What happened to Lindsey Graham? Like any chameleon, he adapted to the world around him.
The South Carolina senator was John McCain’s best friend in politics, and for much of his own career, he’s been seen in a similar context: As an unrelenting war hawk who sometimes held moderate views on other issues, such as climate change and immigration. During the 2016 presidential campaign, in which he was briefly a candidate, Graham repeatedly attacked the then-frontrunner Donald Trump, both before and after Trump gave out his personal cell phone number.
Since Trump’s election, however, Graham has changed his tune. He’s become one of Trump’s most vocal supporters in Congress, winning MAGA plaudits for his breathless defense of accused sexual predator Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Graham, who once proudly touted that his more nativist critics called him “Lindsey Grahamnesty,” implored Trump to declare a national emergency in order to build a wall last week.
Graham’s virtual 180 over the past four years has been the driving force behind a liberal meme that he’s being blackmailed in some way, by either Trump or Vladimir Putin, to do the bidding of either in order to prevent some kind of dark secret from getting out. Usually, the “secret” referred to is Graham being gay. This has never been confirmed, but if it was the case, Graham has done a piss-poor job keeping it a secret. The New York Times asked him this in 2010, he said no, and this Charleston City Paper story from 2007 examining the question refers to a GQ interview in 2006 where he denied it as well. Bill Maher has been cracking bad jokes about Graham’s sexuality for years. This is not a new rumor.
Still, this theme has persisted, and it’s come to a head in recent days. Earlier this week, MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle suggested during an interview with former Rep. David Jolly, a Trump critic, that Graham was being blackmailed. After Jolly said that Graham is the one who’s had the “change of heart” since Trump’s election, Ruhle fired back, before cutting to a commercial break: “Or it could be that Donald Trump or somebody knows something pretty extreme about Lindsey Graham.”
On Thursday, freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a Democrat and the first Somali-American in Congress who’s been targeted by the right for her support of the BDS movement in protest of the Israeli government, tweeted that “they got to him, Graham is compromised!” When CNN asked her to elaborate on the tweet today, a clip of her response—accompanied by a caption which blatantly misconstrued what she actually said—went semi-viral:
The clip, which was aggregated by right-wing media including Breitbart, referred to Omar as implying Graham was “compromised” due to his sexuality. In the actual clip, Omar said that she didn’t know how exactly Graham was “compromised,” but offered several explanations, none of which included, “He’s gay.” Those explanations included “whether it has to do with his funding, when it comes to running for office, when it comes to the polling that they might have in his district, or whether it has to do with some sort of leadership within the Senate. He is somehow compromised to no longer stand up for the truth.” In a pair of tweets following the interview, Omar clarified that she wasn’t referring to Graham’s sexuality in any way and called the right’s attacks on her “smears.”
She’s exactly right about that. But while her explanation of what’s driving Graham’s turn towards Trump was much closer to the truth than “blackmail,” calling Graham “compromised” gives him far too much credit. It implies that Graham is being forced to go along with Trump’s agenda, and is ultimately powerless to change his circumstances. That’s not the case. What both of these analyses of what drives Lindsey Graham get wrong is that Graham is, in fact, making an active, calculated political decision to align himself with Trumpism.
Graham, far sooner than most self-proclaimed “moderates” on either side of the aisle, recognized that he had to make a political choice: take the Bob Corker, John McCain, and Jeff Flake path of constantly criticizing Trump while voting to advance his agenda in the hopes that Trump would flame out immediately, or just to go along with it.
Graham went along with it. He was a full-on psychopath during the Kavanaugh hearings. When confronted with his statement that there would be “hell to pay” if Trump fired Jeff Sessions once Trump actually did fire Sessions, he waved it off. He even started letting his racism peek through a little bit.
The result? He’s now the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and his credibility with the cranks in the Republican base is fully restored. Most importantly, he’s also in great shape to be re-elected in 2020. In 2014, he was a top target of the Tea Party for a primary challenge; now, he appears to have little to no competition, in a state which went for Trump by 10 points in the 2016 presidential primary.
Graham also has the ear of the president of the United States. He’s used it, too: After Trump’s announcement last month that he’d pull troops out of Syria, Graham had lunch with Trump and said he received assurances that he would slow walk the withdrawal. And while Graham criticized Trump after the ISIS attack which killed U.S. servicemembers earlier this week, the fact remains that he has the most power he’s ever had in his political life. (Corker and Flake, on the other hand, are both out of the Senate, their positions as frowny conservative guys who vote the way the White House wants to be filled by Mitt Romney this time around.)
This promise of power is all the encouragement a career politician like Lindsey Graham needs in order to fall in line. He’s not being blackmailed over his sexual identity, and he hasn’t been compromised in any way, except for one: He’s a Republican in Donald Trump’s Republican Party. And he’s thriving in it.