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The Political Scene
South Carolina Republicans Face a Trump-Fuelled Schism
By Peter Slevin
March 4, 2021
Maurice Washington, a leader of the Charleston County Republican Party, hopes to expand his party’s base, but Trump’s conspiracy-minded supporters are alienating moderates.Photograph by Lauren Petracca / Post and Courier
It was 9:00 p.m. on a Monday in South Carolina, and the Charleston County Republican Party was ninety minutes into its February meeting, when the open-comments portion of the session began. Maurice Washington, the Party chairman and a former city-council member, invited a newcomer to the microphone at the front of the room filled with seventy members and guests. She identified herself as Elizabeth Rodi, announced that she had attended Donald Trump’s rally on January 6th, and declared media reports about the Capitol insurrection false. “The people that were there were Antifa and Black Lives Matter. They were identified through facial recognition,” she claimed. “That wasn’t anybody who was a Trump supporter.” She told the gathering that they were “falsely understanding what QAnon even is,” and said it was high time to recognize that the Republicans were facing information warfare from mainstream media outlets. There was grumbling in the audience, but someone called out, “Let her speak!”
When Rodi finished, Washington faced a decision. He had opened the evening with a prayer, and he had led the members—mostly white and male, middle-aged and older, one in a red “Trump 2024” hat, a few wearing masks—in the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem. He had discussed the Party’s celebration of Black History Month, an overt attempt to attract nonwhite voters and a diverse slate of candidates, and described its new Web site, designed to “humanize” local Republicans. It had been a year since Washington, who is Black, had taken on the Party chairmanship in hopes of expanding the Republican base in an increasingly Democratic county. He believed that delivering a clear message and avoiding personal attacks was crucial for the Party’s success in 2022.
Now he had to decide whether to call out Rodi for falsely blaming Antifa for the Capitol assault. That might signal a loyalty to facts, and an end to Trumpian misdirection. But it also might cause a scene. A month after a split at the Party’s January meeting had caused a ruckus that was reported in the local media, that was the last thing Washington wanted. So he told her, warmly, “Thank you for having the courage and the fight to come and address us. We hope you come back.” To the crowd, he said, “Let’s give her a hand.” Most in the audience applauded as Rodi walked back to her seat. One woman, known to be a stalwart Trump supporter, handed Rodi a business card.
Four days later, I met Washington for breakfast at Saffron Restaurant and Bakery, in Charleston. After the events of the previous month, I wanted to understand his strategy for keeping the Charleston Party united. At the age of sixty and still fit, he was just back from a morning run. He ate scrambled eggs, grits, and white toast, along with the Vitamin D and zinc pills that he takes in hopes of keeping the coronavirus at bay. It’s hard to please everyone, Washington said, especially when some of his fellow-Republicans can barely stand one another. But he believes that the best way forward for the Party, if it hopes to remain viable in contested districts, is to welcome everyone. Even QAnon believers? “Absolutely,” he said. “Look, you can’t be dismissive of people who have strong viewpoints. People have got to be open-minded to hear things they don’t want to hear, but still stay at the meeting. The choice was to condemn, correct, and create a further divide. To do it in the midst of peers, you put people where? On the defensive.”
Republican math indicates that keeping the former President’s grassroots supporters inside the tent is essential for victory, particularly in the swing states and districts where the G.O.P. performed well in November. A Quinnipiac poll, released in mid-February, found that three-quarters of Republicans want Trump to play a prominent role in the Party, even as ninety-six per cent of Democrats and sixty-one per cent of independents do not. And yet, in purple counties like Charleston, the pugilistic, base-pleasing politics of Trump and his most fervid supporters are alienating moderate Republicans and independents, and threatening the prospects of other G.O.P. candidates. The abiding question is whether Maurice Washington’s “Come one, come all” approach will repel more voters than it attracts, especially without Trump at the top of the ticket to lure sporadic voters to the polls. “Politics is about addition,” Chip Felkel, a longtime, Greenville-based Republican strategist who disdains Trump and his acolytes, told me. “It’s not about subtraction, and if you aren’t doing things to add to your vote totals, if you are taking positions and supporting people who are highly offensive and damn near crazy, you’re going to be subtracting.”
The tension in the Charleston G.O.P. reflects the ways that the Republican Party in South Carolina is feeling its way forward in the wake of the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol, which was fuelled by Trump’s brazenly false claims that the election was stolen from him. The riot and its aftermath revealed local fissures largely disguised by the state Party’s successes in November, when Trump won the state comfortably, as did South Carolina’s incumbent senator Lindsey Graham. Nancy Mace, a Republican, and the first woman to graduate from the Citadel, reclaimed a House seat won two years earlier by a Democrat.
Yet, in early January, Representative Tom Rice, a conservative Republican who had reliably supported Trump, startled even his own allies when he became one of the ten Republicans who voted to impeach the former President. Rice said that the state Party was “cowering before Donald Trump” and that it was time to move on. Within days of Rice’s statements, several G.O.P. politicians said that they might challenge him in the 2022 primary, and the state Party voted overwhelmingly to censure Rice. Nikki Haley, the state’s former Governor and a potential 2024 Presidential candidate, tried to thread the needle by saying both that Trump deserved a break and that she was “disgusted” by his actions on January 6th. Graham, too, tried to have it both ways. He washed his hands of Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results: “Count me out,” he said, on the Senate floor, after the insurrectionists had been dispersed. “Enough is enough.” But, by the end of February, he was saying that Trump would be “helpful” in reëlecting Republican Senate incumbents in 2022.
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In Rice’s deeply conservative district, which stretches along the North Carolina border to the ocean, and halfway down the coast to Charleston, the debate over the Party’s direction may prove academic. Whatever happens in the 2022 primary, voters are all but certain to elect a conservative Republican. Maurice Washington faces a different dynamic in Charleston County, which is already voting Democratic, mirroring cities and suburbs that have turned away from the Republican Party in recent years and helped give Democrats their narrow House majority. For all of the G.O.P.’s success in South Carolina, Joe Biden and the Senate candidate Jaime Harrison bested their opponents in Charleston County, which is about thirty per cent nonwhite. The area is also growing in population, with more liberal voters arriving from other states. The way to win, Washington has been telling Republicans, is to be “a big-tent Party,” where right-of-center voters “work together to reach common goals upon common ground despite our differences.”
David Savage likes the county G.O.P. chairman, but wonders how Washington’s aims can come true. “You can’t be a big-tent Party and say, ‘But you’ve got to follow this guy Trump,’ ” Savage, a Charleston Republican and former Marine who opposes Trump, told me. He followed the events of January 6th from his law office and saw Donald Trump, Jr., proclaim, “This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party.” As he watched videos showing the crowd storm the Capitol, carrying Trump flags and attacking police officers as members of Congress hurried to safety, he wept. Savage hadn’t voted for Trump in 2016 or 2020, but he remained loyal to the G.O.P. brand, hoping for a Republican reboot. “Don’t leave the Party like my wife and kids are doing, but stay in the Party and drag it to the middle,” he told me later.
Five days after the assault on the Capitol, at the Charleston Republicans’ January meeting, it was Savage’s comments that set in motion the debate that Washington is now trying to calm. Savage told the several dozen attendees that it was time to “look in the mirror and decide who we really are as Republicans.” He pointed out that Republicans had lost the White House, Senate, and House during Trump’s time in office “by following him blindly.” He criticized the local Party for failing to condemn the Capitol takeover, and he blamed far-right Trump supporters—not Antifa—for the violence. “The group was composed of too many QAnon conspiracy theorists, Proud Boys, and other white-supremacy groups and private militias,” Savage said. “This is where the Party of Trump is headed.” Savage had hoped the local Party would pass a resolution that offered condolences to the family of Brian Sicknick, the Capitol Police officer killed during the insurrection, and another resolution stating that the Charleston Party “is not a political party of any individual.” Things did not go well. As Caitlin Byrd, of the State newspaper, reported, Savage was immediately “drowned out by a bellow of boos and shouts. One man yelled, ‘You’re wrong! You’re wrong!’ Another yelled, ‘Lock him up!’ ”
Byrd’s story drew attention from around the state, and the Charleston Post and Courier printed Savage’s full remarks. In the weeks that followed, Savage found himself publicly vilified and, in some cases, privately cheered. Rice, the Republican House member who voted to impeach Trump, called to offer friendly support, in a conversation that Savage said felt like one pariah talking with another. Richard Thomasson, who invests in vacation properties in the Low Country, was one of the few Republicans willing to offer public support. The next month, he held the floor at the Party’s meeting, and said, “Our county is changing, and either we change with it, or we are left behind.” I asked him later what he had meant. “I’m tired of ideology,” he said. “We’ve bought into the divisiveness. We’ve abdicated any solutions. If we can’t present solutions that solve problems for Charlestonians and win hearts and minds, then I think the future of the Charleston County Republican Party is one of a fringe protest group.”
During the February meeting, which lasted two and a half hours, Washington invited everyone in the room to stand and repeat the South Carolina Party’s creed, drawn from Thomas Paine. Among other things, it declares, “It is my heritage to stand erect, proud and unafraid. To think and act for myself, enjoy the benefit of my creations.” Critics of the Party’s fealty to Trump pointed out to me the irony of reciting one of the other lines in the creed: “I will never cower before any master, save my God.”
When I met Washington for breakfast at the café, he was feeling hopeful and seemed relieved that the second Party meeting had generated less negative press coverage than the first. He had been none too pleased with Savage’s speech on January 11th, and had criticized him in a Post and Courier op-ed. Washington believes that Republicans are aggrieved—a theme that emerged repeatedly in our conversation—and he wrote that the “the left” had characterized “seventy-four million Americans as domestic terrorists for harboring doubts about the 2020 election.” Nothing of the sort is true, nor is there a unified “left,” but talking points have a way of taking hold in party politics, and Washington was missing no opportunities to shape the narrative. “Because a relatively few people decided to do something stupid,” he wrote, referring to January 6th, “doesn’t nullify the concerns of the many.”
On the one hand, Washington was giving support to deniers of fact, even referring to Rodi, in our conversation, as “a very rational person. I don’t want to condemn her to hell because of her strong beliefs.” On the other, he was preaching moderation, telling me that the Party’s success depends on “winning swing votes in the middle. We’ve got to be able to attract people who don’t necessarily think like we think.” That was quite a straddle, and when I asked him about it, as he finished his coffee, he said that he had called Rodi, Savage, and Thomasson alike, hoping to persuade them that the tent was big enough for all. “I didn’t condemn,” Washington said. “It’s not the chairman’s responsibility to colonize certain positions. Let’s see how we can make this thing work, not just for our party but for the people we hope to serve. There’s that left way of thinking. There’s that right way of thinking. And there’s a huge opportunity right down the middle, between left and right.” The Republican Party is a work in progress in 2021, he said, and he knows that if he fails, or lands on the wrong side, it may cost him his chairman’s gavel. “Am I all right with that?” he asked. “I certainly am.”
Peter Slevin is a contributing writer to The New Yorker, based in Chicago and focussing on politics. He teaches at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and is the author of “Michelle Obama: A Life.”
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