Lindsey Graham's 'Religious War'

Once a staunch defender of Muslim Americans and a fierce critic of Trump, the South Carolina senator now endorses the president’s approach to combating terror.

Senator Lindsey Graham
Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters

On Tuesday night, hours after the terrorist attack in New York City, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham went on Fox News to express his gratitude that, at times like these, Donald Trump is president. “The one thing I like about President Trump, he understands that we’re in a religious war,” Graham declared. “Here’s what I like about President Trump,” he added later, “the gloves are off.” Trump, Graham explained, “is right to make sure when somebody comes into the country from a place where radical Islam [flourishes] … we’re going to ask extra hard questions.” And Trump is—you guessed it—“right to slow down who comes into this country.” When the Fox anchor turned to Robert Mueller’s indictment of two former Trump campaign officials, Graham’s enthusiasm didn’t flag. “If I’m the Trump team,” Graham declared, “I’d rest pretty good tonight.”

Graham’s comments illustrate one of the most fascinating dynamics of the Trump era: Trump exposes the character of the politicians around him. As a political force, anti-Trump conservatism is dead. That means GOP members of Congress who consider Trump an ignorant, narcissistic, lying, authoritarian bully (and according to Bob Corker, many do) face a choice between their principles and their jobs. Corker and Jeff Flake have chosen the former. Most of their colleagues have chosen the latter. But none has done so as loudly as Lindsey Graham.

We don’t have to guess what Graham really thinks of Trump. He’s told us. In May 2016, Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake of The Washington Post enumerated “The 10 Republicans who hate Donald Trump the most.” Graham came in number one. And for good reason. That month, the South Carolina senator tweeted that even if Trump won the Republican nomination, Graham would not support him because Trump had not “displayed the judgment and temperament to serve as Commander in Chief.” Graham even implied he might back Hillary Clinton. In June, when Trump said Judge Gonzalo Curiel could not fairly adjudicate his case because he was Mexican American, Graham called it “the most un-American thing from a politician since Joe McCarthy. If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it. There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary.”

Evidently not. More than a year later, Graham has become, as Michael Shear and Sheryl Gay Stolberg put it in The New York Times, the “Senate’s Trump whisperer.” He golfs with Trump. He travels with him on Air Force One. And he insists that Trump is “growing into the job.” Last month, when Corker questioned Trump’s fitness in terms similar to those Graham used during the campaign, Graham said his colleague’s comments were not “particularly helpful.” When Flake gave an impassioned speech from the senate floor about the threat Trump posed to liberal democracy, Graham explained that, for his part, “I’d rather not be a constant critic.” After all, Graham admitted in another interview, “I do better in South Carolina when I’m seen as helping him, ‘cause he’s popular.”

Nowhere is Graham’s transformation more dramatic than on the question highlighted by Tuesday’s attack: Trump’s attitude towards Muslims and terrorism. In a party that since George W. Bush left office has grown increasingly anti-Muslim, Graham had been a significant exception. In 2011, he joined Democratic Senator Richard Durbin in convening the first ever Senate hearings on “Protecting the Civil Rights of American Muslims.” And while his Arizona Republican colleague Jon Kyl derided the hearings as an exercise in “political correctness,” Graham insisted that “This is a hearing that we need to have” because “if I don’t stand up for” the religious freedoms of Muslims, “you won’t stand up for mine.” In September 2015, when Ben Carson said he could never support a Muslim for president, Graham told him “to apologize to American Muslims” for failing to recognize that “America is an idea, not owned by a particular religion.”

That December, when Trump responded to the attacks in San Bernardino by proposing a moratorium on Muslim immigration, Graham responded ferociously. “He’s a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot,” Graham told CNN. “He doesn’t represent my party. He doesn’t represent the values that the men and women who wear the uniform are fighting for. ... He’s the ISIL man of the year.” Graham even attacked Ted Cruz for not denouncing Trump’s ban strongly enough. “This is not a policy debate, Ted. This is about you and us and our character as a party,” Graham thundered. “Up your game. Condemn it, because it needs to be condemned.”

In Trump’s first months in office, Graham continued to oppose his anti-Muslim scapegoating. In January, he and John McCain became two of the few Republican senators to strongly condemn Trump’s temporary ban on admitting refugees and travellers from seven majority-Muslim countries. “We should not turn our backs on those refugees who have been shown through extensive vetting to pose no demonstrable threat to our nation,” Graham and McCain argued. “Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism … [it] sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country.” At the confirmation hearings for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, Graham warned that if Trump starts “waterboarding people” he may “get impeached.”

Since then, however, as he and Trump have grown chummier, Graham’s tone has changed. In his Fox interview, Graham twice applauded Trump for recognizing “that we’re in a religious war.” In other words, he applauded Trump for doing exactly the thing Graham has in the past denounced him for doing: defining the war against ISIS as a war against Islam. Graham later explained that, in his mind, this “religious war” is against not Islam per se but merely “a sect in Islam.” But there’s plenty of evidence that Trump doesn’t make such subtle distinctions. Trump said during the campaign, after all, that, “Islam hates us.” He called for a moratorium on all Muslim immigration. And then he called for halting travel from seven Muslim-majority nations. Once upon a time, those actions outraged Graham. Now he celebrates the mentality behind them.

Graham also cheered Trump for making “sure when somebody comes into the country from a place where radical Islam, and that’s the enemy, thrives, then we’re going to ask extra hard questions.” But the United States already asked hard questions. Before Trump, as The New York Times has pointed out, America subjected refugees to a 20-step security process so onerous that it took up to two years. Graham once recognized that. In his condemnation of Trump’s first travel ban, he cited the “refugees who have been shown through extensive vetting to pose no demonstrable threat to our nation.” Trump isn’t asking “hard questions.” He’s looking for pretexts to radically slash the number of refugees America takes in. And Graham, who in 2015 said that if the U.S. stopped taking its fair share of refugees it should “take the Statue of Liberty and tear it down … because we don’t mean it anymore,” now seems perfectly content with that.

Under Trump, Graham gleefully told Fox, “The gloves are off.” That’s an odd thing to celebrate given Trump’s very public enthusiasm for torture, and Graham’s very public opposition to it. But Graham is less public about a lot of the issues on which he once opposed Trump. And, as a result, American Muslims seem to have lost one of the few Republicans willing to defend their rights just when they need him most.