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Tim Scott really is too good to be true

What if I told you that on issues like religion, race and Trump himself, Tim Scott is no moderate?
Photo illustration of Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.

The first GOP primary debate features 8 candidates — and one Trump-sized elephant in the room. Are any of the hopefuls fit to be president? Read this installment of MSNBC’s 2024 profile series and find out.

The Republican Party has, since the 2024 race began, appeared on track to nominate a four-time indicted, twice-impeached former president who undermined our peaceful transfer of power less than three years ago. 

So, with Ron DeSantis’ campaign a distant, chaotic second, is there any other credible alternative to Donald Trump

Step forward, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina

Scott has been framed by pundits and the press as a down-to-earth, plain-speaking Black moderate who could save a far-right Republican Party from itself.

The New York Times has described him as an “amiable scripture-quoting” man. The National Journal dubbed him “a natural.” Politico called him “magnetic.” And everyone talks about his socks. How can you dislike someone with a strong sock game

Scott has been framed by pundits and the press as a down-to-earth, plain-speaking Black moderate who could save a far-right Republican Party from itself. 

But what if I told you that on issues like religion, race and Trump himself, Tim Scott is no moderate? That Scott’s conservatism actually places him in the company of the most extreme right-wingers in his party, on both social and economic issues? This is a conservative politician who has spent years pushing for tax cuts on the rich and celebrating anti-union laws in his state. His voting record on LGBTQ issues has earned him a consistent zero rating from the Human Rights Campaign — that’s the same score as people such as Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.

Or take religion, an increasingly serious issue in American politics with the rise of Christian nationalist types like the aforementioned Greene of Georgia and Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano. In the 1990s, one of the GOP’s favorite causes was pushing to have the Ten Commandments on public display. Scott, then a Republican councilman in Charleston County, introduced a bill to hang the Ten Commandments on a plaque outside the chamber.

“I want it to be in gold,” the councilman said. He later clarified to a local paper that “being a cost-conscious Republican, some other material might be more suitable.” He later got to be the one who hammered the Ten Commandments to the wall of his building — yes, he literally hammered them on the wall.

And what about that whole pesky separation of church and state thing? As a local paper reported at the time, Scott (falsely) claimed that “the Constitution was constructed to protect the church from government, not the government from the church.”

Of course, that was nearly 30 years ago. Perhaps he’s tempered that extreme — and extremely inaccurate — view? No. We asked him. Today, as a U.S. senator and presidential candidate, Tim Scott still believes that.

As for race, to be fair, Scott still has a better record than most of his fellow Republicans, though that is nothing to brag about. 

As for race, to be fair, Scott still has a better record than most of his fellow Republicans, though that is nothing to brag about.

Back in 2015, South Carolina was thrust into the center of the story about racial tensions in America after police killed a Black man named Walter Scott — no relation to Tim Scott — and following the Charleston church shooting in which white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine Black people. 

To his credit, the senator from South Carolina seemed to meet that moment.

He introduced a police accountability bill, to reduce police funding for states that failed “to report certain data on deadly shootings by law enforcement officers.”

He delivered an emotional speech on the Senate floor about the church shooting, and he spoke openly about his experiences with police, even with police on Capitol Hill, who did not recognize him even though he was an elected official.

“In the course of one year, I’ve been stopped seven times by law enforcement officers,” Scott said. “While I thank God I have not endured bodily harm, I have however felt the pressure applied by the scales of justice when they are slanted.”

That was remarkably refreshing to hear from a Republican lawmaker.

But the story doesn’t end there, and not only because Scott was unable to come to a compromise on police reform with his Senate Democratic counterparts. The truth is that Scott tends to use his unique position as a Black Republican not to force his fellow Republicans to confront the challenge of systemic racism, but to give them an excuse to ignore it. When the GOP picked the South Carolina senator to give the response to President Joe Biden’s address to Congress in 2021, Scott used the same six scripted words that his fellow nonwhite Republican, Nikki Haley, used less than a year earlier at the Republican National Convention:

“America is not a racist country.”

Yes, Scott told his party that he doesn’t believe in systemic racism, even after delivering an earlier speech in which he revealed that he had been stopped by police seven times in one year. What does he call that? Random? Seven coincidences? 

That’s systemic racism, senator.

Surely, Scott knows this. So while I’ll admit that it takes courage to open up about one’s own experiences of racism, as Scott has done, how much of that is genuine and based on principle, and how much of it is just political opportunism and self-promotion? 

Perhaps the biggest problem with the fantasy that Tim Scott might save the Republican Party from nominating Donald Trump is that Scott routinely gives Trump a pass for his worst acts and ideas. Even after the 2020 election, he refused to call out Trump’s big lie.

After the Jan. 6 riot, he could have cast a vote to convict Trump in the Senate impeachment trial, sparing the Republican Party from another Trump campaign. Instead, Scott voted to acquit. Worse, when asked about the insurrection, he said: “The one person I don’t blame is President Trump.”

Sheesh. To be clear, even Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, at the time, blamed Trump for the insurrection. But, no, not Tim Scott.

More recently, after a grand jury indicted Trump over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, Scott’s response was to complain on social media “about the weaponization of Biden’s DOJ and its immense power used against political opponents. What we see today are two different tracks of justice. One for political opponents and another for the son of the current president.”

So forget his colorful socks, forget his occasional acknowledgments of racism. Tim Scott is both a true believer in an ultraconservative Christian right agenda and a cynical enabler of the GOP’s authoritarian excesses: on religion, race, Trumpism and the rest.

In the words of New York magazine, the senator has “played his part ably — telegenic cover for whatever the GOP wants to get done, plausible deniability with a pulse.”

So, “moderate”? “Mainstream”? I mean, he’s obviously better than Donald Trump, and Ron DeSantis, but Tim Scott still qualifies as a right-wing extremist, much like the rest of the current crop of GOP presidential candidates trying — and failing — to beat their perennial front-runner.