In December 2016, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham emerged as one of the strongest Republican critics of Donald Trump, and particularly, of his ties with Russia. Graham called for a bipartisan investigation, warning that while the Kremlin had targeted the Democrats this time, it could be the Republicans next. He noted that Russians had hacked his email, and proclaimed: “Russian hacking during the U.S. presidential election is not a Republican or Democrat issue. It’s an American issue. We must stand together.”
One year later, Lindsey Graham is taking a different stand–alongside Donald Trump at his golf course, which Graham deemed “spectacular” in his latest bout of gushing sycophancy toward the POTUS he once rejected. On November 30, Graham slammed the press for characterizing Trump as “some kind of kook not fit to be president,” directly contradicting his own words from 2016, when he said: “I think he’s a kook. I think he’s crazy. I think he’s unfit for office.”
What changed between 2016 and 2017? Plenty. All of Graham’s concerns about Trump’s relationship with Russia and his competency to lead have been legitimized–and then some.
Graham’s suspicion that Russia was behind the hacks and that Wikileaks was acting on behalf of the Kremlin was substantiated. Numerous Trump associates remain under investigation for illicit dealings and cover-ups. Trump’s campaign advisor, Russian oligarch lackey Paul Manafort, was indicted for conspiracy against the U.S. Trump’s disgraced National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, struck a deal with special counsel Bob Mueller, suggesting that damning revelations are to come. As his colleagues faced scrutiny, Trump did nothing to negate Graham’s suspicions. He spent 2017 giving state secrets to Russians in the Oval Office, obstructing the investigation into his campaign by firing those investigating it, delaying sanctions against Russia, praising Putin while hurting U.S. federal employees, and generally behaving like a Kremlin asset–albeit a chaotic one, or as Graham might put it, a “kook.”
Given that some of Graham’s worst fears about Trump’s Kremlin ties and mental state have been legitimized, what accounts for the senator’s changed attitude toward the president? There are a variety of possible rationales available for conjecture, many of which apply to the GOP at large. Opportunism may play a role, as Graham complies with Trump in order to pursue right-wing extremist economic policies and war. Blackmail may also be an issue, given that Graham has admitted his email was hacked, as was the RNC’s, by Russia. Trump has derided and threatened members of Congress and private citizens, and it’s not a stretch to imagine him unleashing his fire– publicly or privately–on Graham.
Graham’s radical change in rhetoric is reminiscent of the behavior one sees in autocratic regimes when potential political opponents are mollified or threatened into compliance. But the truly troubling question is not what is driving his changed behavior, but what it means for the rest of the GOP, especially as speculation mounts that the Trump administration could end Mueller’s investigation and propagandists recast Republicans like James Comey and Mueller as enemies of the state. In 2016, Graham initiated the call for an investigation into Trump’s Kremlin ties. In 2018, judging by his recent actions, Graham may lead the way in ensuring there are no consequences for what investigators have discovered.
One of the most disturbing questions about the Mueller probe is the unpredictability of its repercussions. Even if Mueller is not fired and the investigation reaches its conclusion, Trump will very likely disregard the findings, as he believes himself to be above the law. This is extremely dangerous. Once autocrats get in, it is very hard to get them out. It falls to other legislative bodies to cleanse the rot, but the GOP has instead proven eager to abet it.
It is hard to imagine justice being served even as injustice is uncovered. Who would act to ensure the integrity of the executive branch, when so many in it– like Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner–have already committed serious violations of federal protocol, yet have faced no consequences? If Trump is found guilty, who would remove him and how? At present, it would fall to the reigning GOP to impeach Trump and demand his resignation.
In 2016, Graham was once one of the few Republicans who seemed likely to lead this call–but now he has joined the complicit chorus. In the end, there will likely be little personal or political benefit for Graham to act against Trump, even as America’s security continues to be compromised and its daily life consumed by chaos and scandal. The defeat of Roy Moore last night is yet another example of the limitations of Trumpism and the humiliation that frequently follows for Republicans who embrace it or excuse it.
Graham may think he’s playing to win, but the prize–serving as a lapdog to the unhinged aspiring autocrat of a declining state–brings diminishing returns if Trump gains even more power over the GOP. Graham may be remembered as the Republican who once saw the light–and then decided to extinguish it.