In a world where elected Republicans were not terrified of the most extreme elements of their base, the response to Representative Lauren Boebert’s open Islamophobia would have been swift public condemnation. We do not live in that world.
Kevin McCarthy, the leader of the House Republicans, has not denounced Boebert’s comments comparing Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota to a suicide bomber. He knows that scolding her could anger the base, divide his caucus, and threaten his dream of someday being crowned speaker of the House. Other congressional Republicans recognize this reality too, which is why so few of them denounced Boebert’s “jihad squad” comments or Representative Paul Gosar’s creepy video in which he murders an anime version of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. So far, only a handful of Republican lawmakers have explicitly condemned these incidents, including two well-known Trump critics: Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who’s retiring in the face of a primary challenge, and Liz Cheney of Wyoming, whose home-state Republican Party no longer recognizes her as a member.
Another was freshman Republican Nancy Mace. On CNN this week, the South Carolina lawmaker called Boebert’s rhetoric “disgusting.” Two weeks ago, she told MSNBC that Gosar’s video was “reprehensible” (though she did not vote to censure him). Mace is not exactly a member of the anti-Trump caucus; her position in the GOP ecosystem is harder to nail down. After the January 6 Capitol riot, Mace said that Donald Trump had no future in the Republican Party. She quickly backed away from that position, though, and has spent the rest of the year engaging in petty fights with Ocasio-Cortez, shouting about antifa, and going on Fox News to riff on GOP talking points. This summer, Mace voted to oust Liz Cheney from her leadership position after Cheney was critical of Trump. In the past few months, Mace has seemed to accept the reality that not only is there a role for Trump in her party, but also that he is still its unrivaled leader.
Mace, in other words, appeared to have fallen back in line. So why, then, has she chosen to help police her party’s most Trumpian figures? I asked her office and didn’t hear back. But knowing the answer to this question could help illuminate why so few Republicans have taken the kinds of risks that she has. I profiled Mace in July, and I’ve followed her career closely. She could have any number of motivations, but my reporting points to one in particular.
It’s possible that Mace is genuinely disgusted by Boebert’s anti-Muslim comments. Perhaps her gut reaction was to address them head-on. Sometimes politicians do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. That same impulse could be what drove Mace to criticize Trump after January 6, before she seemed to change her mind.
More cynically, Mace might see some sort of political benefit here. Her district, which runs from Charleston to Hilton Head, isn’t quite as conservative as the rest of South Carolina. Her voters are a bit more socially moderate and environmentally conscious, and Mace ran on a platform that didn’t line up neatly with that of her Republican peers. She might have figured that the voters in her district would be turned off by Boebert’s Islamophobia, and that they would give her credit for calling it out. Inserting herself in Twitter spats is probably good for fundraising too: Mace’s condemnation of Boebert has already been retweeted by at least one Democratic legislator, who held up her tweet as an example of a GOP lawmaker “caught being good” and recommended that people read Mace’s book. In the coming weeks, Mace might see an ensuing increase in donations. She’s already expecting at least one primary challenge next year, so she needs all the financial help she can get.
Feel free to believe either of those theories. But something else could also be at work here. Mace is charismatic, smart, and ambitious, and it must be disheartening for her to be constantly overshadowed by colleagues who traffic in racism and conspiracy theories about Jewish space lasers. It must be exhausting, having to fight for attention while people like Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene become the new faces of the American right. Getting involved in this beef—or any beef—is perhaps the best way for Nancy Mace to get her name out there. Conflict makes for good stories; it attracts the attention of TV producers and Atlantic editors. Throwing punches is a good way for a neglected politician to get ahead. Mace would be far from the first politician to have recognized this.
Mace’s political evolution has been difficult to track. She cannot be perfectly categorized as a “moderate” Republican, nor as a“pro-Trump” member. But one thing seems clear: She recognizes that “that the Republican base wants AOC-type celebrities in office,” one South Carolina GOP consultant told me earlier this year. A Republican commentator from her home state told me that he wished Mace would keep her head down. “You have the option of not being available for comment or [not] taking their call,” he said. “She seems to be addicted to the cable-news scene.” A local Democratic strategist told me that he’d rarely seen a lawmaker positioning themselves so openly for a shot at stardom. “She wants to grow her list and go on TV every day and raise money and sell books.” She isn’t thinking about staying in the House, he said. “She’s thinking about what’s next.” Mace’s decision to participate in my July profile of her is more evidence for this theory. Most politicians don’t agree to spend time with reporters, let alone go to the gun range with them, unless they see some sort of advantage to doing so. A politician who grants that sort of access to a reporter may not like the resulting story, but when you’re a freshman member of Congress who wants to be well-known, all publicity is good publicity.
Maybe in the end, Mace’s motive for calling out Boebert and Gosar’s bad behavior doesn’t matter; maybe everyone should appreciate the simple fact that she is doing it. But if you’re looking for hopeful signs that the Republican caucus has grown more willing to crack down on its most extreme members, Mace’s critiques of her peers are not compelling evidence.