Tim Scott's Republican National Convention Speech Wows

Senator Tim Scott speaks to the largely virtual 2020 Republican National Convention in a live address from the Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C., August 24, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The first night of the RNC belonged to Tim Scott.


he first night of the Republican National Convention was middling at best until Tim Scott took the stage at the end. The production value of the event far outstripped the Democratic National Convention last week, but much of the broadcast was transparently aimed at pleasing an audience of one — the president.

Viewers tuning in to see whether or not the Republicans are still a serious political party four years after nominating Donald Trump will not have been impressed by the organizers’ decision to have Charlie Kirk open the proceedings. Kirk introduced the president as the “defender of Western civilization.” Before anyone rushes to take this designation seriously, it should be noted that the speaker in question isn’t exactly a world-renowned academic authority where Western civilization is concerned. Natalie Harp had a wonderful story to tell about right-to-try and medical freedom, but that story was difficult to discern at times through the torrent of messianic savior-worship she constantly and cringingly rained down upon the president in the second person. But Kimberly Guilfoyle took this to a whole new level. If her speech had appeared in an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, both the writer and the actress in question would have been justly lampooned for straw-manning conservative women.

There were, however, a few glittering moments interspersed among the standard Trumpian fare. Kimberly Klacik, the Republican congressional candidate for Maryland’s seventh district, spoke well about the longstanding failure of the Democrats to govern big cities effectively. As Rudy Giuliani aptly demonstrated in a former life, Republicans are traditionally excellent at running large urban centers and it’s a shame that voters don’t let them do it more. It was also a great decision by the RNC to have Catalina and Madeline Lauf speak towards the end of the proceedings. They’re exactly the kind of voters that the Republican Party should be chasing in the years to come: young, entrepreneurial, patriotic, and racially diverse.

But the evening belonged to Tim Scott. More than any speech in recent Republican history, his address last night revived and redeployed the spirit of Ronald Reagan, a spirit that has been dormant in the GOP during the Trump era. The politics of doom-mongering and “American carnage,” which dominated most of the evening, gave way during his speech to a story of ebullient optimism. The rhetorical tact of the GOP this election cycle has been to present the opposition as an imminent threat and danger to the American way of life. But Scott presented the Democrats not so much as threatening as simply unappealing. His message was not, “The barbarians are at the gates” but, “Why would we choose the thin gruel the Democrats are offering over the bountiful feast of American freedom that our ancestors toiled to prepare for us?”

This message was doubly powerful because it was directed especially at African Americans. Tearing up as he spoke about the life of his grandfather, Scott celebrated the fact that his family went “from cotton to Congress in one lifetime.” The story of racial progress that the senator told during his speech is a radically different alternative to the one offered up by Black Lives Matter. Instead of black people rising up against an inherently evil American state to expunge the polity that enslaved them, Scott’s story is one in which the better angels of our national nature are continually bringing light into the darkest recesses of the American soul with the passing of the years. He is living proof of this racial progress, as he proclaimed in his speech last night. A majority-white electorate in Charleston, S.C., the crucible of the confederacy, sent Scott, a black son of a single-parent home, to Congress.

Perhaps the most interesting line in the speech, however, came when Scott was speaking about the man who mentored him. “He taught me that having an income could change my lifestyle, but creating a profit could change my community.” How many conservative politicians make this rhetorical connection between capitalism and community, between profit and social solidarity?

This is an economic parlance that speaks of entrepreneurship and localism as the twin-propellers of human, as well as economic, capital in America. It’s manifested in the “opportunity zones” initiative that Scott touted in his speech, and it’s a welcome alternative to the “common-good capitalism” that politicians such as Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio are peddling.

In a way, this speech was similar to the one Reagan gave at the Republican nominating convention for Barry Goldwater in 1964. It wasn’t nearly as good as that speech (you can count the speeches in American history that were on one hand), but there’s a similar impression left on the viewer that while the message is exactly right for the moment, the current nominee won’t be able to deliver on it. You just can’t pour Tim Scott wine into Trumpian wineskins. The president has neither the optimism, nor the credibility on racial issues, nor the competence to herald morning in America. His politics belong to the foreboding and uncertain darkness of the night. But whatever the result of November’s election, “Tim Scott 2024” could prove to be an irresistible proposition for American voters next time around.

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