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Lindsey Graham pretty much admits his Trump alignment is ‘to be relevant’

In a previous piece, I confessed my surprise that Sen. Graham had either sold his soul or lost his mind. Well, perhaps now we at least know which of those it was.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump listening to Sen. Lindsey Graham speak during a rally in Tupelo, Mississippi, on November 26, 2018.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Late in Shakespeare’s career, one (it may have been two) of his contemporaries wrote a not-so-famous-compared-to-Shakespeare’s-stuff play called “The Honest Whore.”

It may be time to consider promoting Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, from dishonest to honest whore for Donald Trump.

A month ago I passed along a Buzzfeed piece titled “What the hell happened to Lindsey Graham?” It explored the mystery of Graham’s conversion from one of the most mavericky and  bipartisanly-inclined of GOP senators and one of the most outspoken denouncers of Donald Trump during the current incumbent’s rise to the Republican nomination [a quote from Graham in that period: “If we nominate Trump we will get destroyed … and we will deserve it”], to one of Trump’s seemingly most loyal allies in the Senate, who seemed near to tears of anger at the Democratic resistance to the confirmation of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

In that previous piece, I confessed my surprise that Graham had either sold his soul or lost his mind. Well, perhaps now we at least know which of those it was.

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In a piece for the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Times National Correspondent Mark Leibovich  somehow induced Graham to purt-near confess that his motives for jumping on the Trump Train were not exactly rooted in sincerity, but motivated by a desire to remain relevant in the era of Donald Trump.

And maybe if you put it that way, a desire to remain relevant (also, of course, to remain a senator), it’s a little easier to remember back to when we (I, at least) thought of Graham as a relatively honest man of conviction. From the Leibovich piece:

And then there is Graham, who would seem to occupy his own distinct category of Trump-era contortionist. Certainly he embodies elements of the other groups: a desire to carve out his own parallel universe of work on certain issues that have always been important to him, especially on foreign policy; an instinct to avoid the distraction of weighing in on every Trump offense (“Don’t chase every barking dog,” he says); and a personal library of readily surfaceable aggressions from the 2016 campaign, in which Graham called the future president a “kook,” “crazy” and “unfit for office,” among other things — and which are easily juxtaposed today with Graham’s sycophantic raves about the president’s stellar golf game and reminders that Trump “beat me like a dog” in the 2016 presidential primary (no doubt delighting Trump with his nod to the president’s canine-themed pejoratives).

Graham’s rush to Trump’s side is particularly baffling because not long ago, he was best known for his bipartisan deal-making on issues like climate change and immigration. He subscribed, at least theoretically, to the country-over-party credo of his departed Senate co-conspirator John McCain. McCain’s diagnosis of brain cancer and eventual death coincided approximately with Graham’s emergence as Trump’s most prominent Senate defender and whisperer. This combination of factors gave rise to the “What happened to Lindsey Graham?” question, which has become synonymous enough with the South Carolinian’s national political identity that he felt compelled to own it on the stump.

“What happened to me?” Graham asked in Greenville. “Not a damn thing.” The crowd gave him a standing ovation. …

Later, talking one on one to Leibovitz and not to a live crowd:

“Well, O.K., from my point of view, if you know anything about me, it’d be odd not to do this,” he said.

“I asked what ‘this’ was.  ‘This,” Graham said, “is to try to be relevant.” Politics, he explained, was the art of what works and what brings desired outcomes. “I’ve got an opportunity up here working with the president to get some really good outcomes for the country,” he told me.

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An outcome of particular interest to Graham, at the moment, is getting re-elected to a fourth Senate term in South Carolina, where Trump owns commanding approval numbers, especially among the hard-core Republicans who in the past questioned Graham’s devotion to their conservative cause. Sure, Graham allowed, you might emphasize some things more than others when you’re trying to appeal to the party base. “You just showcase your issues, right?” he said.

During his last re-election campaign, in 2014, Graham asserted his base bona fides by railing against President Barack Obama’s White House “scumbags and warning that “the world is literally about to blow up.”

He has always been conservative, he emphasized. “But in our business, you’re not defined by the 80 percent agreement. You’re defined by the 20 percent” that the base might object to. (His relatively liberal position on immigration once led Rush Limbaugh to dub him “Lindsey Grahamnesty.”)

Graham reminded me that when McCain was facing re-election in 2010, he turned himself into “the most conservative member of the U.S. Senate.” That was the race in which McCain claimed that he never embraced the “maverick” label, and people were asking, “What happened to John McCain?” Graham chuckled at the memory.

In acknowledging this, Graham was speaking to me as a fellow creature of Washington, fully versed in the election-year “showcasing” he is now engaged in — one of the “people who are so smart” that he derided the day before. “If you don’t want to get re-elected, you’re in the wrong business,” he said.

There you pretty much have it. Personally, I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry, but that’s better than I felt during the Kavanaugh hearings, when Graham’s performance — over-the-top, bordering-on-tears rage at the horrors to which Kavanaugh had been subjected by Senate inquiry into whether Kavanaugh had, as a teenager, attempted rape — made me want to throw up.

But then there’s this. If this blatant 180-degree flip from Trump trasher to Trump’s new best friend works to get him reelected, what does it tell us about the willingness of the electorate to swallow, and then, also, if Trump is buying this new  Trump-loving Lindsay, what does it tell us about the current occupant?

After confessing his changeling act to Leibovitz, there’s this, from the Sunday piece:

Graham’s contempt for Trump in the 2016 campaign was such that he could not bring himself to support the Republican nominee. ‘I voted for Evan — whatever the guy’s name is,” Graham said, referring to the third-party candidate Evan McMullin, who wound up winning 0.54 percent of the popular vote. But after Trump became president, Graham said, forging a relationship with [Trump] served his conjoined interests of staying relevant in Washington and getting re-elected in South Carolina. Graham told me that McCain understood his willingness to make peace with Trump, though the extent of Graham’s ingratiation bothered him a bit — especially Graham’s over-the-top praise for Trump’s golfing abilities.

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But McCain, more than anyone, knew the value of reconciliation. Like Graham, he was a mostly reliable Republican vote in the Senate and supported Trump’s agenda on most issues besides repealing the Affordable Care Act. Aside from McCain, Graham said, “I never met anyone in my whole life that could hold a grudge and move on at the same time.” And McCain, he said, understood better than anyone that few things are more potent in politics than having access to a president, regardless of which one.

“Relevance,” Graham said, returning to the word as if it were a mantra. “That was John McCain’s word.”

McCain detested Trump so much that one of his last wishes was to ban Trump from his funeral. I didn’t much care for Graham recruiting the ghost of McCain into his defense, based on their shared love of “relevance.” But it’s above my pay grade and my moral authority to stand in judgment of Graham’s deep affection for his fallen friend.

We live in interesting times.

Here’s one more chance to read for yourself, the full Leibovich/Graham, which is  titled:

“How Lindsey Graham Went From Trump Skeptic to Trump Sidekick: ‘What happened to me?’ the senator asks. ‘Not a damn thing.’”