The curious case of a Trumpist Republican who turned on Trump
I don't know what to do with Tom Rice. He's the Republican who represents the 7th Congressional District of South Carolina in the US House of Representatives, a man I've interviewed and disagreed with heartily, a man who once felt compelled to call my editor to complain. In my role as lead columnist for the only daily newspaper in our region, I argued, mockingly, why he should not have been re-elected. He didn't like that and told my boss. I didn't like what he did in Congress and I told him. But he's one of only 10 Republican members of the House to have voted in favor of impeaching Donald Trump, which I know was the right thing to do.
I live in the 7th district though I commute to work as a journalism professor in North Carolina. Every now and again, I bump into Rice at Magnolia's, a country buffet restaurant in Myrtle Beach popular with locals. I was there when we were still part of the 1st District, which we shared with Charleston and produced the likes of Tim Scott and Mark Sanford. I was there when Rice won the newly-created 7th for the first time against a Democratic opponent whom I believed was more qualified. I remember Rice having to wade through a GOP primary that included opponents who were more staunchly Tea Party than he was.
That takes a level of political courage I simply did not believe he was capable of exhibiting. But I can't forget all that came before that vote. It would be like praising the arsonist for putting out the blaze after half the house went up in smoke.
I remember Rice during his early years in office when he tried to make a name for himself by signing onto a Republican House attempt to sue the Obama administration for how it implemented the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act, better known as Obamacare, even though Rice knew like I knew that resisting that law meant losing out on billions of dollars, an estimated 44,000 potential jobs in our state and guaranteed maybe a quarter million of struggling South Carolinians would go without health insurance. I was there when Rice went on Fox News and C-Span talking about "King Obama." That's why I was not surprised when Rice voted against certifying Joe Biden's election victory even after a bloody insurrection that left at least five people dead and scores of others injured. I didn't expect any better from him. That's why I was gobsmacked when he changed course and decided to hold Trump accountable for his role in one of our democracy's darkest days of the 21st century.
I still don't know why he did it. In my county, Trump received more than two-thirds of the vote. Twice. Here, we are in the heart of Trumpland, where worship of Trump in some quarters rivals the worship of Jesus Christ. For much of his term, Rice used that to his advantage. He either looked the other way when confronted with Trump's awfulness, his bigotry and racism and cruelty and incompetence and corruption. Or he mildly chided him, but never falling out of line enough to evoke the wrath of Trump fans in the area, who are plentiful—and loud. He and Trump-worshipping voters here were in perfect alignment. That's why they were as shocked as I when he voted to impeach.
That's why the South Carolina Republican Party censured him, he's likely to face a primary challenge next year, and his office had to field thousands of angry calls after his vote. He knew all of that was possible, if not guaranteed, if he dared step out of line. But he did it anyway. That takes a level of political courage I simply did not believe he was capable of exhibiting. I must be honest about that. But I can't forget all that came before that vote. It would be like praising the arsonist for putting out the blaze after half the house went up in smoke.
Because of that, I don't know what to do with him. I can't bring myself to vote for him, given his record and what I know he'll stand for if given yet another term in Congress. But neither will I be happy if an even more right-wing politician takes him out during the primary and wins the general next November. It feels like a lose-lose proposition. I suspect I'm going to feel the same as more former Trump apologists stop apologizing for him. I'd rather have to grapple with that dilemma, though, than watch them never come back to sanity.
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