The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I lost because I wasn’t Trump enough. All Republicans should worry.

President Trump in Washignton on June 22. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Mark Sanford, a Republican, represents South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District in the House of Representatives.

They say elections have consequences, and if this is so, we should all be concerned over the recent primary along the coast of South Carolina. I know it well. I lost.

I’ve been involved in politics for a long time in my state and have run and won in tough races. This one was like no other. The operative question was not about conservative policies that are normally the lifeblood of a Republican primary, but rather who on the ballot would more loyally support the president.

I wasn’t Trump enough in the age of Trump — and so indeed I lost. As one of 435 members of the House, this shouldn’t matter to someone living in Fairfax or Cleveland, but, based on what I saw on election night, I think it will.

We should all be alarmed when dissenting voices are quashed. President Trump is not the first executive to want compliance from a legislative body, but he has taken it to a new level. This is more than a problem; it’s a challenge to one of the most basic of American tenets — that we can agree to disagree.

Our Founding Fathers baked dissent into the cake of our political system. It’s one of their most vital gifts. The constitutionally designed tug-of-war between branches of government was not for efficiency; it was to prevent too much power ending up in one place.

This represents my biggest disagreement with the president, and it is certainly part of what was at play during my district’s primary election.

I’m a conservative, and I have overwhelmingly supported the president on the issues he attempted to advance. But because I haven’t been 100 percent supportive, and have spoken out on areas where we disagreed, he injected himself into the race to oppose me as he did. This suggests his concern was over personal loyalty, rather than issue loyalty. That’s a problem in a system built on compliance to laws and the Constitution — not a single man.

The Republican Party is going through an identity crisis. We need to decide who we are. I believe we are meant to be the party of individual freedom, and I believe in the building blocks of what will get you there — ranging from limited government, taxes and spending to open markets and free trade.

I have all the merit badges and hard-fought votes to demonstrate my allegiance to those ideals. But voters in this election did not value this as much as they did fidelity to our president. In fact, on election night, my opponent proclaimed in her victory speech that “we are the party of Donald J. Trump.”

I could not disagree more strongly. I believe that both parties belong to the regular working people who have labored to advance their ideals. Given the state of our politics, we need to question who we are and what we stand for as never before.

Finally, I am struck by how little we now care for truth. The president’s attacks on me were certainly not true, and my opponent took license with the truth in ways I have never seen in an opponent, but does this pattern deserve alarm? I believe so. Trust is foundational to a reason-based republic. It’s why I feel the need to speak up for my values, as I did before the election — though there proved to be an electoral consequence.

I respect the fact I could be seen as an odd person to offer a sermon on the notion of truth — given the fact that I was living a lie in 2009. But this is precisely the point. It was discovered, and there were tremendous personal and professional consequences for me in the wake of that discovery. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

We have become so desensitized to the president’s tortured relationship with the truth that we don’t challenge the inaccurate things he and others say. There should be a consequence to making things up. But inexplicably, as a society, we have somehow fallen into a collective amnesia in thinking that it doesn’t matter when the highest officeholder in the land doesn’t tell the truth.

These themes played a part in my first electoral loss, but I believe their implications are far more significant. This is something I’ll be contemplating over the weeks and months ahead, and I hope other Americans will, too.

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