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Lindsey Graham’s long and winding road to the Fulton County Courthouse

By Tom Baxter

When future generations try to figure out what in the world was going on in our era,  they’re going to have a particularly hard time understanding Lindsey Graham.

Over 28 years in the U.S. House and Senate, Graham has moved politically so many times it can be hard to distinguish his flips from his flops. He came to Congress in the Contract with America class of 1994, then joined a group of renegade Republicans who unsuccessfully tried to oust Newt Gingrich before Gingrich successfully ousted himself. He’s teamed with Democrats on important legislation and later called for their criminal prosecution.

Then of course there’s been what the Almanac of American Politics described in 2020 as “the biggest and most confounding political transformation of any lawmaker over the past two years,” the South Carolina senator’s transformation from John McCain’s closest ally to staunch supporter of McCain’s nemesis, Donald Trump.

“If you don’t want to get re-elected, you’re in the wrong business,” Graham has said, and that cold focus on the bottom line explains a lot about him, but not quite everything. At times he has shown real independence, such as his support for the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Before he came out in favor of Trump’s Muslim ban, he was censured by the Greenville County Republican Party for supporting immigration reform.

Maybe the best explanation for Graham’s behavior is the political territory he has occupied. His old House district had never elected a Republican before him, and the Senate seat he took later was the one that had been held by the original Republican convert, Strom Thurmond. Over time he has attempted to fuse some of the folksiness of the previous generation of Southern Democrats, presenting himself as the son of a mill town “beer joint” owner, with the torqued-up conservatism of the rising Republican majority.

Over the weekend, Graham made headlines by saying on Fox, twice, that there will be “riots in the streets,” if Trump is indicted, either for mishandling the classified information recovered at Mar-a-Lago or for attempting to convince Georgia election officials to reverse the results of the 2000 presidential election.

Maybe there will be. After all, since the FBI seized documents from Mar-a-Lago, an FBI office in Ohio has already been attacked by a deranged individual later killed in a police standoff and a suicide outside the U.S. Capitol. Trump has been encouraging the idea that the seizure of documents would cause a violent reaction.

But it may also be that after Jan. 6 and the criminal convictions which followed, Trump’s angriest supporters have lost their appetite for rioting. It’s a testament to the hold Trump still has on the popular imagination that this possibility hasn’t  been very widely considered.

Meanwhile, Graham still has a date with Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis that he may not be able to put off much longer. His effort to have his subpoena quashed is separate from that of Gov. Brian Kemp, but Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney’s rejection of Kemp’s motion on Monday does not bode well for Graham’s effort. McBurney might allow Graham to postpone his grand jury appearance until after the election, although unlike Kemp Graham isn’t on a ballot this year. Sooner or later, however, it looks like Graham will have the chance to try out his folksy charm in the Fulton County Courthouse.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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