Last night, the Donald Trump-led Republican Party launched its own version of an online political convention. For the evening’s “Land of Promise” theme, the Trump campaign offered an array of speakers ranging from Steve Scalise, Tim Scott, and Nikki Haley to Donald Trump Jr. and the gun-toting husband-wife team from St. Louis who confronted Black Lives Matter protesters outside their home.
The Trump scion was a stretch, but I guess “Land of Inherited Wealth” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. As for Mark and Patricia McCloskey, their political philosophy is more appropriately described as “Get off my lawn!”
That said, the mere presence of Tim Scott and Nikki Haley as Republicans provides an eloquent answer to the Democrats’ narrative that systemic racism is crippling this country. It was Haley, then governor of South Carolina, who chose freshman Rep. Scott to replace Jim DeMint in the Senate. It’s hard to overstate how profound a repudiation this was -- of both modern liberal identity politics and the segregationist policies of the 19th- and 20th-century Democratic Party.
First elected in 2010 with the support of small-government Tea Party enthusiasts, Scott was the first African American senator from the South since Reconstruction -- and has been the only black Republican in the upper chamber. The Republican who appointed him was a story in her own right: Nimrata “Nikki” Randhawa Haley, the female governor whose parents are Sikh immigrants from Punjab state in India.
It was Gov. Haley who guided her state through the aftermath of the horrific mass murder at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston in 2015. Her response included shepherding the efforts to finally remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol.
Not only did this transformation take place in the Deep South, it happened in the Palmetto State. It wasn’t happenstance that the Civil War broke out in South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union. Among the political class, including its congressional delegation, South Carolina was where racism burned brightest, where the skeletons of Jim Crow were buried the deepest, and where the ghosts of slavery have taken the longest to exorcise.
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When Timothy Eugene Scott took the oath of office on Jan. 3, 2013, he took the Senate seat once held by James Henry Hammond, a congressman, governor and senator -- who was one of the most dedicated racists of his era, or any other. “I repudiate, as ridiculously absurd,” he once said, “that much lauded but nowhere accredited dogma of Mr. Jefferson that ‘all men are born equal.’”
In the 1830s Hammond led the pro-slavery forces in the House of Representatives while fellow South Carolinian John C. Calhoun did the same in the Senate. Calhoun, one of the earliest and most powerful voices for secession in the South, eschewed the normal Southern argument that slavery was “a necessary evil,” in favor of the claim that it was “a positive good.”
In 2009 and 2010, as the Tea Party rose to prominence, critics in the Democratic Party and liberal corners of the media routinely smeared the movement as racist. There was little evidence to support this claim, and plenty to rebut it. The tangible results of Tea Party involvement in Republican Party politics was increased representation in elective office of racial minorities. Prior to the 2010 midterm elections, only three Republican governors or members of Congress were Latino or people of color. By the time the 2012 elections were over, this number was 15, almost all of whom, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, were elected with Tea Party support while bucking the (mostly white) GOP establishment.
“The Tea Party,” noted the authoritative and nonpartisan National Journal, “is diversifying the GOP.” Included among those diverse faces were Nikki Haley and Tim Scott of South Carolina.
When Lincoln delivered his stirring inaugural address on March 4, 1861, some 4,000 souls strained to hear his words. (There were some catcalls, too, early echoes of South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” shout during President Obama’s 2009 address to Congress.)
But it is Lincoln’s conclusion that is still etched in stone on the monument that dominates the National Mall.
“I am loath to close,” the new president said. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, which stretch from every battle-field and patriot grave to every loved heart and hearthstone all over our broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as they surely will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
To this inspirational appeal, South Carolina’s influential Charleston Mercury responded with mockery. It attacked Lincoln for his “insolence” and “brutality” and dismissed the very idea of the Union as a “mobcratic empire.” Nor did South Carolina’s antediluvian attitudes on race end with the Civil War.
In 1948, when Hubert Humphrey galvanized the nation with his call at the Democratic convention for his party to step out of the shadow of states’ rights “and into the sunshine of human rights,” South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond led a walkout of the Dixiecrats -- and a third-party presidential campaign.
Ten years later, South Carolina Gov. George B. Timmerman Jr. pulled a permit issued to evangelist Billy Graham to use the grounds at the state capitol for one his crusades. Graham, in Timmerman’s memorable phrasing, was “a well-known integrationist” whose revival meetings were open to blacks and whites.
Fast-forward to 2010, when Tim Scott defeated Strom Thurmond’s son in a Republican congressional primary. It was a nice historical footnote, but its true significance may have been that Scott’s election wasn’t about race, but about fiscal probity within the GOP. As I wrote at the time, that election was a reminder that history doesn’t move in a straight line, but rather takes an uneven course. Sometimes it follows a bending arc, a rainbow that exists in many hues and that ultimately returns to earth.
South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn had something like this in mind when he took note of Scott’s elevation to the Senate. Clyburn, a prominent member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the Democratic leadership in the House, is perhaps the politician most responsible for Joe Biden’s 2020 resurrection as a presidential candidate after ignominious defeats in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada.
“I congratulate Tim Scott on his appointment,” Clyburn said in a written statement at the time. “I have worked with him for several years, and while we don’t see eye-to-eye on most political issues and more often than not cancel out each other’s votes, I believe he is the personification of South Carolina's motto, ‘While I breathe, I hope.’
“The historic nature of this appointment is not lost on me,” Clyburn added, “and I am confident Tim Scott will represent South Carolina and the country honorably.”
Taking a step back even further, the presence of both Clyburn and Scott in South Carolina’s congressional delegation has been a step worth savoring. In a speech on the House floor in 1836, James Henry Hammond ridiculed just such a scenario.
“Are we prepared to see them mingling in our Legislatures?” he said. “Is any portion of this country prepared to see them enter these halls and take their seats by our sides, in perfect equality with the white representatives of an Anglo Saxon race ... to see them placed at the heads of your Departments; or to see, perhaps, some ‘Othello’ or ‘Toussaint’ or ‘Boyer’ gifted with genius and inspired by ambition grasp the presidential wreath, and wield the destinies of this great Republic? From such a picture I turn with irrepressible disgust.”
Exactly 172 years later, an African American with a name a lot more exotic than Othello or Toussaint did indeed become president of these United States. And James Henry Hammond’s own seat is now occupied by a man with a nondescript name, but undeniably black skin. Fiscal policies, racial identity, and partisan politics aside, this is something to be relished by all Americans.