How a Rising Trump Critic Lost Her Nerve

Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina hoped to be the face of a post-Trump GOP. She soon learned there is no such thing.

Sketch of Nancy Mace smiling and wearing protective ear guards
Lauren Tamaki

Nancy Mace was on a mission to find a gun that would fit inside her purse. It was the first Friday in March, and we’d come to a shooting range in North Charleston to try out the Sig Sauer P365. She strode to a shooting lane, her high-heeled leather boots clomping across the concrete, slapped a magazine into the squat black pistol, and fired a few rounds at the human outline on the paper target in front of her. Most of the bullets seemed to hit the chest area. The sound made my teeth rattle. “Whoa,” I said. Mace adjusted the earmuffs resting on her long, perfectly wavy brown hair and smiled. “I came here after my divorce,” she said. “It was like therapy.”

Mace, who is 43, has always liked shooting—the deep concentration it requires, the way it allows her to focus her thoughts. But she hadn’t wanted to carry a firearm until December, when she says she started getting death threats. She’d just been elected to represent South Carolina’s First Congressional District, narrowly defeating Joe Cunningham, a moderate Democrat who’d flipped the district in the blue tsunami of 2018. She had also made clear that she would vote to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election. In response, a Republican constituent threatened on social media to shoot her. Right away, she told me, she applied for a concealed-carry permit; having a handgun handy might restore her “peace of mind.”

As we took turns shooting, brass cartridges skittered across the floor. “This is a nice little gun,” she remarked to the range instructor, before asking for advice on how she could more consistently hit the center of the target. “Don’t worry about that,” he told her. “You’re being a perfectionist.” After my visit, Mace bought the Sig Sauer—and a few other guns too.

In the four months since her election and the two months since her swearing in, Mace had been engaged in a series of course corrections as she tried to find her place in what she then assumed would be a post–Donald Trump GOP. In the run-up to November, she’d supported President Trump, but following the January 6 riot at the Capitol, she became that rare thing: a GOP lawmaker willing to publicly oppose him. Networks clamored to have her on TV, and in the days after January 6, she seemed to be everywhere. “[Trump’s] entire legacy was wiped out yesterday,” she told CNN the next morning, calling on her fellow Republicans to “rebuild” the party. When the Fox News host Neil Cavuto asked her whether she still believed that Trump had a future in the GOP, Mace replied: “I do not.”

Here, it seemed, was a Republican with a different kind of story, one who might be able to take the party in a new direction: She was a divorced mother of two, and had survived harassment and misogyny to become the first female cadet to graduate from the Citadel, South Carolina’s revered military college—displaying a grit that some observers were connecting to her political courage. “Mace,” enthused a columnist for Charleston’s The Post and Courier, “isn’t intimidated by a little hazing.”

But sometime between January and my visit in March, Mace appeared to have lost her nerve; she’d stopped criticizing her party and was again sounding all the notes required by a Trump-dominated GOP. Her evolution on the issue has mirrored that of other Republicans, including Trump allies such as Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham, who were sharply critical of the president after the insurrection, only to later back down. To observe Mace these past several months has been to watch in real time as a freshman Republican absorbs a few fundamental truths: Despite what Mace seems to have believed, most Republicans appear to have little appetite for nuance at the moment, let alone dissent. The base loves Trump as much as ever, and his allies are working to unseat anyone who fails to show fealty. There is no post-Trump GOP, not yet.

When our shooting session was up, Mace and I left the range for her next engagement: a fundraising luncheon with the former Trump acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. As we rode south toward downtown Charleston, past rows of palm trees and pastel buildings, she pointed out local sites, including a great spot for a skinny margarita. Then, turning to face me, she explained how excited she was. That afternoon she was going to pick up her Chevy Tahoe from the shop; she’d finally had it fixed, five months after someone had keyed “Fuck You” into one of its doors. The keyer could have been anyone, she said. That sounded about right: She has recently managed to alienate plenty of people across the political spectrum.

I had first met Mace earlier that morning, over breakfast at a Waffle House near the shooting range. When I walked in, she was easy to spot—the only person in the busy restaurant wearing mostly black clothing and a full face of makeup. After I sat down, she explained that she was on a no-carb diet, but would make an exception today. She’d chosen the restaurant for our interview, I assume, because she’d worked at one as a teenager—a fact that she seemed determined to emphasize by ordering very quickly. “Two eggs over medium with hash browns, smothered, capped, and spiced,” she said to the waitress. “What’s ‘spiced’?” the waitress asked. “Oh,” Mace said, “with peppers or jalapeños—I forget what you use.”

Mace enjoys having an audience, and when you’re with her, it’s easy to be captivated. She has a big laugh and a disarming tendency to overshare—not about politics but about more basic aspects of the human condition (bodily functions, say, or her weakness for margaritas). She also tends to drive the conversation toward the threats and traumas she’s endured, presumably to demonstrate her toughness. But why hasn’t that toughness translated into political resolve? In January, Mace had declared that Trump deserved much of the blame for the Capitol riot, so it seemed reasonable to expect her to vote for his impeachment. She didn’t. Instead, she said she preferred to censure the president, a feint that allowed her to pretend that she was holding Trump to account—even though no serious censure effort was under way. In the end, only 10 House Republicans supported impeachment.

Nancy Mace holding a microphone
Michael Ciaglo / Getty

By February, Mace was picking high-profile Twitter fights, and over the next few months her team would blast out press releases decrying antifa and Democrats’ efforts to “defund the police.” I wondered: Was she trying to change the subject? Was she hoping to regain some credibility in her party? I brought up a particularly bitter exchange with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that had gone viral, in which Mace accused the New York progressive of exaggerating the danger she’d been in during the Capitol riot. The move earned her a six-minute spot on Hannity, where she attacked Ocasio-Cortez some more, and a segment on Fox News Radio, in which, without apparent irony, she lamented the “Jerry Springer Show” state of American politics. Since then, Mace has appeared on Fox News several times a month to riff on a selection of partisan talking points.

Her clash with AOC was, Mace told me, a result of the fact that she is an independent thinker. Her harsh words for Trump afforded her “the moral authority” to criticize Democrats, she said: “Because I held my party accountable, [I can] hold the left accountable.” But when I asked Mace whether she still believed that the events of January 6 should disqualify Trump from further involvement in the Republican Party, as she’d said so plainly in January, she equivocated. “It was the day, the time, the place, and the message. All that. And the rhetoric—and it was rhetoric from multiple people, multiple entities, organizations, individuals leading up to that moment that led to this horrific event that day on our nation’s Capitol,” she replied.

As we finished our breakfast and got ready to leave, a bearded man in the booth behind us caught Mace’s attention. He was thin and wore a baseball cap. “You’re Nancy Mace?” he asked. Mace, who half an hour before had been describing various threats against her, looked slightly alarmed. “Yes, sir,” she replied. “Is that okay with you?”

“It is with me. I’m a Republican!” the man said with a chuckle. Mace exhaled. “Baby, I love you!” she said.

It would be hard to come up with a tougher test of willpower than the one Mace received at the Citadel. She was not the first woman to attend: Shannon Faulkner, who waged a long legal battle for admission, preceded her in 1995, but left the school after experiencing unrelenting harassment, not only by cadets but by members of the public. (Popular in Charleston at the time were anti-Faulkner T-shirts reading 1,952 bulldogs and 1 bitch.) As Mace recounts in her memoir, In the Company of Men: A Woman at The Citadel, she endured more of the same when she enrolled in the fall of 1996: Students at the school called her a “dyke” and a “whore” and vowed to keep her from graduating; members of the crowd harassed her at football games; someone wrote, “GO HOME, BITCH” on her bedroom door in shaving cream.

Mace had grown up hearing stories of the Citadel from her father, one of the school’s most decorated graduates. His reminiscences were fond but didn’t exactly paint a rosy portrait. As Mace recounts, they included some rather brutal incidents; once, she writes, her dad shut an insufficiently deferential freshman cadet in a room with an alligator. But in spite of these stories—or maybe because of them—she was obsessed with proving that she could make it through. The summer before she started, she trained so hard for the physical fitness exams that she ended up outperforming all but four men in her battalion. More than anything, Mace dreaded failure: “I would have to face that fear,” she writes, “or I would spend the rest of my life running from risks.” When, on May 8, 1999, she became the first female cadet to graduate from the Citadel, she made headlines around the country; an Associated Press photo from that day shows the 21-year-old grinning like a young Julia Roberts.

You can draw a pretty straight line from that person—the Nancy Mace who survived the Citadel—to the Nancy Mace who responded to December’s death threats by growing more stridently anti-Trump. Maybe she believed that her constituents would share her alarm at the president’s behavior in January. Her district, which runs along South Carolina’s coast from Charleston to Hilton Head, is a somewhat swingy place—more socially moderate and environmentally conscious than most GOP districts—and she’d just been elected on a campaign platform that didn’t line up neatly with those of her Republican peers.

To be clear, she hadn’t exactly shied away from Trumpism during her campaign: In ads, she promised to build the wall and condemned “arson, looting, and anarchy” in a reference to the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. To elect her was to guarantee that Trump “will have an ally in Congress,” she assured her constituents. Still, she hasn’t embraced either Trumpism or her party’s policies across the board: While serving in the statehouse and in Congress, she’s supported bipartisan conservation legislation and criminal-justice-reform bills. “You will see me drop cannabis legislation too,” she volunteered in the car after breakfast.

But in trying to establish herself as a born-again Trump critic, Mace had clearly made a miscalculation: State and local party leaders complained about her in local papers. One constituent wrote a letter to the editor saying she felt betrayed by Mace; another person called into Rush Limbaugh’s show to say she was furious at the congresswoman. South Carolinians ranted about Mace on Facebook, and right-wing blogs published takedowns of her. At least one Republican has already promised to challenge her from the right in 2022, and Team Trump is said to be recruiting other primary contenders. Despite her district’s sometimes moderate inclinations, winning reelection will require first winning the Republican primary—and in South Carolina, that’ll be hard to do without embracing Trump. Mace appears to have realized this.

Earlier this summer, Mace posted photos to Twitter showing the sidewalk in front of her home covered in graffiti. The scrawled messages included a fairly straightforward “Fuck you, Nancy” but also the deep-cut anarchist phrase “No gods, no masters.” (Some Twitter users were quick to allege an inside job: One tweeted photos of Mace’s handwriting, while others pointed out that the culprit seemed to have targeted the parts of Mace’s property that would be easiest to powerwash. Mace has denied vandalizing her own home.) It’s not clear who was behind the graffiti; authorities are still investigating. What is clear is that Mace saw an opportunity to score political points and ran with it. Her campaign used the vandalism as an excuse to send out a fundraising email. In an interview with Sean Hannity, she vowed never to back down from her beliefs: “We’re seeing the left burn, loot, and destroy our cities and our property,” she said. She posted to Instagram a video of herself stress-eating a Twinkie, and a photo of herself at a gun shop. “Buying another firearm,” she captioned it. “Feeling safer today than yesterday.”

Two months after we met in Charleston, I caught up with Mace at her office on Capitol Hill. She had a tight schedule that afternoon, with a TV appearance sandwiched between two floor votes, so I hung around in the background while she held a Zoom meeting, then I trailed behind as staffers ushered her down to the parking lot. “You’re going to vote no, then do Fox News, then vote no again,” an aide reminded her while we walked.

I was visiting Mace again because House Republicans had just voted to expel Representative Liz Cheney from her role as conference chair, and I wanted to know how she had voted. Cheney had been one of the most prominent Republicans to criticize Trump’s stolen-election lies, and as the months went on, she’d shown no signs of dropping the matter. And so, in what amounted to a purge of anti-Trump leadership, the caucus had removed Cheney by voice vote and replaced her with Elise Stefanik of New York, a Trump ally.

We piled into a staffer’s SUV and drove Mace to the Capitol building, just in time for Mace to vote against a bill addressing pandemic-related anti-Asian hate crimes, then we hopped back into the car and drove to a TV studio half a mile away. When we arrived, a producer ushered her away, and I settled into a chair next to her communications director to watch from the green room. At the time, Democratic House leadership was still requiring even vaccinated members to wear masks on the chamber floor, and Mace had been invited on Fox to vent her frustration, which she was happy to do. “Everyone says follow the science, but the science obviously isn’t following the politics of Nancy Pelosi,” Mace told the host. Pelosi, she concluded, was “virtue signaling.”

Following the TV segment, and another no vote, Mace and I found a quiet hallway in which to talk. I asked whether she’d supported Cheney. She looked as though she would rather be anywhere else, talking about anything else. “I voted to have a change in leadership that day,” she told me. Constant criticism of the former president, Mace continued, was contributing to “enormous division” in the GOP. “We’re very good at attacking one another and doing it in public,” she said. Mace was ready for the party to turn its ire toward Democrats—and away from Trump. “I just want to be done with that,” she said. “I want to move forward.”

By early July, Cheney had accepted a position on the House select committee investigating the Capitol insurrection. Mace, who’d voted against establishing an inquiry into the riot, was lambasting critical race theory on social media. She just wanted to be done with January 6. She wanted to move forward.