Tim Scott stood in front of a row of American flags in a stately, COVID-emptied Washington, D.C., auditorium, talking about family. The South Carolina Republican explained that his grandfather, who grew up in the segregated South and never learned to read or write, had to cross the street if a white person was passing his way. Scott leaned to the left to represent the discrimination his grandfather suffered. His eyes pierced the camera. “Our family went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime,” the senator told viewers on the first night of the 2020 Republican National Convention. “That’s why I believe the next American century can be better than the last.”
Much of Scott’s speech, measured and searching, would not have seemed out of place at the Republican National Conventions in 2004, 2008, or 2012—before President Donald Trump seized control of the party. The senator’s sedate address sparked speculation that he may hope to ascend to the White House himself after Trump leaves office. “Tim Scott 2024!” Trey Gowdy, the former South Carolina congressman who co-wrote a book with Scott, tweeted. A similar performance from Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who served as Trump’s first UN ambassador, triggered a similar reaction. “Nikki Haley walks in tonight as the probable GOP front runner in 2024,” tweeted Ari Fleischer, who served as President George W. Bush’s first press secretary.
But if Scott’s hope comes from his family’s story, many in his party have put their faith in a different family. An hour before Scott took the podium, Kimberly Guilfoyle, the Trump campaign’s finance chair and the eldest Trump son’s partner, was shown in front of those same American flags, shaking her head. “Just take a look at California: It is a place of immense wealth, immeasurable innovation, and immaculate environment. And the Democrats turned it into a land of discarded needles in parks, riots in streets, and blackouts in homes,” Guilfoyle said. She raised her fists to the sky and her voice to a yell as she proclaimed that the only way to avoid this dystopian hellscape spreading across the country was four more years of a Trump administration. “The best is yet to come!”
Thirty-five minutes later, Guilfoyle’s boyfriend, Donald Trump Jr., bounded onto the stage. He approached the lectern and spoke with his hands, punctuating sentences by rocking side to side. “Joe Biden and the radical left are now coming for our freedom of speech,” he said. “They want to bully us into submission. If they get their way, it will no longer be the silent majority. It will be the silenced majority.”
Scott and Haley spoke late in the night, during the hour that broadcast networks aired the convention, which suggests that the event’s organizers wanted a broad universe of potential voters to hear the two speakers. But in tone and content, both spoke to the fringes of the president’s coalition—the Republicans who need to be persuaded to hold their nose and vote for Trump, the Republicans and independents who might not vote for him at all. Haley and Scott may be effective messengers, and they may help Trump win. They’re not necessarily the future of his party, though.
Many Republicans like Scott and Haley, traditional politicians who focused on expanding opportunity, lowering taxes, and bringing the country together, ran against Trump in 2016. They all lost. And the Republican base doesn’t even prefer their less combative political style within the Trump family. In public appearances and carefully managed relationships with the media, Ivanka Trump has long tried to soften the president’s most inflammatory rhetoric, to distance herself from his most unpopular policies. But as my colleague McKay Coppins has written, Don Jr., who imitates the president’s language and manner, has become his father’s “most skilled warm-up act” and most natural political successor. Way-too-early polls of the 2024 Republican primary tend to show Don Jr. well ahead of Ivanka in the race for the nomination.
Last night, Don Jr. pinched his index finger and his thumb together as he steered into fear. “Anarchists have been flooding our streets and Democrat mayors are ordering the police to stand down. Small businesses across America, many of them minority-owned, are being torched by mobs,” he warned. But, he told viewers, it didn’t have to be that way. “It starts by rejecting radicals who want to drag us into the dark and embracing the man who represents a bright and beautiful future for all.” The embrace of Trump is a complete and lasting one—and no one gives tighter hugs than family.