a much warmer reception than any Republican could rightly hope for in such a solidly left-wing area, and one so desperately in need of assistance. In this dilapidated neighborhood, Scott showed his willingness to interact with the people he so often mentions, people he believes are capable of success if the culture and the government don’t stand in their way.
As his Opportunity Agenda illustrates, Scott is convinced that fundamentally conservative solutions, not government programs, will help people climb out of poverty — and in many cases, he seems to have managed to sell them on that idea, too. It doesn’t hurt that he appears even more comfortable at this backyard fish fry than when he speaks on the floor of the Senate.
Much of his success stems from his upbringing — he understands the plight of the people with whom he speaks in places such as Anacostia, and they notice his sincerity. At a local multipurpose space for small-business owners, a community member says to the senator, “This building stands for everything that you talk about. It talks about building up young people who come from where you come from, who had childhoods fighting to get somewhere and get the American dream.”
That’s exactly how Scott sees his work, too. “I take my personal experience, and I try to feed it into legislative priorities,” he tells the group, “so that people who grew up just like I did have the benefit of the resources that changed my life.”
Later, Scott tells me that previous meetings with these small-business owners informed his opportunity-zones legislation. In Anacostia, Scott proved that his practical strategy works, and that Democratic politicians and constituents who instinctively distrust conservatism still respect his approach, and even much of his work.
I ask Scott if he’s had a hard time overcoming resentment against Republicans in communities such as this one. “I think what happens initially is they’re shocked that I’m coming to the community at all,” he tells me. “They’re not always receptive initially, but that’s why the rapport and credibility are really important. We, on the conservative side of the aisle, have to go the extra mile at times. When you do, what happens is you find that the wave of good fortune opens up for you, and you have a lot of space — a lot of flexibility — to do good.”
On our way out the door for an event on the opioid epidemic, Scott makes sure to grab a copy of his speech from a staffer. But at the event, he immediately abandons the podium, microphone, and his papers, and moves into the middle of the audience to rattle off statistics about opioid deaths and interlace them with the story of a friend who battled addiction. In Anacostia, too, he sprang up from his chair when he addressed the group, standing in the middle of the circle and making eye contact with each person as he spoke.
This, again, is Scott as clergyman, a politician with the heart of a minister. “I thought perhaps that the Good Lord would be able to use the passion that I have for making a difference in a place where ministering would not be the primary call,” he explains, “but where sharing the same love and compassion for people, with a long view — which is what leads me to be a conservative — would be necessary.”
When I ask if he expects to find his way into the ministry after he retires, he pauses. “One day I do see myself, as I exit politics, spending time looking for ways to promote and encourage the human soul,” Scott says, “whether in an organized part of the faith movement or just as a spokesperson for the eternal values that have made a difference in all of human history.”
Until then — and to the credit of a conservative movement in need of rejuvenation — Scott seems to be succeeding at that right where he is.