South Carolina state of mind: Once an overwhelmingly Democratic state, now resolutely red

Donald Trump will this weekend make official during the Republican primary the advance polling that has him crushing Nikki Haley’s bid in her native state

Oh, it’s an intoxicating town all right, and not just in the obvious sense of the Super Bowl weekend boulevardiers coursing through the Saturday night delights of King Street or the gas-lit antebellum houses in shadow or the warm salt breeze present even in early February. Charleston is the historical and spiritual heart of what Nikki Haley habitually refers to as “my own sweet state of Carolina”.

Pat Conroy, who fabulated the place in The Prince of Tides declared that “South Carolina is not a state. It’s a cult.” South Carolina has a slew of names: the Palmetto state, the Swamp state, the Rice state. It’s where Rhett Butler vowed to return in Gone With the Wind. In more recent times, the Lowcountry has provided the lush, watery backdrop to the true crime series Murdaugh Murders: Deadly Dynasty, a dark story about heartbreak and privilege and family tradition all framed by an almost primal connection to the land.

South Carolina has a surfeit of golf courses and the famed long sand strip of Myrtle Beach, whose pleasure domes shuttered, and wind rattled in February. Its people are, as all advance brochures promise, extraordinarily friendly. (“I used to live here”, a woman at the Enterprise car desk told her attendant as he started gushing about the delights of Charleston. “I’m from here.” The young man looked at her slack-jawed. “Why ever did you leave?”)

It has its football, its literary credentials – James Dickey was a resident lecturer and celebrity at the University of South Carolina through the wild heights and slow decline; it has its eerie, lonesome plantation houses. South Carolina remains the origin point of the American civil war, with the ruins of Fort Sumter unmissable in Charleston harbour and Confederate monuments – although never flags now – still common across the state. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the United States, and the symbols and ghosts of that are everywhere.


In Charleston, in a park just off the French quarter, a plinth stands in tribute to key battles in the locality, written into stone: Sharpsburg. Seven Pines. Secessionville. The last of those was the Union army’s first and last attempt to lay claim to Charleston. Whatever about a cult, South Carolina is definitely of its own fiercely singular mind and voice.

“Well, it is where the South today really begins,” says Prof Thomas Brown, who has written and taught about the history of the South Carolina since arriving at the state’s namesake university in Columbia three decades ago. When explaining the place, Brown will sometimes describe a local basketball star who caused minor ructions by opting to play college ball elsewhere. Asked about his decision, the young man said: “I wanted to get out of the South.” But it wasn’t as though he’d gone to Boston or Wisconsin or the true north. He’d simply skipped across the state line to North Carolina.

“I always thought it was a revealing statement,” Brown says. “North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia have joined the middle Atlantic states. But South Carolina is still ‘The South’. And I think that people feel that quite consciously. There is none of that ambivalence that there is in Richmond and Charlotte. It is not just about tradition. This is not a battleground state. It’s a very red state, like the lower South.”

On Saturday night, Donald Trump makes official the advance polling that has him crushing Nikki Haley’s bid in her native state. Although she has campaigned vigorously and delivered sharpened criticisms of the favourite, the polls show the former president at 63 percentage points to Haley’s 31. A rout is on the cards.

From the outside, it seems odd that a state would react so indifferently to the campaign of a former governor. But South Carolina voted Trump in the presidential races of 2016 and 2020. It has been steadfastly Republican for 60 years apart from 1976, when Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford. South Carolina voted for for Bob Dole over Bill Clinton, for John McCain and Mitt Romney over Barack Obama; nobody or nothing the Democrats presented in recent decades has resonated with its voters. When John F Kennedy became president in 1960, South Carolina was a Democratic bastion, reliably blue since 1880. But they opted for Barry Goldwater over Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and apart from that Carter blip, it has been red since.

“The adage is that no Republican has ever been elected president of the United States without winning the first in the South primary,” says Andrew Boucher, an established Republican strategist and adviser.

“This is the ultimate test. It’s the proven ground and South Carolina presents a pretty good cross-section of what the Republican Party is around the country. This year is unique in that instead of being the beginning of a process, it might end up being the end of a process. Usually we are talking to three, four, five candidates still active and fighting it out. Here we are down to two.

“But it is a unique cycle because you have a former president running for the nomination once again. And he comes with a deep base of support. He has people who are working for him day and night and have been since 2015. He’s a unique personality and there’s an energy behind Trump that is rare in politics.

“In terms of Nikki Haley: at every stage in her political career, people have underestimated her. Nobody expected her to win the nomination in 2010. Nobody expected her to get elected. She had constantly defied the naysayers and pundits at every stage. This is something that South Carolina voters take seriously. They understand their role in the process. They understand they have the opportunity to play kingmaker. In a normal year, they have the opportunity to give someone a strong boost. This year, they have the opportunity to decide whether this race continues or not.”

Boucher’s office, in Charleston, contains fascinating paraphernalia from past elections and two wonderful photographs on his wall. The first is of Ronald Reagan, in a tuxedo, martini glass in hand. The other is a less glamorous shot of Calvin Coolidge, the oft-derided 1920s president (“How can they tell?” Dorothy Parker famously remarked when told he had died) who has become a sort of political ideal to Boucher.

“He is proof that sometimes the best thing to do for the country is as little as possible,” he laughs.

Boucher’s explanation for South Carolina’s conversion from true blue to true red is that the Democratic values deserted the state rather than the other way around.

“This was once an overwhelmingly Democratic state. But they were southern Democrats. I think if you go back to the 1960s and 1970s, when the Democrat party was perceived to be somewhat anti-American and didn’t have the same patriotic values as the Republican Party. And when Ronald Reagan comes in with this message of saying that America is the greatest country on the face of the earth: it resonated with people across the lines. It sapped away from the southern Democrats and added to the Republican Party. It really was the Reagan Revolution that created this.”

The pro-military message is one that Haley has loudly and persistently advocated through the example of her husband, Michael, a veteran who toured Afghanistan and is now posted in Africa. But her attempts to remind voters that Donald Trump has made cutting remarks about John McCain, a verified war hero, have not stuck. If the polls are accurate, it seems that while South Carolinians may politely make a show of hearing their former governor out, they just aren’t listening. Trump’s symbolic stunt of lining most of the state’s legislative power brokers behind him at a rally in New Hampshire in January made it clear where the smart money lies.

Trump’s message – a dark vision of a broken, ailing America that can be cured by him alone – may not have changed much in a decade. But it still gets through in a state that has a bit of an outlier in productivity and local wealth. The consequence of the rampaging march north from Savannah through the Carolinas by the Union army of William Tecumseh Sherman in the winter of 1865 was successful in its intent: the line he took his 60,000 troops correlates with the most impoverished belt within the state today.

The most concentrated underdevelopment is defined by the counties dissected by Interstate 95, the so-called Corridor of Shame, named after a documentary about the abysmal educational facilities and opportunities for children attending schools in some 17 counties. Hillary Clinton promised to make the issue a presidential priority during her 2016 campaign in South Carolina but couldn’t persuade enough to vote for her.

If South Carolina is thriving, it is because of its success as a tourist state and localised industry.

“It is booming in a particular way,” says Brown. “It is a big centre of growth in manufacturing. It is an anti-union state that got Boeing to set up a plant in Charleston and BMW and Michelin in the upstate have been here for 30 years. It is booming in terms of manufacturing. It is also booming in terms of retirees moving to the coast. Those are two big growth areas. It doesn’t have a dynamic tech sector or finance. If you think of those as the pillars of the post-industrial American economy, South Carolina doesn’t do those things. We do what Ohioans did in 1955. We make things.”

The other big reckoning for South Carolina has been its relationship to its strong roots in slavery and the civil war. The opening chapter of Brown’s 2015 book, Sites of Confederate Memory, is a vivid account of a late-night post-pub jape in which the author – a New Englander – climbs the rails into the graveyard of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral with his friend Ted Phillips, a local Charlestoner who wished to show him the resting place of those who featured in Mary Chesnut’s civil war diary. Brown and Phillips had been roommates at Harvard: in fact, they’d stayed in the same suite as Charles Sumner, the leading pre-civil war abolitionist who had lived in his final year in Harvard 160 years earlier.

“Ted was from South Carolina, and I was from Massachusetts. But he had never beaten me over the head with a cane,” Brown writes. “Perhaps the civil war was finally over.”

Perhaps. The physical and psychic presence of that war is inescapable in Charleston. But Brown believes that much has changed over the past decade.

“The civil war is kind of a medium through which the United States continues to work through all sorts of issues. There is a lot of political use of it; the political mobilisation of Confederate memory – keeping the flag on the dome of the state house. But the Emanuel massacre [when a white supremacist murdered nine worshippers at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 2015] changed everything. And it hit the political leadership class hard – one of the victims was a state senator and a pastor. It dramatised the history of SC [South Carolina] in [the] matter of race relations and gun control and legislation. The political response was to put it all on Confederate memory. And so, the flag came down on the state house. In some ways, that was the entire official response. But it marked a turning point.”

Eight years have passed since Dylann Roof walked into an evening Bible meeting in that church, was immediately welcomed as a stranger by the group inside and, after joining in the discussion, then shot and killed nine people with a handgun before leaving and driving away. The callous, random evilness of the murders stilled the country.

On the sunny, breezy Sunday morning of the Super Bowl, the profile of the 10 o’clock service in the church was similar to those at religious congregations everywhere. There was plenty of space in the pews and the worshippers belonged to more senior age categories. The exterior of the building, whitewashed and imposing, has been a fixture on Calhoun Street since the 1890s. But the interior is cool and welcoming, with red carpets and red cushioned pews and a local, joyous atmosphere.

The service, led by Pastor Eric Manning, who assumed the role after Clementa Pickney was killed in the massacre, took its own sweet time. For over two hours there was a lot of singing, laughter, reflection. President Biden spoke at the church in January during a campaign event. Outside the memorial to the nine murdered churchgoers is simple and elegant and to the few visitors who attended the service, it was obvious that while the church and congregation was changed by the events of that day, its members refuse to become defined or destroyed by it. It remains a gathering point of absolute welcome and happiness. It’s a remarkable place.

Much like South Carolina itself. In Charleston, the tourist season never stops and the experience is a strange combination of culinary excellence and complex history, with street tours offering varying perspectives on the antebellum years while the various museums – Thomas Ryan’s Old Slave Mart; Boone Hall, the plantation home where original slave cabins still exist and whose stately home thrives as a wedding venue and the McLeod plantation, on Folly Road, which offers a riveting and uncomfortable history of a surviving “big house” as told from the perspective of some of the “owned” people who passed through there – all grapple with a gargantuan set of themes. There are many voices to be heard in South Carolina.

This evening, the United States will watch as the results come in the first primary of the South, confirming that whatever South Carolinians feel they need will be best delivered by Mr Donald J Trump.

“I think his strongest draw is his pure defiance of the existing political order. His willingness to stand up to Washington DC, to the media, to the power structure and to simply not play by the rules,” says Andrew Boucher of Trump’s abiding grip on local sentiment.

“I don’t think it is unique to South Carolina. Conservatives and Republicans feel a certain sense of powerlessness against the media and big tech and the establishment on both sides of the aisle. They feel like their voices are not being heard. And Trump represents a strong, powerful and fearless voice. When he says, ‘I will fight for you’, people believe it.”

There is a certain hagiography to it where we like to tell ourselves stories of the past. Nobody is perfect

—  Andrew Boucher

Trump is a phenomenon. But when asked about what it means to be a Republican, Boucher has this to say: “The Democrats and liberal media love to paint the Republicans as two things. One is mean. And the other is uncool. And it is like a junior high approach to politics. Make the Republicans out to be a group you don’t want to be a party of.

“To be a Republican means you stand for individual liberty; that you stand for faith and family. That you stand for limited government, within the constitutional limits, and what government you do have should be as close to you as possible. So, the municipal government is the most important. Then the state government. And the federal government should be limited in its power and scope and have limited influence over our daily lives. And I think that will always be the case for the Republican Party.”

We chat for a while as the Friday home-time traffic begins to thicken outside and Boucher pauses for thought when asked about what seems to be a national desire among Republicans to recapture a sense of something lost: of gazing back at a better remembered period. That wish is surely particularly complex in the ongoing story of South Carolina.

“There is a certain hagiography to it where we like to tell ourselves stories of the past. Nobody is perfect,” he says quietly. “But. Yes. It is an interesting question, as to whether there is anything uniquely Republican about embracing the past.

“I do think that the Republican conservatism, almost by definition, includes respect for the past, for tradition, for the cultural narrative of the country. And that respect creates … almost the desire to take a look at who came before us. And at what we might be able to learn from them.”

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Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times