Congressman Mark Sanford is beginning to cry. We’re only a few minutes into our conversation before the South Carolina congressman chokes up. “I apologize,” he says, wiping his eyes. “I just can’t go certain places or you hit the wrong nerve.”
It’s Thursday afternoon, less than 48 hours after Sanford’s shocking loss to a Republican primary challenger. It was the first and only electoral loss of a career that began with his election to Congress in 1994 and continued with eight years as South Carolina governor, punctuated by the now-infamous “hiking the Appalachian Trail” cover story for an extramarital affair he had with a woman in Argentina while in office. In 2013, Sanford bounced back, surprising those who believed his political career was finished by once again winning a seat in Congress.
Recently, Sanford, 58, stood out as one of the few Republicans in the House or Senate to publicly rebuke Donald Trump. Sanford called on Trump to release his tax returns. He criticized Trump for his lack of humility and willingness to mislead the public. He said Trump “has fanned the flames of intolerance.” For these and other perceived sins, Trump attacked Sanford on Election Day with a tweet endorsing his opponent and accusing Sanford of being “very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA” and “nothing but trouble.” Sanford lost by 3,000 votes to Kate Arrington, a state lawmaker who declared in her victory speech, “We are the party of President Donald J. Trump.”
Mark Sanford has been very unhelpful to me in my campaign to MAGA. He is MIA and nothing but trouble. He is better off in Argentina. I fully endorse Katie Arrington for Congress in SC, a state I love. She is tough on crime and will continue our fight to lower taxes. VOTE Katie!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 12, 2018
Sanford is hardly a centrist Never-Trumper – by one calculation, he claims, he’s voted with Trump 89 percent of the time. But Trumpism demands more than voting with the president, Sanford tells Rolling Stone in his first extended interview since the loss. “It’s clearly not about issues,” he says. “It’s about allegiance to him.”
First, I wanted to hear your reflections on Tuesday. You’ve had 48 hours to think about it.
On one level, you do what anyone does in the wake of a loss or a public failure. There’s soul searching and there’s coulda woulda shoulda. It was a fairly, almost profoundly moving experience as you suffer a loss, a public loss. You’re there with your four sons. I gotta be careful. I don’t want to lose it with you. Anyway, they each hug you and they’re like, “Dad, we’re proud of you.” Stop for a second there. [Wipes his eyes]
I’m still digesting it, to answer your question. But like I say, it sits right there [points to his chest].
Have you talked to other colleagues here about it?
Oh yeah. It’s sort of a weird experience. I wrote to one of my sons – I said the good part of a funeral is you get the eulogies.
You get the eulogy without physical death. The conversations on the floor are the full gamut. Pretty morose. What every political figure fears most is losing at some level, and maybe that’s a simplification, but it’s not too far from the truth. It’s always like, I’m so sorry for your loss. You know it’s like you’ve died.
Is it strange that on a Tuesday, you lose your race and you’ve lost your seat, but you still have to go to work the next day?
Last night I was giving a night tour of the Capitol for [the Audubon Society] because I’ve always been tied to environmental issues.
You gave a tour of the Capitol the day after losing?
Here’s the real kicker. So I’m doing that, and around the corner comes Jeff Flake and his wife. They give me a hug. I had this conversation with Jeff. I was like it was the weirdest race – I’ve run a lot of races over the years. I’ve supported the president the bulk of the times. But on a handful of issues I’ve disagreed based on these principles or these promises or what the voters thought. And [my race] was just: Are you for Trump or against Trump? And he’s going, it’s completely the same in Arizona. One question: Are you for or against Trump? No gray.
That’s the dynamic that you saw in your race – be for or against Trump?
Yes. And that’s where the race has big implications well outside of whether I’m a member of Congress or not. I’m not using the cult of personality thing, but you have in my case a guy the Congressional Quarterly rated like 89 percent concurrence (voting with Trump). [Editor’s note: Roll Call found that Sanford’s percentage was much lower on votes where Trump had a clearly defined stance before the vote.] But basically you have two fascinating components that have come up. One, the president sends out a tweet that’s completely not true. And we’ve become so calloused to what he says or the way he might say it that nobody bats an eye. Nobody even questions the hypothesis of, wait, is that true or not?
“MIA” was the president’s tweet.
Missing in action. That’s the world in which we’re living. What it says, then, is it’s clearly not about issues; it’s about allegiance to him.
Just this week Chairwoman McDaniel of the RNC put out this tweet that if you’re not with the Make America Great Again agenda, you’re making a big mistake. So it’s spreading.
Yeah, it is metastasizing. That fits exactly what my opponent said in her victory talk back home on Tuesday night. This is the party of Donald J. Trump. Those were her words and I could not more vigorously disagree. It’s the party of a lot of people across this country that have worked hard and licked envelopes and stamps and all the things you do in advancing campaigns and the ideas that surround them. It doesn’t belong to somebody at the top in Washington D.C. And yet that’s what we’ve morphed into.
It’s cultural, attitudinal. You weren’t loyal or perceived to be loyal enough.
What it suggests – and this is what the president has at times played to – is the easy answer. And my point there in the talk the other night was: democracy is hard. It’s painful. It’s cumbersome. It’s all those different things. But it is the best system designed by man. The founding fathers did an incredibly great job. And what you see at least within that small group but a group that seems to be metastasizing given the comment you mentioned from the chairwoman of the RNC is “No, we want the easy answer. These institutions, these checks and balances, all of this debate, really hard stuff. Just get something done.” Vigorous debate is what our government is built upon. Legislative is a check on the executive, a check on the judicial. That’s what the system is built upon. And so I keep going back to the feedback loop that I got in the course of this campaign is tied to something that goes well beyond this campaign in the First District. Do we or don’t we believe in dissent? Is it OK?
You used the word metastasize. We use that word for a cancer, a disease. Is that what this allegiance is? Senator Corker called it a cult of personality.
I’m not calling it that but yeah, it is a cancerous growth. The basis on which people’s frustrations have been built is real and understandable in the way that at times Washington doesn’t work for them or their families and those they love. And I think that again that which gave rise to the Trump phenomenon needs to be acknowledged as real and valid. I think the metastasization component is the way in which at times the president has pandered in his answers suggesting that there’s an easy cure.
Would you have done anything differently with the campaign? Would you have run it differently?
You always do that. You Monday afternoon quarterback yourself to death about woulda coulda shouldas.
You had over $1.5 million on hand at the end of May. Should you have spent more of it on this campaign?
We had the resources. But again they talk about symmetry in war, or proportionality is what it’s called. But I’ve run a lot of races and I’ve run them successfully. All I’ll say is that particular model has worked well for me for a lot of different races, many of them incredibly tough races. I wasn’t unaccustomed to running races. And what worked for me in the past didn’t work in this instance.
How does the Republican Party pull back from this? Where everything is boiled down to are you for or against Trump?
The Founding Fathers’ admonishment that an educated citizenry was vital to the Republic. The systems that they set up which I’ve come to revere were really built upon the notion of the fallen nature of man. That we weren’t perfect. We oughta debate. Nobody has a lock on wisdom. That’s why I started my talk the other night with humility. We all ought to have the humility to say I don’t know what I don’t know. But I don’t even fully know what I think I know.
And there is such hubris that’s at times emanated out of the administration about “this is the way it is. Or let me demean somebody else as a way of advancing my point.” Or you can fill in all the blanks. But all I know – and this has been seared hard for me, given my implosion in 2009 and its aftermath and the reflection that comes with that, and was doubled down again in a different way with this latest experience – I’ve come to very strongly believe that a humility in one’s perspective is vital to listening to somebody else. And at the end of the day if we’re going to solve solutions in a collective sense, you better be listening pretty closely to that somebody else. We’re not doing that in the American political system right now.
Not listening and presuming you already have all the answers.
Do you think the president sets the tone on that?
He does. One ought to have the courage of one’s convictions but one ought to balance that with some degree of humility in the courage of one’s convictions. And that ain’t a selling message right now. That’s just not where the political marketplace is.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.