Tim Scott’s Audience of One

Tim Scott relies on the coded notion of “personal responsibility” to shift the burden of society’s failures onto the individual.
Tim Scott relies on the coded notion of “personal responsibility” to shift the burden of society’s failures onto the individual. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

It’s hard for me to resist mocking Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is allegedly very good at local politics—he did win re-election by nearly twenty points—but whose national political instincts are frequently confused. How else to explain his creative but predictably disastrous decision to make his big I’m-running-for-president announcement on the audio-only compilation of unforced errors that is Elon Musk’s Twitter? 

Musk, often rightly lauded as a pioneer in futuristic technologies, has also managed to drag his personal plaything of a media platform into the past, undoing advertiser relationships, rolling back the clock on efforts to combat spam and disinformation, and dragging DeSantis into what was essentially a broken radio broadcast. That’s fitting for a politician who is himself unwinding progress in his home state in terms of access to reproductive healthcare, and who is leading his constituency down the Orwellian road of banning books and limiting speech. (For more thoughtful thoughts on this weak moment in media flexing, listen to my Puck colleagues Jon Kelly and Dylan Byers discuss the repercussions on The Powers That Be.)

But the presidential announcement that affected me most viscerally was that of South Carolina Senator Tim Scott. He also had audio problems during his announcement—maybe the right should stop whining about free speech and start checking their audio cables. Scott’s microphone went dead for nearly a minute right after he said “America is not a nation.” Awkward! If DeSantis’s campaign energy is confused, Scott’s is aggressively hopeful to the point of discomfort. He wants you to know that he loves America, hard! His speech sporadically indulged in moments of intense yelling, church preaching, and laughter, all delivered with a big smile. 

Scott, the one Black Republican in the Senate, leans heavily on his own story of triumph in the face of difficult childhood circumstances. In 2021, he gave the Republican response to Biden’s first joint congressional address, and used that opportunity to boldly proclaim that “America is not a racist nation.” But his evidence is simply that he, a Black man, is a senator. It’s as if he’s learned nothing from the post-racial fallacy of President Obama’s rise. In his announcement this week, he reprised this simplistic argument, telling us that America can’t be racist because he brought out his mother (Black) and his mentor’s wife (white), and gave them both flowers of gratitude for helping raise him. If America is so racist, he implies, how can this white woman and this Black woman both be friends and part of his life?

In one of many variations on this theme, Scott said, “Today I’m living proof that America is the land of opportunity and not the land of oppression.” What he can’t seem to fathom is the notion that America can be multiple things at the same time: that it can be deeply racist in many of its institutions, but it can also allow for extraordinary feats of triumph against the odds. He can’t accept the validity of an experience that is different from his own, nor does he acknowledge the well-established and undeniable statistics related to income and wealth inequality and racial disparities. His sole refutation of these truths revolves around a single data point: his own life. 

Scott relies on the coded notion of “personal responsibility” to shift the burden of society’s failures onto the individual, with the implication being that if you don’t overcome the historical structures designed to limit your life, you simply haven’t tried hard enough. In an astounding moment during his campaign launch, he honored a childhood mentor by recalling a particularly deranged bit of advice. The mentor told him, “Look in the mirror, and blame yourself.” Scott seems to think this is excellent advice! He went on to explain to the audience that, in his own life, he proudly “chose personal responsibility over resentment,” suggesting his binary view of the world. Either you are personally and solely responsible for your own advancement, or you are a bitter and resentful person. 

We should know by now that such simple binaries, whether applied to concepts of gender, quantum physics, or notions of morality, are specious at best—and dangerous at worst. I am, myself, open to the argument that merely being critical of America does not unlock the greatest opportunities for the greatest number of people. But the answer isn’t uncritical and ahistorical celebration, either. I can celebrate this country while also acknowledging its many deficits out of a desire to make it better for more of us. 

Scott should know this, too: He famously attempted, with Senator Cory Booker, to get some form of police reform passed, and succeeded in leading the effort to pass anti-lynching legislation where those attempts had failed 200 times before. But as a presidential candidate, Scott feels stuck in time. He has a beautiful smile and warm disposition, which is a relief from the crankiness and dystopian perspective of Donald Trump. But his beaming, high-energy persona is a thin mask over a false, fantasy view of America. 

He speaks flowingly of choosing “greatness over grievance” when he’s on his anti-woke tirades. He’s clearly proud of himself for suggesting that schools teach “More ABC and less C.R.T.,” but schools aren’t teaching critical race theory, and his grievance over grievances is only directed at “the radical left,” while leaving no room to acknowledge that his own political party is entirely fueled by grievance. Today’s G.O.P. complains about drag queens and LGBTQ+ characters in books; it whines about free speech while freely speaking; it has implicitly (and in some cases explicitly) co-signed violent insurrection and seditious conspiracy as an acceptable way to handle electoral dissatisfaction. So it’s impossible to take seriously someone ostensibly launching an optimistic, future-focused presidential campaign when that person is mostly just complaining about complaining. 

Scott blames Biden for our fentanyl addiction, while he himself is silent about our gun violence addiction. He is so personally in love with his own story of overcoming that he can’t accept the possibility that he’s an exception to an increasingly cruel general rule, where life expectancy is declining and wealth inequality is high. With such an incomplete diagnosis of America’s ills, I cannot take his prescription—tighten the border, bring God back to public life, unleash more fossil fuels—at face value. Scott is too in love with an America that doesn’t exist, and he takes personally any criticism of it. “I cannot stand by while this is done to America,” he said at one point during his campaign announcement. “She’s done too much for me!” 

Me, me, me. That’s all Scott can see. He reminds me of those who defend abusers by saying, “Well, he never attacked me!” instead of entertaining the possibility that this person could be good to you and horrible to others. But in what I want to believe is a hidden message embedded in the opening moments of his announcement speech, Scott took to the stage to the sounds of “Burn Rubber on Me (Why You Wanna Hurt Me)” by The Gap Band. We often ignore the lyrics of songs we enjoy, and Scott did the same, bounding around the stage, acknowledging playfully that he’s not a good dancer. But paying attention to the words, you can hear the band’s lead singer Charlie Wilson plead with a lover who has left him: “I never, ever had a lover who put the pedal to the metal and burn rubber on me / You told me to go up the block and get you a strawberry pop / When I got back to the flat, you had burned rubber out the back.” Wilson, who wrote the song, repeats this line most often: “Just because you’re not for real, Why you wanna hurt me, girl?”

The America that Scott pines for is not for real. His America is a simplistically “good” country, where his own success is replicable if you simply choose to be better and not bitter. But that vision of America will abandon the rest of us because she’s not whole, and we should abandon Scott just as quickly as the lover in Wilson’s song. Meanwhile, I hope Scott takes the time to listen more carefully to the lyrics being sung in this country. We could use a big smile and a dose of optimism, but only from someone who loves the real us.