In the last two weeks, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s vocal support for President Trump has reached new heights. Graham has perpetuated Trump’s claims that the election was rigged. Graham’s behavior is threatening to democratic institutions for two reasons. First, he is fanning the flames of disinformation. Even more importantly, Graham’s blind loyalty to Trump after the election signifies dark days ahead for American democracy. Together, these points show that Lindsey Graham is the most ominous threat to American democracy right now.
Lindsey Graham went on Fox News after the 2020 election and said that Nevada’s vote count was fraudulent. He incorrectly claimed that Nevada wasn’t using the software to verify signatures. The next week, Graham donated half a million dollars to Trump’s legal battle to contest the election. Graham is participating in disinformation. President Trump is baselessly casting doubt on the election outcome. Even leaders within his own party have urged President Trump to concede. Among them is John Bolton, who “implored Republicans to discredit claims of election fraud that Mr. Trump has propagated.” Political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that mainstream party leaders bear the primary responsibility of keeping would-be-authoritarians out of their party . Bolton is here saying that the party leaders have the same responsibility in the aftermath of the presidency.
Lindsey Graham has a different idea. Recently, Graham called election officials in states where the presidential election was close. Georgia’s Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, reported that Graham encouraged him to throw out absentee ballots where the signatures did not perfectly match. Absentee ballots leaned toward Biden in Georgia, so throwing out absentee ballots would favor Trump. A Senator urging a Secretary of State to throw out ballots, with no substantial evidence of fraud, is a threat to democracy. There is no evidence of voter fraud in the 2020 election. And yet, on November 9th, 70% of Republican voters believe the election was rigged. Graham bolstering Trump’s false claims of fraud is causing voters to question the sanctity of American elections. The most basic definition of a democracy is a system in which free and fair elections choose leaders. . Therefore, making people doubt that this election was free and fair is hacking away at the very core of American democracy. If elected Republicans were unified in acknowledging Biden as the winner, Trump’s threat would be minimized. It would signify that the party was moving on from Trump. Instead, Lindsey Graham’s blind loyalty to Trump after the election tells a very different story.
One might wonder what motivation Graham has for taking Trump’s side. In order to understand, it helps to look at the timeline of Graham’s relationship with Trump.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Lindsey Graham was an outspoken critic of Trump. In March 2016, Graham said on CNN that Republicans “should have basically kicked him out of the party.” At the time, Graham “acknowledged that Trump’s message is resonating with angry voters but insisted he would rather the party lose without Trump than try to win with him.” Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that politicians must sometimes sacrifice their party winning an election in order to keep a dangerous leader out of office . In the 2016 campaign Graham put country above party, and warned of the threat Trump posed.
Once Trump won, however, Graham changed his tune. Graham told a New York Times reporter that joining Trump’s side “served his conjoined interests of staying relevant in Washington and getting re-elected in South Carolina.” Trump’s surprising 2016 win showed Republican Party leaders his strong hold on what is often called “the base.” Graham saw the power Trump has over his base, and understood that loyalty to Trump would reward him on election day.
Indeed, in Graham’s 2020 Senatorial run, Graham campaigned on his close relationship to Trump. As Trump’s popularity sunk in the months leading up to the election, pundits predicted Graham would suffer at the polls for his loyalty. However, Graham’s relatively easy win validated that loyalty, even though Trump lost on the same night. Graham’s next Senatorial election is not for 6 more years. One could imagine him being loyal to Trump during the election, and then pivoting. Graham’s criticisms became loyalty in 2016 when Trump won. Why didn’t Trump losing in 2020 turn loyalty from Graham back into criticism?
Some argue that Graham is merely trying to drum up support for the Georgia runoff. This actually supports the argument that Graham represents a deep threat to democracy. It illustrates that Graham sees touting disinformation and undermining American democracy as the means to excite the case. It also reveals he sees the Republican Party base as Trump’s base, even as Trump has just been voted out. Graham’s support for Trump right now clearly signals that the Republican Party won’t be letting go of Trump’s base. In 2016, Graham said he would rather Republicans lose the election than win with Trump. Now, Graham wants to keep Trump’s voters in the party. This means the country is not finished with the brand of right-wing populism and disinformation that allied Trump with his base.  Indeed, that antidemocratic strategy might just get a fresh coat of paint.
This spells trouble for 2024. Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq warn that American susceptibility to democratic erosion does not begin and end with Trump . They describe a hypothetical situation in which a savvy and well-connected candidate runs in 2024. She takes advantage of the damage Trump did to democratic norms. She is power-hungry, but knows how to cloak her power grabs as patriotic and constitutional.
Lindsey Graham is a mainstream politician with message discipline and a refined image. He is comfortable eroding public confidence in democracy. Graham has won over Trump’s base, but might be seen as a palatable spokesman for Trump’s brand of Republicanism. Lindsey Graham is a wolf in a Senator’s clothing. Levitsky, Steven; Ziblatt, Daniel, How Democracies Die, Broadway Books, 2018, 37.  Ginsburg, Tom; Huq, Aziz, How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, University of Chicago Press, 2018, 8.  Levitsky, Steven; Ziblatt, Daniel, How Democracies Die, Broadway Books, 2018, 25-26.  Çinar, Ipek; Stokes, Susan; Uribe, Andres, “Presidential Rhetoric and Populism,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 2020.  Ginsburg, Tom; Huq, Aziz, How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, University of Chicago Press, 2018, 120.