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The Corruption of Lindsey Graham
A case study in the rise of authoritarianism.
THE REPUBLICAN PARTY WAS IN BIG TROUBLE, and Lindsey Graham knew it. It was January 21, 2016, and the senator was taking questions at a press conference. A month earlier, he had abandoned his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Now two men he despised, Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz, were leading the race.
Graham thought either of them, if nominated, would lose the general election. Choosing between them, he told reporters, was “like being shot or poisoned. What does it really matter?”
Two months later, in March, Graham changed his mind. He endorsed Cruz and joked that it was better to be poisoned than shot. “Donald is like being shot in the head,” Graham told talk-show host Trevor Noah. “You might find an antidote to poisoning, I don’t know. But maybe there’s time.”
Graham was wrong. Trump wasn’t a shot to the head. He didn’t kill the GOP. In fact, he won the election.
Trump turned out to be poison. Over the next five years, he thoroughly corrupted Graham’s party. Republican leaders had time to counteract the poison, but they never did. One reason was that the poison moved slowly. Graham and other Republican politicians lost the ability to see what they were becoming. They rallied around an authoritarian, excused authoritarian acts, and embraced authoritarian ideas.
This is a story about how that happened.
BEFORE WE START, I should tell you what this article isn’t. It isn’t a rant about Graham’s servility or hypocrisy. And it isn’t a profile.
Many other journalists have written about Graham and Trump. Most of them have focused on the personal relationship between the two men. They examine the ways in which Graham’s evolution was distinctive.
I’m not interested in what’s distinctive about Graham. I’m interested in what isn’t. How does his story illuminate what happened to the whole Republican party? How did the poison work?
We need to answer these questions because the authoritarian threat is bigger than one man. Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency destroyed the myth that the United States was immune to despotism. Our institutions and the people who run them are vulnerable. We have to confront these vulnerabilities and learn how to deal with them before our democracy is threatened again.
So why focus on Graham?
First, because he was a central player in the Republican party’s capitulation to Trump. And second, because he talked constantly. He produced an enormous trove of interviews, speeches, press briefings, and social media posts. Through these records, we can see how he changed, week to week and month to month. We can watch the poison work.
It’s a slow death. The surrender to despotism doesn’t happen all at once. It advances in stages: a step, a rationalization. Another step, another rationalization. The deeper you go, the more you need to justify. You say what you need to say. You believe what you need to believe.
So let’s go back to the beginning. Let’s see who Lindsey Graham was before he drank the poison.
The Corruption of Lindsey Graham (home)
Chapter One: Graham’s Moral Clarity
Chapter Two: A Trump’s Best Friend
Chapter Three: Power Shift
Chapter Four: Domestic Enemies
Chapter Five: The First Impeachment
Chapter Six: Insurrection Day
Chapter Seven: Return of the Orange God-King
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