The ballad of Lindsey Graham, Republican truth-teller and aspiring late-night comic, and the death of the GOP

Even the weirdest, funniest and least crazy Republican of 2016 can't face the truth about Trump and the GOP

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 3, 2016 11:59PM (EST)

 (Reuters/Brian C. Frank)
(Reuters/Brian C. Frank)

I have been stalking Sen. Lindsey Graham ever since he launched his short-lived presidential campaign and revealed himself to be the impish, acid-tongued troll of the 2016 Republican field. (Which at one time, let us remember, resembled the roster of a minor league baseball team both in numerical size and intellectual aptitude.) Those second-tier GOP debates were genuinely great TV: Graham, who favors immigration reform, believes climate change is real and has intermittently been willing to discuss firearms regulation, repeatedly made Bobby Jindal’s head explode and revealed Rick Santorum to be a human-sized block of timber, stuffed with pre-recorded racist malapropisms.

I have called; I have written. I left messages at Graham’s campaign headquarters in South Carolina (which was probably a Mail Boxes Etc. store) and his Senate office in Washington, all to no avail. He ran out of money and dropped out of the race long before things got serious in Iowa and New Hampshire, and it’s not like he had ever, even for a split-second, thought he would win. My ardor did not lessen. I didn’t stand outside Graham’s window with a boom-box playing Peter Gabriel at full volume, but only because I haven’t owned a boom-box since 1988, and I wasn’t sure how I would explain the whole thing to the police department of some manicured Virginia suburb: “I’m not insane! I’m a journalist.”

Unlike Jindal and Santorum and the other 57 varieties of Republican failure on offer this year — George Pataki, who last ran for public office 15 years ago, gets a special prize — Graham has not vanished from the news cycle since he quit the race. He’s an even more effective GOP troll as a non-candidate, because he’s a reliably hilarious TV guest and producers don’t have to worry about providing equal time to other people who are boring. In case this isn’t obvious, my love affair with Graham is entirely about personality and style and not at all about substance, since he’s an unreconstructed Bush-Cheney neocon and his foreign policy positions are largely terrible. (In fairness, he’s only, like, a click and a half to the right of Hillary Clinton on most things; I’m not saying that’s much of a recommendation.)

But style and substance are intertwined, shall we say, and Graham’s one-man crusade to restore some semblance of sanity and normalcy to the Republican Party has fallen afoul of its own internal contradictions. Graham has been a leader of the “Stop Trump” movement since before that was a thing, and has consistently rebuked other GOP candidates for playing to the anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiment that has driven the Trump wave. Earlier this week Graham suggested he might be willing to support Ted Cruz in order to defeat Trump — and this is the same guy who said a few months ago that if another senator murdered Ted Cruz and the trial was held in the Senate, the killer would walk free. Graham and Cruz hate each other passionately; if a political fairy godmother offered Graham the choice between President Ted Cruz and the indefinite reign of Emperor Barack Obama, he’d have to think about it long and hard.

There’s no hypocrisy in Graham’s position at that most basic level: Like everyone else in the Republican establishment, he understands that if the party drives away Latinos and middle-class women, they have almost no chance of winning a presidential election against Hillary Clinton or Leon Trotsky or McDuff the Talking Dog. But when you see Mitt Romney step forward as he did on Thursday, waving the banner of reason and telling us that Donald Trump is a fraud and a phony who is “playing the American public for suckers” — I mean, you have to laugh at the brazen, balls-out, Mormon underwear, “kicking the can down the road” hypocrisy of it all, don’t you? Playing the public for suckers is the Republican brand in a nutshell, and Lindsey Graham is too smart not to see that.

Here’s what I really want to ask Graham: Does he get what happened here? Does he understand that the Republican Party designed and built the lab in which the Trumpian monster was created, and made its terrifying emergence nearly inevitable, with three or four decades’ worth of discount-store Leo Strauss political mendacity? They lied to their own voters repeatedly and treated them with unlimited contempt. They went out into the boondocks with larded-up accents and patted people on the head and talked about God and abortion. They told folks in trailer parks and ramshackle exurban bungalows that they were in debt and going broke and dying of strokes in their 50s because of all the immoral and deviant practices of gays and feminists and black people. Then they went back to Georgetown for an amazing steak dinner and laughed themselves sick and got down to the real business of cutting taxes on the rich and bombing remote villages where some 14-year-old kid might or might not have hidden a Kalashnikov.

There’s no way Graham hasn’t thought about that. He was the one person among all those deranged and hateful Republican candidates who seemed disinclined to lie about his beliefs and intentions, which of course meant that no one was likely to vote for him. (I guess we can extend the same compliment to Santorum, who is a lot dumber and believes even worse things but is entirely sincere.) Graham went out there and said that he would send thousands of American ground troops back into the Middle East to fight ISIS, which was a huge buzzkill but of course is what all the other candidates, Clinton included, intend to do as well. One of Graham’s problems with Donald Trump is that to the extent Trump has any coherent foreign policy, it’s all about video games and blustering rhetoric and his hot-and-heavy bromance with Vladimir Putin, and not enough about perma-war everywhere.

But I digress. As some indulgent readers already know, I feel a certain vague affection for the historical role played by the old Republican Party, the one that stood with hardware-store proprietors and vice-presidents of Midwestern banks and Presbyterian ministers. Despite Lindsey Graham’s self-assigned role as the last honest Republican amid a horde of flesh-eating zombies, he has been a prominent member of Congress since the Bill Clinton years and is implicated up to his eyeballs in the gradual process of soul-suckage that transformed the party of Eisenhower and Fiorello LaGuardia and Jacob Javits (not to mention Edward Brooke, the first African-American elected to the Senate, and Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve both in the House and Senate) into the White Man’s Party of Nihilism and Hate.

Graham’s status as the 2016 fan-fave among people who were never going to vote for him (or any other Republican) went beyond the fact that he was definitely the funniest person running for president in either political party, and quite likely the smartest too. Oh sure, Hillary Clinton is highly intelligent after her fashion, but it’s all turned to the service of wily, tactical decision-making. Before she decides between pepperoni and plain, she commissions a special working group to figure out the messaging. Ted Cruz has that fancy Ivy League education, and the permanent stick up his butt to prove it. When I saw him talk to a room full of prospective New Hampshire voters, he started lecturing at them, in pedantic high-school history teacher mode, about why New England was given that name by the first Puritan settlers. I can understand why people might want to vote for Trump more clearly than why they would vote for Cruz, who seems ill-tempered and psychotic and views the non-Cruz proportion of humanity with distaste.

What Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz don’t have, and what Lindsey Graham has in spades, is some degree of self-awareness and ironic detachment. Neither of those people ever looks at themselves and what they’re doing and reflects that ultimately it’s all ridiculous and does not matter. Whereas Graham has the soul of a poet, or at least of a late-night TV host, which in terms of 21st-century culture is roughly the same thing. It's probably not a quality conducive to political victory. When I finally encountered Graham in person, at a Jeb Bush campaign event in Salem, New Hampshire, it was even better than I could have hoped.

Graham was there to warm up the crowd for the so-called main event, and even hapless Jeb understood it was a tough act to follow. "That guy has another career waiting for him after politics," said Bush. Graham always starts by insulting himself fulsomely — he’s too short to be president, he’s funny looking, he’s a poorly educated Carolina hick who ran a terrible campaign — before throwing rapid-fire shade at Trump and Cruz and Marco Rubio and everybody else. We were in a middle-school auditorium and Graham took a moment to talk to the students who were present: “I loved middle school! It was the best six years of my life.” (Ha ha ha.) “Let me promise you kids one thing, though: It gets better.”

Yeah: “It gets better,” coming out of the mouth of a Republican senator from one of the most conservative states in the country, a man who has never been married or had a visible girlfriend, and who has been surrounded by rumors about his sexual orientation for years. I don’t know whether Lindsey Graham is gay and I don’t care; that moment felt halfway between an elaborate joke that almost no one got and a cri de coeur in the safe space of libertarian New Hampshire, an appeal to a better version of the Republican Party that is now unimaginably far from reality.

I had so many things to ask him! But then Jeb Bush talked for a while, which was kind of dull and hopeful and desperate, and after that Graham disappeared into the security scrum around Jeb as they pushed out the door toward a limousine. (He's right about being too short; I think he’s shorter than Hillary Clinton.) I gave my number to one of Jeb’s aides, who swore she would put me in touch with the guy who handles Lindsey Graham’s cell-phone calls. Awesome, right? It didn’t happen, of course, which is understandable because Jeb’s people had bigger problems, such as discovering that they didn’t have a political party anymore.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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