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For Lindsey Graham, allegiance to Trump is entirely transactional

For Lindsey Graham, if Donald Trump can be used as a tool to win elections and benefit his party, nothing else matters.
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., during an event at the White House on Nov. 6, 2019.
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., during an event at the White House on Nov. 6, 2019.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

One of the weirdest political relationships of the last several years is Sen. Lindsey Graham's (R-S.C.) fidelity to Donald Trump. Part of the oddity of their connection is how difficult it would've been to predict.

The Republican Party, Graham said in Feb. 2016, would get "slaughtered" with Trump as the nominee. Exactly five years ago this week, the South Carolinian added, "If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed."

Even then, the senator's argument was more tactical than moral. Graham believed Republicans would lose if it nominated a racist television personality, and since his party winning elections was Graham's principal goal, he denounced the future president. Graham didn't see Trump as disgusting; he saw Trump as dangerous to his party's electoral prospects.

Five years later, the dynamic has largely been turned on its head -- Graham effectively became Trump's caddy for four years and positioned himself as a sycophant for a man he once labeled a "kook" -- but the transactional nature of the senator's vision remains the same. HuffPost noted overnight:

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) weighed in on the looming Republican purge of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from House leadership over her opposition to former President Donald Trump. Cheney is the latest victim of conservative cancel culture as she's reportedly on the verge of losing her position as conference chair, the number three Republican in the House, due to her criticism of the former president. But Graham wasn't all that sympathetic to her plight.

"Can we move forward without President Trump? The answer is no," Graham argued during a Fox News appearance. "I've always liked Liz Cheney, but she's made the determination that the Republican Party can't grow with President Trump. I've determined we can't grow without him."

Graham has been on the receiving end of hearty criticisms in recent years -- from, among others, me -- for his dramatic reversals about Trump, and for good reason. The senator really did set his credibility on fire.

But just below the surface, the South Carolinian has been unyieldingly consistent about his principal focus: Graham's sole interest is in seeing Republicans win elections. When Trump was seen as a likely impediment to that goal, Graham condemned him. Now that he sees Trump as useful toward achieving the goal, Graham embraces him.

Note, the senator last night didn't suggest that Liz Cheney was wrong about Trump and the value of democracy, but instead, Graham made the case that Liz Cheney's assessment is inconvenient in the context of the party's electoral strategy.

It's a vision rooted entirely in a transactional model. Period. Full stop. As MSNBC's Chris Hayes added last night, Graham's reasoning "is independent of any moral considerations whatsoever."

Exactly. Circling back to our earlier coverage, the senator appears to start with a straightforward premise: winning elections and wielding power is everything. It's more important than policy, principle, or propriety.

For Graham, the next step is determining the best way to acquire and maintain power. The South Carolinian seems to have in mind a strategy in which Trump will keep Republican voters engaged, donating, and motivated to turn out when it counts.

Or as Graham told Fox News in February, "To the Republican Party, if you want to win and stop the socialist agenda, we need to work with President Trump. We can't do it without him.... I'm into winning. And if you want to get something off your chest, fine. But I'm into winning."

In this calculus, Trump's corruption is irrelevant. His hostility toward democracy is irrelevant. His failures, incompetence, and inability to govern are all irrelevant. If the former president can be used as a tool to benefit his party, nothing else matters.

It's a morally bankrupt approach, of course, but as the GOP senator put it, he's "into winning," and Graham's convinced the only way to win is with the disgraced former president who lost.