Speaking to Vanity Fair this spring, South Carolina Representative Nancy Mace made the case that she was the last real Republican. Her caucus, she said, was overrun with fire-breathing, MAGA-hat-wearing vandals and governed by leaders who were either too inept or too stupid to rein them in. “I am a Republican, but I am a caucus of one,” Mace said in March. It was a point she returned to again and again, using an array of clichés. “It’s been a very lonely start to the year,” she said. “I represent a district of islands, but I literally feel up here on the Hill that I am living on an island alone. And it is very lonely.” She added that she wanted to “rein in some of the craziness that is happening.” She wanted to save her party, but she was being drowned out. “I feel like a unicorn also,” she said in the same interview, driving home the same point for roughly the twentieth time.
Mace has been remarkably successful at selling herself to the media as a different type of Republican: a moderate one, an independent one, maybe even a throwback to an era before the party went crazy (whenever that was). Around the same time as the Vanity Fair profile, The New York Times described Mace as “a fiscal conservative [who] leans toward the center on some social issues” in a piece headlining her attempt to “change her party” that generally portrayed her as a reasonable maverick in a party gone mad. This is unsurprisingly how Mace describes herself—over and over again—in interviews.
“I’m trying to show how you can bring conservatives and independents along to be on the same page,” Mace told the Times. “Americans want us to work together. That’s not what’s happening. There’s very little that we’ve done that’s going to get across the finish line to Biden’s desk to sign.” (The same profile did correctly note that Mace had also made false claims that the Biden family was involved in “prostitution rings,” the classic type of unhinged, baseless allegation rational moderates make about someone they’re hoping to work with.)
Mace had, mostly through her public comments about how fucking moderate she was—she likes to swear, another thing every profile of her is obliged to note within the first three sentences—cast herself as the heir to Jeff Flake and Bob Corker. She has sometimes criticized her party, though she has done little of substance, and was lavished with media attention as a result. She became a fixture on the Sunday shows, proof that she really was a different type of Republican.
And then on Wednesday, Mace voted with much of her party’s lunatic fringe—Matt Gaetz, Andy Biggs, Ken Buck—against the deal to raise the debt ceiling struck by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Joe Biden. What gives?
Mace spent much of the lead-up to that vote sounding like a different different type of Republican from the one she plays in front of reporters from The New York Times or NBC. Writing in The Hill in late April, she argued that risking default was actually fiscally responsible, because balancing the budget was an imperative: Continuing to raise the debt ceiling was “like giving one of my teenage kids a platinum credit card with no limits. And that ain’t happening, at least not in my house.” The federal government is, of course, very much not a household and shouldn’t be run as one. But Mace didn’t care. Her point was that because House Republicans have power, they should use it to enact draconian cuts to the social safety net—exactly the type of argument that the most radical Republicans have been making for the last 12 years. (Mace’s op-ed mentioned cuts to military spending precisely zero times.)
The day before the vote, she unleashed a barrage of tweets arguing that McCarthy got played: “Republicans got outsmarted by a President who can’t find his pants,” she tweeted. On Wednesday, she went on Steve Bannon’s podcast—the same Steve Bannon she voted to hold in contempt over his refusal to testify to the January 6 committee—to claim that “the American people were spoon-fed a bed of lies” about the bill.
All of this is classic Mace. You can see a semblance of the “fiscal conservative” that she likes to portray herself as. She is rooting her opposition in vintage GOP talking points—the government is too big, we need to cut (social) spending, we’re passing on unsustainable debt to our kids and grandkids. But the tactics here are all pure far right. She is literally advocating risking default to try to gut social spending programs—risking the country’s economic future to punish the poor. Some of this is standard Republican radicalism, to be sure. But Mace is also more than happy to bring in the new model as well.
She talks a big game when it comes to being an “independent” or even a “moderate.” But this is who she is: someone who courts mainstream media attention for her supposed normality while advocating extremist economic policies. That she’s able to get away with it says more about the media’s blind spots than it does about Mace’s own acuity. There aren’t many Republicans willing to criticize their own party, and Mace, to her credit, does this. The press is hungry for GOPers who are willing to do it because it makes them seem reasonable. They can go on TV and talk, as Mace does, about the need for a balanced budget. For years, desperate for Trump critics within the Republican Party, cable TV bookers in particular lavished attention on anyone willing to even tepidly criticize the former president.
But giving her a moderate-branded platform obscures reality. Mace, like most of Trump’s GOP critics, dutifully returned to Congress after her cable news hits and voted with her party’s most extreme members. That’s the story of Nancy Mace—it’s the story of the Republican Party too.