Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has an odd affinity for inflammatory predictions. In 2014, for example, after a State of the Union address from then-President Barack Obama, the South Carolinian said, “The world is literally about to blow up.” Two years later, Graham predicted that Donald Trump’s foreign policy agenda would “lead to another 9/11.”
Writing for Foreign Policy magazine several years ago, my MSNBC colleague Michael Cohen wrote, “In a town filled with threat-mongers, fear-merchants, and hand-wringers, there is no one mongering more threats, selling more fear and wringing more hands than Sen. Graham.”
With this in mind, The Daily Beast highlighted the senator’s latest provocative prediction.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) forecast “riots in the street” if former President Donald Trump were to be criminally charged over the cache of classified documents hauled out of his Mar-a-Lago estate by federal agents earlier this month. “If there is a prosecution of Donald Trump for mishandling classified information after the Clinton debacle ... there’ll be riots in the streets,” Graham, who has remained one of Trump’s staunchest allies, said in a Sunday Night in America interview.
It wasn’t a slip of the tongue. Toward the end of the interview, the senator returned to the subject, adding, “If they try to prosecute President Trump for mishandling classified information after Hillary Clinton set up a server in her basement, there literally will be riots in the street. I worry about our country.”
This was, to be sure, a brief quip from a Trump sycophant with a history of making over-the-top predictions that nearly always fail to come to fruition. There’s certainly a temptation to simply roll one’s eyes at Graham’s latest drivel and move on.
But in this instance, it’s not that simple.
As federal law enforcement faces an escalating number of threats from right-wing extremists, casual rhetoric — on a national outlet aligned with Republican politics — about street violence is not easily ignored. What’s more, let’s not overlook the fact that when Graham’s comments started circulating via social media, Trump himself promoted the senator’s prediction.
At this point, I could spend a few paragraphs explaining why Graham comparing the Mar-a-Lago scandal to Hillary Clinton’s email mess is foolish. I could similarly spend some time marveling at the senator’s ugly assumptions about his own party’s base, which he apparently assumes includes thugs who will resort to street violence as part of a rejection of the rule of law.
I could also note the degree to which the South Carolinian is no longer even bothering to suggest that Trump is innocent, instead preferring to express indifference to the former president’s apparent guilt.
I’m similarly tempted to explore in detail what Graham envisions as an alternative to holding Trump accountable for his alleged felonies. Would the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee explicitly endorse the idea of simply looking the other way?
But as relevant as those dimensions are, there’s a related question that’s arguably more important: What exactly motivated Graham to make these comments?
The rhetoric seemed to straddle the line between warning and threat. “Let Trump get away with crimes,” the senator seemed to suggest, “or his followers will turn violent.”
Worse, Graham’s comments were apparently based on the idea that these hypothetical rioters’ violence would somehow have merit. In a Washington Post analysis, Philip Bump explained, “Graham’s angry, pointed declaration of what would come was predicated on the idea that riots would in some way be justified, that a universe of Trump supporters who have come to understand investigations as unwarranted would understandably engage in violence.”
A responsible public official would take this opportunity to defend the integrity of the system, denounce Trump’s misconduct, and urge his party’s base to deal with developments responsibly. Graham has done the opposite, effectively making the argument that the former president’s radicalized followers would “riot in the streets” in response to a perceived injustice — irrespective of the fact that Trump may very well be guilty of important crimes.
Evidently, in Graham’s vision, if there’s post-indictment violence, Americans should blame law enforcement, not the suspected criminal.
After President Joe Biden raised concerns about “semi-fascism“ in Trumpism, some Republicans howled, condemning such rhetoric as inappropriate. There is a degree of irony to the circumstances: It’s against this backdrop that Graham appeared on Fox News and warned of street violence in response to the rule of law.