Like his colleague John McCain, Senator Lindsey Graham has established a reputation as a “maverick” politician, a gimlet-eyed straight shooter who isn’t afraid to cross swords with those in his own party when his conscience demands he do so. In this regard, he’s seen as a breath of fresh air in an increasingly divided political environment; partisan hacks like Trey Gowdy and Jason Chaffetz will contort themselves in any manner of ways to defend clearly indefensible positions and justify their party’s actions, even if it means offering themselves up on the altar of public scorn. But Graham would never do that – he has too much respect for the office and for the sacred duty of his role as an elected official to represent all his constituents, not just the ones who voted for him to ever engage in such behavior. It is this perceived fortitude that has helped drive the narrative that Lindsey Graham is above the fray.
The only problem is, it’s not true.
At the outset of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Graham called Trump a “jackass” in a July 2015 interview with CNN; when Trump secured the Republican nomination, Graham made it clear that he would not vote for – to say nothing of endorse – Donald Trump for President. (He also said he would not vote for Hillary Clinton; more on that in a moment.) Since Trump’s inauguration, Graham has positioned himself, according to Politico, as a “fierce critic” of the Trump administration, having taken every opportunity to act as a thorn in its side.
Graham’s actions have led some to believe that he can be a valuable ally in the left’s fight against Trump’s policies. In an increasingly polarized political landscape, any Republican lawmaker willing to serve as an ally for Democrats is a welcome addition to the fray; moreover, a well-respected and tenured Republican Senator ought to be a feather in the cap of Democratic lawmakers who desperately need allies across the aisle in order to block some of Trump’s more harmful agenda items. It makes sense; desperate times call for desperate measures, and the impulse to latch on to any semblance of hope that the inevitable damage from the Trump presidency can be limited or mitigated in some way is understandable. But Lindsey Graham is not the answer.
Take, for example, his comments to Time magazine about Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primaries: “I don’t want her to be president. I’ll do everything I can to beat her […] But if she’s president, I will work with her.” When coupled with his comments about Trump, it seems clear that Graham faced the same dilemma that tormented many Americans in this past election: should he vote for someone to whom he was ideologically opposed but whose qualifications for the role in question were beyond reproach? Or should he vote for someone to whom he was also ideologically opposed and whose qualifications for the role were virtually nonexistent? In the end, he did neither, casting his ballot instead for Evan McMullin.
And while some applauded Graham’s decision to lodge a protest vote, the idea that someone who once referred to Trump as a “race-bating, xenophobic religious bigot” who “shouldn’t be Commander-in-Chief” would effectively throw away their vote in pursuit of ultimately meaningless plaudits from political wonks does not square with the notion that Graham is the adult in a room full of children.
Nor do Graham’s comments earlier today that he is suddenly “all-in” on the Trump administration. In an appearance on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” this morning, Graham exulted: “I am like the happiest dude in America right now. We have got a president and a national security team that I’ve been dreaming of for eight years.” Such effusive praise would be unremarkable if it were coming from, say, Kellyanne Conway; coming from Graham, one of Trump’s most ardent detractors, it’s something else entirely.
And herein lies the problem with Lindsey Graham.
The problem with Lindsey Graham is one of perception. The public wants to believe that there still exist lawmakers who aren’t entirely guided by party affiliation; Graham, with his past gestures towards something approaching bipartisanship, appears to fit that description, even if his talk is rarely – if ever – supported by action. In a sense, Lindsey Graham is a victim of unrealistic expectations.
But the myth of Lindsey Graham, Responsible Representative wouldn’t exist without the help of the man himself; Graham, as much as anyone else, has embraced his public perception as a folksy, down-home, Southern genteelman who can be trusted to Do The Right Thing, partisan politics be damned. He has embraced his undeserved role as one of the leading voices of the Republican Party, gobbling up every opportunity to make television appearances and offering soundbites into whatever microphones are within range. He has come to believe a myth that does not suit him and that he has done nothing to justify, and he is content to perpetuate it.
Graham’s sudden about-face on the Trump administration should come as no surprise. He has built a reputation as a Russia hawk; therefore, he will praise any action taken by the United States that will upset Russia. The myth of Lindsey Graham dictates that there must be some overarching moral and political philosophy that guides the positions he takes, but the reality is far less complex. Lindsey Graham is no different than any other politician – the public just wants him to be, and it is to his benefit to let everyone believe that he is. So the next time he makes headlines for some bold statement or another, don’t make the mistake of attempting to ascribe any greater meaning to it; in all likelihood, it does not exist.
In the end, Lindsey Graham’s only loyalty is to his reputation.