What a strange possibility to consider. Not only did South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford, the former governor of "Appalachian trail" fame, lose the Republican nomination to a primary challenger endorsed by President Trump, his seat, once considered so safe for Republicans that it was entrusted to a man whose name became synonymous with lying in office, might even swing to a Democrat in November.
It is, in its way, even stranger than the fact that Sanford managed to hold on to a political career that ought, by rights, to have ended nearly a decade ago. There has never been a more candid political book than Barton Swaim's memoir of his time working for Sanford as a speechwriter. For a man who has distinguished himself from his colleagues by relentlessly criticizing President Trump, Sanford has been known to exhibit something like his nemesis' all-consuming egotism. After the news of his infidelity broke in 2009, Sanford compared his plight to that of a Holocaust survivor: "It's incredible to me how you can find beauty, how you can find reasons to keep going, in the most appalling circumstances." It is difficult to understand why this man was ever elected again to any office higher than road commissioner.
Sanford is a holdover in more ways than one. The GOP that is attempting to win a midterm election next month on a platform of immigration restriction and vague appeals to the president's singular personal charisma would be unrecognizable to the Tea Party congressmen of 2010 and the unapologetic constitutionalist philosophy of which he was once among the leading prophets. More so than perhaps any politician of our time, with the possible exception of Ron Paul, Sanford once embodied the ethos of fusionist conservatism that has defined the Republican Party in the post-Nixon era.
For all his foibles, it can never be said that Sanford did not believe the things he stood for. He was a penny pincher not only in office (he once brought live hogs to a debate on the floor of the South Carolina legislature to make a point about pork-barrel spending) but in his personal life, giving away his old clothes as Christmas gifts to members of his staff. He made his name in the '90s arguing that Social Security was inherently unstable and should be replaced by private investment. He voted against projects that stood to benefit his own state, including funding for the restoration of Charles Harbor. He was rated the most fiscally conservative member of Congress by the Cato Institute during his first tenure in office. He saw himself as a citizen-statesman in the mold of the Founding Fathers rather than as a mere politician.
All of this now seems as quaint as Rockefeller Republicanism or the Bull Moose Party. The endless talk of budget slashing and benefit chopping and tax cutting has been replaced with Trumpism, which is a kind of white identity politics rather than a coherent set of principles. The hard line on immigration that the president has made the cornerstone of his appearances on behalf of GOP congressional candidates was once a fringe position in the party of Ronald Reagan, something more usually associated with labor unions and blue-collar Democrats in the Midwest.
What has become of the appetite for small-government conservatism? This is a question that many of President Trump's critics in his own party have spent more than two years attempting to make sense of. Have millions of voters simply changed their minds about everything from free trade to the deficit to the proper role of the United States in world affairs? This is unlikely. The more obvious answer is that, regardless of what they meant to those espousing them, for Republican voters of the last decade and a half loose talk about "welfare" and "government spending" and "the 47 percent" was welcomed not out of a sincere devotion to the principles of classical liberal political economy but as scapegoating.
This is not to suggest that the Republican Party is no longer pursuing its old agenda — consider last year's unpopular round of tax cuts. But it does mean that the GOP now understands at some level that it owes its success both today and in the past not to the popularity of Goldwaterite ideology or dumbed-down Heritage Foundation talking points but rather to its ability to speak the language of envy, resentment, and exclusion to voters who stand to gain very little from the policies they will effect.
In this sense, Trump is not the destroyer of the old Tea Party Republicanism but its perfect fulfillment. Mark Sanford is a dinosaur now because, who, whatever faults, made the mistake of actually believing the old clichés. There are, I suppose, worse mistakes to be made in politics.