October 31, 2022
Today is Halloween. But another scary day was last Monday, the start of the two weeks’ early-voting period here in the Greenville district. We were at our polling site at the Greer Recreation Center, a barn-type structure on a hard-to-find side street.
There, on the morning of day one, eight election workers sat at their computers, awaiting voters. We showed our licenses and received our vote tickets. I studied the ballot. We were electing candidates for 15 offices. Of the 15, only four offered a choice between a Republican and a Democrat: Governor, Secretary of State, U.S. Senator, and Probate Judge. A Democrat, Lisa Ellis, (also representing the Alliance Party) is running against a Republican and a member of the Green Party for Superintendent of Education.
The three Republicans for state office are Henry McMaster, for a second full term as Governor; Tim Scott for U.S. Senate; and William Timmons, our local Congressman. All three are dedicated soldiers in Donald Trump’s army of election deniers. In 2016, as Lieutenant Governor, McMaster gave Trump’s nominating speech at the Republican National Convention. He became governor, succeeding Nikki Haley when she became Ambassador to the United Nations.
As the covid-19 pandemic raged in spring 2020, McMaster reopened South Carolina businesses five days after the state reported its highest number of covid infections. The state’s epidemiologist reported that in June the state experienced a 2,000-percent increase in covid cases since March. McMaster ignored a petition signed by hundreds of South Carolina physicians warning of the pandemic’s spread.
In September he demanded that schools reopen for in-person learning. The South Carolina Education Association blasted the reopening plan, saying it endangered the health of the state’s students and teachers. In December, McMaster and his wife tested positive for covid-19.
In a March 2021 letter to the General Assembly on voter fraud, he wrote that “millions of Americans have legitimate concerns about the integrity of the 2020 election.”
Scott also is seeking a second full term. In 2017 he criticized Trump for his comments following the “Unite the Right” white-extremist rally in Charlottesville. He met with Trump and afterward said the president was “receptive” to listening. Otherwise, he stands with the near-monolithic Trump bloc in the Senate and voted against creation of the commission to investigate the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot.
McMaster’s Democratic opponent, one-term Congressman Joe Cunningham, elected in 2018, tells voters that on his first vote in Congress he opposed Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House. He lost his seat in 2020 to Republican Nancy Mace. He’s now campaigning to end the state income tax and legalize marijuana for medical use.
Scott’s opponent, Krystal Matthews, a state senator, has made racially charged comments about her constituents and other Democrats, who have urged her to quit the race. She has no chance, none. But then, no South Carolina Democrat has won statewide office for 15 years.
Timmons, first elected in 2018, is unopposed. In December 2020 he was one of 126 House Republicans to support a lawsuit filed with the Supreme Court objecting to the results of the 2020 Presidential election. The Court declined the case. In January 2021 he voted against certifying Biden’s election. In 2020 his campaign ad used the phrase “endorsed by Donald Trump.”
The Republicans running for Comptroller General, the State House of Representatives, Solicitor for Circuit 13, Auditor, and County Treasurer are unopposed. The Republican candidates for State Treasurer and Agriculture Commissioner face token opposition.
The state last went for a Democrat for President in 1976, when it backed Jimmy Carter. Of the state’s seven Congressional districts, Democrats hold one. South Carolina, like the rest of the South, historically is called “conservative.”
A lifetime ago, “conservativism” could be traced to a political and moral philosophy, defined and defended by formidable European thinkers of the early 20th century: the Germans Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss, and Austrian Fredrich Hayek. Voegelin and Strauss moved to the U.S. and Hayek to Great Britain in the late 1930s to escape Naziism. Their scholarly work broadly focused on the primacy of liberty and religion as foundations of social stability, and over time gave birth to a range of political movements loosely labeled “conservative.”
In the era of Trump, those distinguished names are largely unknown outside university philosophy and economics departments. But in 1953 a Michigan scholar, Russell Kirk, published a groundbreaking history, The Conservative Mind, which traced the roots of conservativism to the 18th century British scholar Edmund Burke. Kirk’s book inspired a generation of thinkers and writers including William F. Buckley Jr., who in 1955 founded National Review magazine, still considered the premier voice of conservatism.
Buckley pushed an erudite, politically savvy brand of conservativism. In the depths of the Cold War he pitched the magazine as stridently anti-Communist. He hired as a senior editor Whittaker Chambers, a Communist spy in the 1930s and author of the powerful memoir Witness, which tells of his Congressional testimony against Alger Hiss, a senior State Department official, who Chambers unmasked as a Soviet double agent.
Buckley used his magazine and his clout to expel racists like Alabama Governor George Wallace, anti-Semites, and other extremists from conservative ranks. He backed Barry Goldwater for President in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan still is a demigod to people who call themselves conservative, but the field was getting crowded. Fast forward to 2015, when National Review published a special issue labeled “Against Trump,” calling him a “political opportunist.” Since then the magazine has been hot and cold on Trump and his supporters.
Today, Trump people like McMaster, Scott, and Timmons and nearly all other Republicans, including Christian evangelicals, call themselves “conservative.” They excuse or ignore Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, his theft of classified government documents, support for Confederate sympathizers, sleazy financial deals, slurs on immigrants, ethnic groups, and women, support for white supremacists, and his warm relations with Putin and indifference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
That’s conservativism today. Then Southerners get pulled in. Buckley, Kirk, Chambers, not to mention Edmund Burke, Voegelin, Strauss, and Hayek, wherever they are, are wondering: how did we get here?