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Understanding Lindsey Graham's sycophantic posture toward Trump

For Graham, it's all about a calculated bet: he's "into winning," and he believes the only way to win is with the disgraced former president who lost.
Image: Lindsey Graham
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks to reporters during a news conference at the Capitol, on Jan. 7, 2021.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

It's no secret that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was a fierce opponent of Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, but the nature of the senator's criticisms at the time were more practical than principled.

The Republican Party, Graham said in Feb. 2016, would get "slaughtered" with Trump as the nominee. The South Carolinian added a few months later, "If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed."

The message wasn't exactly subtle: Graham's focus was electoral, not substantive. He assumed that his party would suffer if it nominated a racist television personality to serve as president of the United States, and since his party winning elections was the senator's principal goal, it led him to balk at Trump's efforts.

Of course, Graham was mistaken in his calculations: Trump prevailed in 2016, handing Republicans control over each of the levers of federal power. It was at that point that Graham, discarding everything he'd said about Trump, effectively became a caddy for his party's president. The senator set his reputation on fire, and positioned himself as a sycophant for a man he once labeled a "kook."

After Trump's defeat, it was tempting to think Graham would see Trump's failures as a signal to move on without him, but the senator has done largely the opposite, continuing to play the role of Trump employee -- helping find a legal defense team for the former president, huddling with his lawyers during the impeachment trial, and even complaining publicly when Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) denounced the former president's obvious wrongdoing.

"I think Sen. McConnell's speech, he got a load off his chest, obviously, but unfortunately he put a load on the back of Republicans," Graham said. "That speech you will see in 2022 campaigns."

Again, note the context: Graham didn't say McConnell was wrong; he said McConnell's candor might interfere with the GOP's electoral strategies.

It's against this backdrop that the Washington Post reported over the weekend that Graham, who visited Mar-a-Lago yesterday, talks to Trump nearly every day.

Graham's post-presidential embrace of Trump — which puts him squarely at odds with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — is the latest twist in his on-again, off-again relationship with a man he once called a "kook" and warned could destroy the party. It comes after the four-term senator said he reviewed polling in South Carolina and across the country that shows Trump's enduring strength among Republicans, even after the Jan. 6 insurrection that resulted in five deaths.

"If he ran, it would be his nomination for the having," Graham told the Post, referring to Trump. "I don't know what he wants to do. Because he was successful for conservatism and people appreciate his fighting spirit, he's going to dominate the party for years to come. The way I look at it, there is no way we can achieve our goals without Trump."

Every word of this underscores a political strategy that has little to do with the former president's qualities as a leader and everything to do with Graham's belief that Trump is a tool to be used to benefit his party.

The senator appears to be starting with an important premise: winning elections and wielding power is everything. It's more important than policy, principle, or propriety.

For Graham, the next step is answering a straightforward question: what's the best way to acquire and maintain power? The South Carolinian seems to have in mind a partisan model in which Trump will keep Republican voters engaged, donating, and motivated to turn out when it counts.

Or as Graham told Fox News last week, "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. Graham sees the anti-Trump contingent within his party, but he also realizes how little they have to offer, and how small their numbers are.

And so, as MSNBC's Chris Hayes put it the other day, Graham has concluded that "Trumpism is the best political bet, no matter how much death and destruction it brings."

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.