One day it’s all sun and sycophantic fun on one of the president’s fancy golf courses, where you’re telling yourself that to marvel at his putts and swoon over his swing are small prices for influence and will pay off in the end.
The next you’re in the middle of a surreal feud among your fellow Republicans about whether he used “shithole” or “shithouse” to describe poor countries of dark-skinned people, and you look like a sellout and fool for having thought and said better about him.
That’s the story of Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Its moral couldn’t be clearer. There’s no honor or wisdom in cozying up to Donald Trump – just a heap of manure.
Maybe more than any other figure on Capitol Hill, Graham personifies his party’s spastic, incoherent response to Trump across time and its humiliating, fatally misguided surrender.
He denounced Trump before he befriended and defended him. He graduated from the unpleasant experience of being Trump’s punching bag to the unprincipled one of being his enabler. Like the majority of his Republican colleagues in Congress, he reckoned that he could somehow get more than he was giving up, which included his dignity. He reckoned wrong.
Right now, we’re supposed to … what? Thank Graham for his candor, because he effectively confirmed that in a meeting about immigration in the Oval Office on Thursday, Trump made those vulgar comments, and because Graham stood up to the president at the time, telling him that America was an idea, not a race?
Or should we instead note how far Graham had previously traveled to prop this same president up? It was Graham who recently joined Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, in undercutting the credibility of federal inquiries into Trump’s ties with Russia by recommending that the Justice Department investigate Christopher Steele, the former British spy who wrote that famous dossier.
Did Graham tell himself then that he was craftily staying in Trump’s good graces so that he could coax the president toward saner, better immigration policy? How did that wager work out? We now know the answer, and so does Graham.
He’s hardly the worst of the obsequious lot. On Monday The Washington Post reported that Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., were strenuously disputing the initial accounts of what Trump said in the Oval Office on Thursday not because his talk was actually statesmanlike. No, they heard him fume about immigrants from “shithouse countries” rather than “shithole countries,” and in that scintilla of semantic difference they found a rationale for rallying around the president. I find a title for a tell-all about complicity in this rotten age. Call the book “Shit and Its Suffixes.”
During the campaign, Graham blasted Trump as the “world’s biggest jackass,” said that the way to make America great again was to “tell Donald Trump to go to hell” and described the choice of Trump versus Ted Cruz for the Republican presidential nomination as a decision whether to be “shot or poisoned.” Trump, for his part, dismissed Graham as “one of the dumbest human beings I have ever seen” and gave out his private cellphone number, forcing him to get a new one.
Thus were the seeds of a beautiful friendship planted. It flowered once Trump draped himself in presidential regalia and treated Graham to a ride aboard Marine One. Bygones were bygones, and so, apparently, were Graham’s core values. A fervent champion of national security, he gave Trump a pass for making light of Russian interference in an American election.
He also gave Trump roses, metaphorically, with one public compliment after another. What “spectacular” fairways and greens you have, Mr. President! What a “gracious” golfing partner you are! Congratulations on your “very successful” first year in office!
He sternly reprimanded the media for calling the president “some kind of kook.” Oops! He had once hung that same label on Trump, but that was before he had the president’s ear and parted ways, so to speak, with his longtime Republican mentor, Sen. John McCain, who alternately bucked and backed Trump but never, ever got weak in the knees and genuflected before him.
To reporters and colleagues, Graham has reasoned that he’s positioning himself to push his own agenda and exert a positive sway. It’s an argument in line with other Republican lawmakers’ rationalizations that they’re trying to wring the best from an unfortunate situation.
But it’s reckless folly, because it doesn’t take Trump’s creeping authoritarianism, his instability, his degradation of the presidency and, yes, his racism into full account. To flatter him is sanitize and encourage all of that.
Graham has too often and exuberantly played the flatterer, and where did it land him? In a shithole. Or a shithouse. Either way, he’s soiled.