Lindsey Graham's Faustian bargain

Lindsey Graham's Faustian bargain
© Aaron Schwartz

In 2015, Senator Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCindy McCain says no one in Republican Party carries 'voice of reason' after husband's death Anti-gun violence organization endorses Kelly's Senate bid McCain's family, McCain Institute to promote #ActsOfCivility in marking first anniversary of senator's death MORE’s best friend, who prided himself on speaking truth to power and sponsoring bi-partisan legislation on climate change and comprehensive immigration reform, blasted Donald Trump as a “race-baiting xenophobic religious bigot,” unfit to represent the values of the Republican Party. “You know how to make America great again?,” Graham proclaimed. “Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.” In 2016, Graham acknowledges, he voted for Evan McMullin, “whatever the guy’s name is,” for president.

Last week, following a trip to migration detention centers near the border of Texas, holding hundreds of men in cages, Sen. Graham declared, “I don’t care if they have to stay in these facilities for 400 days.” He repeated an unsubstantiated allegation made by the president that the southern border is a point of entry for terrorists: “A terrorist could easily get in this group… They’ll drive right in and they make a left.”

Reacting to Trump’s recent tweet portraying four members of Congress as troublemakers who should “go back to the broken and crime-infested countries from which they came,” Graham advised the president to “aim higher” by focusing on policies rather than personal attacks, only to stigmatize the four women of color as “a bunch of communists. They hate Israel. They hate our country.”

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Some time after Trump’s inauguration, it seems clear, Sen. Graham changed his mind — or his tactics. He urged Trump to declare a national emergency to build his border wall. He issued a tirade against Senate Democrats (“they hate us”) for holding up the confirmation of Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughCollins downplays 2020 threat: 'Confident' re-election would go well if she runs The exhaustion of Democrats' anti-Trump delusions Lewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' MORE as a Supreme Court justice, amidst allegations of sexual assault. He maintained that the criteria (ignoring subpoenas from Congress) he himself outlined for impeaching President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBen Shapiro: No prominent GOP figure ever questioned Obama's legitimacy The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump tries to reassure voters on economy 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 MORE did not apply to President TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE. Most surprising, perhaps, have been Graham’s lukewarm responses to Trump’s gratuitous attacks on the recently deceased Sen. McCain.

Graham’s odyssey from Trump critic to sidekick, golf buddy, cheerleader, and adviser, proclaiming that that the president “has exceeded every expectation I have,” has many former admirers on both sides of the aisle scratching their heads. They may be wondering, with apologies to Paul Simon: “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?/Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you… We’d like to know a little bit about you for our files/We’d like to help you learn about yourself.”

When asked “what happened?,” Graham responds, emphatically, “Not a damn thing.” After all, he supports many of Trump’s policies: “He’s rebuilding the military. He cut our taxes. He destroyed the caliphate. He got out of the Iran nuclear deal. He got ‘rocket man’ at the table. He is deregulating the country. He put Gorsuch and Kavanaugh on the bench.” Graham’s relationship with the president, he adds, has enhanced his influence, especially on decisions about keeping troops in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Of course, it’s not lost on Graham, who is seeking re-election to a fourth term in a red, red state, that Trump is immensely popular with Republican voters. “In our business,” he declares, “you’re not defined by the 80 percent agreement” on issues. “You’re defined by the 20 percent” that energizes the base in primaries and the general election. Graham remembers, no doubt, that his support of an immigration reform package once led Rush Limbaugh to call him “Lindsey Grahamnesty.”

Graham is scarcely the only person to define politics as the art of the possible that delivers desired outcomes. That said, transactional explanations of the behavior of Republicans who have shut their ears, closed their mouths, pulled their punches, or stood by their man are troubling.

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And so, it seems appropriate to ask the sizable number of Americans, including evangelical Christians, who deem President Trump’s words and actions “unpresidential” but support his re-election, when — if ever — they become morally indefensible? 

And to ask Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP group calls on Republican senators to stand up to McConnell on election security in new ads Cindy McCain says no one in Republican Party carries 'voice of reason' after husband's death Trump says he'll decide on foreign aid cuts within a week MORE and his Republican colleagues in the House and the Senate, when — if ever — enabling a president who is racist, misogynist, indifferent to the truth, contemptuous of checks and balances, deferential to dictators, and dismissive of allies becomes a Faustian bargain?

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of Rude Republic:  Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.