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How Lindsey Graham Became “That Guy” (The Secret Podcast PREVIEW)

May 12, 2023
Notes
Transcript

JVL sits down with Will Saletan to talk about his book on The Corruption of Lindsey Graham. It’s a *much* more free-flowing and philosophical discussion than I’d planned. If you’re game for a journey, you might like it.

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: Next week’s TNL will be streamed LIVE on YouTube on The Bulwark’s main channel. Tune in May 17th at 3 pm EST to watch Tim, Sarah, and JVL record in the same room for the first time in ages! The chat will be open to get ready to ask our hosts your burning questions! Join here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONVoAmys1Lg

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This transcript was generated automatically and may contain errors and omissions. Ironically, the transcription service has particular problems with the word “bulwark,” so you may see it mangled as “Bullard,” “Boulart,” or even “bull word.” Enjoy!
  • Speaker 1
    0:00:00

    Hey there. It’s J Veal. On the Secret Show, Will Salatin was sitting in for Sarah Longwell today. And we talked all about his book about Lindsey Graham and the rise of authoritarianism in America and the decline of parties and institutions. It’s a really long and kinda meandering conversation, but I think you’re gonna like it.
  • Speaker 1
    0:00:20

    Here’s the show. And we ended last night, Will, with me asking you a question that I I teased and I said people can come in and and just get the answer on the secret pod. My question was, looking at the transformation that Graham underwent. And looking at all of the reasons why you lay out people make these transformations and how they rationalize and how they do it. Do you believe that there is a your how do you pronounce it?
  • Speaker 1
    0:00:58

    A heuristic?
  • Speaker 2
    0:00:59

    Is that how it’s pronounced? Heuristic sounds. Right?
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:02

    Through which one could have looked at, say, Liz Cheney and Lindsey Graham simultaneously in twenty fifteen and said, this this one of them, this guy is gonna go along with it. And this one, this woman over here is not. Do you think there is or or is it all
  • Speaker 2
    0:01:19

    a crap shoot? So it’s first of all, I think we should be really humble about our ability to predict this stuff. Because Yeah.
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:26

    I’m not I’m very, very good
  • Speaker 2
    0:01:28

    at it. If if the JBL shirt says JBL is always right, and the Sarah Longwell says Sarah is always right. The Will shirt says Will is often wrong.
  • Speaker 1
    0:01:41

    Will Saletan Will is very very humble about his ability to know what is what is going to happen and what is not going to happen.
  • Speaker 2
    0:01:49

    I I am a huge believer in retrospective analysis, which means that looking at your mistakes and what you got wrong. So a lot of people, for example, God did not see Lindsey Graham becoming what he became. And so I think, even today, it would be hard for me to I mean, I’m thinking now of Tim’s book. Did Tim really know that Elise Stefanik was gonna turn out to be what she is? It doesn’t appear that way.
  • Speaker 2
    0:02:12

    So but but it I think to answer your question, it is true that you can look at certain personality traits and project them forward. So let’s take a couple of pairings. Lindsey Graham and John McCain. You could’ve looked at John McCain and said, this guy has a very stubborn, Will Saletan. He gets it in his head.
  • Speaker 2
    0:02:32

    He has a principal in his mind. He won’t let go, and the more you try to pull him away from it, the more he digs in. That guy is less likely. Just on the basis it’s not moral. It’s not really moral.
  • Speaker 2
    0:02:42

    It’s a personality trait, less likely to go along with a crowd, including the Trump crowd. And if you’d made that prediction, you would have been right. Let’s go to your other example here. Liz Cheney. Liz Cheney, I find fascinating, and I find her fascinating because she’s the daughter of Liz Cheney and of of Lynn Cheney and Dick Cheney.
  • Speaker 2
    0:03:04

    And so many people on the left love Liz Cheney, but hate Dick Cheney, and the reason is, of course, is the Iraq war. But Liz and her father are very, very similar, and it’s almost historical accident, which villain appears in their lifetime. And for whatever reason, Dick Cheney seized on Saddam Hussein. And decided he was gonna stop this guy by any means necessary and did so. And it turned out to my and I was one of the people who supported the Iraq Corps, but that turned out to be a very bad use of a largely useful trait, which was you know, find a villain and stand up to them.
  • Speaker 2
    0:03:45

    In Liz Cheney’s life, the villain has turned out to be Donald Trump and so that same trait that made her father harmful has made her useful and helpful. So I guess that’s sort of my answer. You can look at personality and project forward and make prediction as to how they will deal with a movement that comes at them. But what that movement is, what that idea is varies according to you know, the vagaries of history.
  • Speaker 1
    0:04:15

    Yeah. I think I mean, anybody who’s driving personality trait is that they like being in the mix Right. Those people are always gonna be susceptible. To to following with whatever it is, even if whatever it is, is it is a demagogue. Right?
  • Speaker 1
    0:04:34

    Because that’s and and that with Lindsay. I mean, it’s clear that this is a guy who just looked the number of public statements. Right? And also, Did did you is it possible that you have read or listened to every public utterance this guy has made? Over the last because I was thinking about this and I was wondering, I don’t know that there’s anything that he said that escaped your eye.
  • Speaker 1
    0:04:58

    And that that be amazing. You have listened to more Lindsey Graham than anybody other than Lindsey Graham.
  • Speaker 2
    0:05:04

    Yeah. I know way too much. I think the answer to your question is, If I could certainly, if I could find it, I found it. That is so anything that Lindsey Graham himself had documented, there was a link to an interview, if it was on Some stuff has disappeared to time. Yeah.
  • Speaker 2
    0:05:19

    Local interviews in South Carolina can’t be found anymore. But if it’s on the Internet, I even went to media matters. They they had a couple of if it’s if it’s radio interviews, they’re no longer available anywhere else. People who just, you know anyway, it it makes it possible to reconstruct it. Can I come back to what you just said though, Jamiel?
  • Speaker 1
    0:05:37

    Sure.
  • Speaker 2
    0:05:37

    About the sort of wanting to be in the middle of things. That you’re exactly right. That turned out to be a great predictor of how Graham would behave. And here’s a really curious thing that I didn’t discover till the end of the project. So all this time, my Lindsay Graham had turned after Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated.
  • Speaker 2
    0:05:58

    By MBS, the the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Lindsay Graham drew a line. Very un Lindsey Graham likes. And I’m This guy MBS is loose cannon. He’s dangerous.
  • Speaker 2
    0:06:08

    I will not deal with him anymore. And didn’t. Didn’t for five years. Held out, and so that’s the way that’s what I thought the story of Lindsay Graham in Saudi Arabia was. And then, just in the last month or so, Lindsey Graham turns around, goes to Saudi Arabia, sucks up to MBS, says, thank you.
  • Speaker 2
    0:06:29

    What has happened? There’s some stuff going on with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia is changing, but also Saudi Arabia has cut a deal to buy thirty seven billion dollars worth of aircraft from Boeing and it’s gonna create jobs in South Carolina and Lindsey Graham. So Lindsey Graham goes over to Saudi Arabia meets with MBS. Has an interview with Al Ahabbia, which he did not put on any of his websites.
  • Speaker 2
    0:06:54

    I just found it separately. So this is not something you would find unless you went looking for it. And in this interview, he says, you come to South Carolina and you you spend thirty seven billion dollars. I’m gonna come say thank you. So money turns him around.
  • Speaker 2
    0:07:07

    Right? But he also says in the interview, when the interviewer asks him, why did you change your position on Saudi Arabia and come back? He says, He uses that phrase, fear of missing out. Fear of missing out. And that is a Lindsey Graham thing.
  • Speaker 2
    0:07:22

    And what’s fascinating to me JBL is If you’d made that prediction, you would have had to wait five years for it to come true. That fear of missing out made him a trumper and made him come back to MBS, but your prediction eventually turned out to be true.
  • Speaker 1
    0:07:37

    Something was going on with that core that core subset of adults in America. Where in twenty sixteen, the idea of political violence thrilled them. In ways. And and I guess my question to you is, was that new? Did something change?
  • Speaker 1
    0:07:57

    A lot of a lot of people suggest that Obama is what changed it. Right? Having having a black president, like, broke these people’s brains. I don’t know if I believe that or not. That’s it’s certainly in his dream.
  • Speaker 1
    0:08:10

    It’s it’s not a crazy theory to have. But the other possibility here is that nobody had offered them political violence before. Right. I mean, the institutions had been good enough at keeping that away off of the menu, that people you know, they were being given choices between Rick Saint Toram and Mitt Romney, you know, or between Georgia View Bush and John McCain. And when some When somebody put it on the menu and they saw it there for the first time, they were like, yes, this is what I’ve been looking for my whole life.
  • Speaker 1
    0:08:44

    I don’t know. What do you where are you on this?
  • Speaker 2
    0:08:47

    Yeah. I I I you just raised a couple of really interesting points there. So nobody offered it before. That resonates with me because I think of Trump as kind of like a almost like a microorganism that he’s like a machine that figures out he he ignores norms that went before. And what what if we try this?
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:09

    So the classic one is Trump, I think, is one of the first people who came along in effect. I mean, Pat Buchanan was too. But Trump comes along and says, So before Trump there was a conservative there was a conservative demagoguery about immigration. Gonna keep out the evil non white immigrants. There was a progressive there was a progressive ideology of progressive propaganda about trade.
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:40

    Also anti foreigner, but wasn’t about people. It was about goods. So dick get part. There’s a whole strain of that in the Democratic party. Trump comes along and says, why not both?
  • Speaker 2
    0:09:50

    Why can’t I be both? Anti trade and anti immigration because then I can be anti foreign or all the way through, and people love Americans love that. Surprisingly, people who’ve been here a couple of generations, keep the next foreigners out. Right? So So he’s an innovator in exploiting what I would call the worst in us, the the hateful instincts.
  • Speaker 2
    0:10:14

    And what you said just said about violence, it completely resonates with that. What if we ignore the taboo? What if instead of trying to civilize, trying to restrain, trying to gate keep the the worst in human nature? What if I just exploit it? And so he’s had enormous success by doing that.
  • Speaker 2
    0:10:32

    And what held people back before morals. Trump just didn’t have the morals. So that’s one answer I’d give to you. I don’t know how you feel about that.
  • Speaker 1
    0:10:40

    Yeah. I I like that answer. But the I guess my question for you though is on the demand side of this, not the supply side. Were the voters always secretly longing for that thing, for that violence? Or did something change to make them wanted?
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:01

    So I’d be hesitant to talk about the voters because I think I I mean,
  • Speaker 1
    0:11:05

    the Republican primary voters
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:06

    Yeah. Even within that, I would draw us. But but but to answer your question, I think what you said about Obama is on point. That is to say, No offense to my conservative friends, but conservatism is largely reactive. Conservativeism is standing athwart history.
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:22

    And what his history brought you in that moment. He has it has brought you Obama. And there is There was certainly a feeling among a lot of republic, a lot of conservatives that the country was changing and things were a little scary. And so Yeah. Trump was the You know, there’s obviously this cliche that every president is an antidote to the one who came before.
  • Speaker 2
    0:11:46

    And I remember when Trump came in and I thought Trump is absolutely awful and it’s a testament to the goodness of Obama that the guy who came after him a movement based on hate. But, yeah, I think that I think there was and JBL, the thing about Obama is I was always baffled by conservatives who didn’t who thought Obama was scary because to me, Obama was always talking about building bridges. He was always talking about. That’s not just my opinion. That’s the opinion of some Republican I know.
  • Speaker 2
    0:12:19

    He was always looking for common ground. And so when people like Denise Susah came up came up with this idea of Obama’s rage and Obama trying to destroy America, I thought that was bizarre, but that seems to be a lot of what Trump sold and a lot of what he caught onto.
  • Speaker 1
    0:12:34

    I can so a friend of mine said to me the other day. He said, you know, I worry that it turns out that at any given moment, twenty to thirty percent of the population wants an authoritarian And this they just want one that’s on their side. Right? It all depends on who gets to be the tyrant. And I had never really considered that before we hit this moment in American politics.
  • Speaker 1
    0:13:00

    But I I worry. The re and the reason I worry that it’s true is because I worry about Democratic voters being put to the test. Because right now, Democratic voters are the only thing that is withstanding between this country and the abyss. And we need Democratic voters to be their best selves, and we need Democratic politicians to be their best selves. Because at this moment, it’s deeply important that Democratic politicians win elections.
  • Speaker 1
    0:13:28

    And I you know, it would be it would be very, very disconcerting to think that if a if a democratic demagogue if a demagogue emerged in the Democratic party, that they might find twenty to thirty percent support as well. And, you know, I would like to think that that’s not possible. But who knows? And I sure as hell don’t wanna test the proposition. Do you have thoughts about this?
  • Speaker 2
    0:13:57

    Yeah. I so my my thought listening to you about that is is that it’s actually quite plausible that something like that would happen. And the reason is, for another reason that I got into in that Lindsay Graham story, which is Part of the way that people like Graham and the Republican Party rationalized Trump was that they worked themselves into an idea that the other party was so dangerous that that any the Republicans had to unite around Trump because they because the Democrats had to be stopped. Right? You’re just lowering the standard.
  • Speaker 2
    0:14:31

    And so that’s that was accomplished. They got Trump in. They defended Trump. And what I worry about is that the cycle continue it will just reverse. Because Trump is so awful that I mean, if in this moment Joe Biden were to die, or, you know, have a stroke or something or some for whatever reason would have to step aside.
  • Speaker 2
    0:14:55

    And Democrats were looking at the prospect of a Donald Trump nomination on the Republican side. And Democrats were telling themselves, oh my god. This has to be stopped. This is an extinction level event for our democracy. And if the one of the principal alternatives that Democrats had to Joe Biden were a democratic, a progressive demagogue, somebody who had sort of a Bernie Sanders view of the government is going to do everything.
  • Speaker 2
    0:15:21

    But I mean, right, we already have Democrats saying things like let’s pack the courts. Right? Why? Because the other side is so dangerous, we have to stop them. The filth get rid of the filibuster, get rid of any institution that stands in the way of us grabbing a majority and doing whatever we want.
  • Speaker 2
    0:15:38

    I think there would be a strong temptation. To nominate a very charismatic progressive. You know, imagine Michael Avanati or somebody like that. Who coming I I can I can totally see that happening because the the thinking would not be, the other side has lost all their norms? Let’s reestablish them.
  • Speaker 2
    0:15:56

    It would we have to maintain power so that the evil enemy does not gain power.
  • Speaker 1
    0:16:02

    So here is here is a structural counter argument which is that the Republican Party is uniquely vulnerable to a demagogue because the Republican Party is basically all the same person. It’s it’s it’s a bunch of white Christians. And more than that is heavily male white Christians. And the the Democratic coalition is so diverse that it would be hard to have a demagogue who could appeal to all of the parts of the coalition. So that that would be the one If you wanted to be hopeful about why Democrats as a party at least at this moment, would might not fall for a demagogue just because, you know, you can hit you can be a very successful as a Republican targeting a single group of voters.
  • Speaker 1
    0:16:54

    Because they they make up sixty percent of the party itself. And that is not true on the Democratic side. On the Democratic side, you’ve got some still, some white working class labor types, you have middle class educated professionals. You have Hispanics, you have African Americans. It’s just a you have people who are, you know, people who are agnostic or, you know, atheists and then you have deeply conservative church going older African Americans.
  • Speaker 1
    0:17:29

    It’s just a bit, you know what I’m saying? It’s the coalition is just much and it’s hard to appeal to everybody on a platform of demagoguery. What else tell me what else about Lindsay? Should we be thinking about going forward. Right?
  • Speaker 1
    0:17:45

    But lessons about And one of the things that’s interesting about your piece is it’s also a piece about parties, about party institutions. And I am in the awkward position of I hate political parties. I I hate any I hate groups. I hate groups so much. I I feel like nobody should ever belong to one of these to these groups that to do so is to compromise yourself when they should be serving you and nobody should be able to tell you what to do and, you know, don’t you’re not the boss of me, all that stuff.
  • Speaker 1
    0:18:21

    And yet, it is pretty clear that parties are incredibly important as mediating in institutions to try to keep figures like demagogues away from the from the populace.
  • Speaker 2
    0:18:40

    Do
  • Speaker 1
    0:18:42

    you have thoughts about this?
  • Speaker 2
    0:18:43

    No? You you are the world’s most tortured institutionalist. It’s so funny. I mean, I think of institutionalism as sort of a theme that defines a lot of your thinking, but you rebel against them. You hate it even as you preach it.
  • Speaker 1
    0:18:57

    This is this is the you’ve hit upon the Rosetta Stone for me, which is that I hate myself, but I admire myself. So
  • Speaker 2
    0:19:06

    So, yeah. It it’s good to be with other people. It’s good to do things as we
  • Speaker 1
    0:19:13

    go wrong about that right off the bat.
  • Speaker 2
    0:19:15

    Continue. So look. So my Rosetta Stone is I’m I’m I’ve I came around in life to being a negativist. I’m interested in negation. So it would be great to live in a utopia.
  • Speaker 2
    0:19:27

    But it’s much more important to negate the worst than it is to achieve the best. And part of part of what negates the worst in us is the availability of other people who disagree with us or you know, with whom we have to work things out. So a person on his own can become the unabomber. If you now obviously, a group together can become a group of terrorists or, you know, narcotraffickers or whatever. But By and large, if you have to work in a political party with other people.
  • Speaker 2
    0:19:58

    So I I’m kind of a neo liberal. And the Democratic party, I’ve had to sort of deal with progressives. But and there are ways in which I’m kinda trying to temper them. Right? By saying, look people.
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:11

    You can’t just have you can believe as I do that it’s purely luck that I was born in the United States and any win principle should be allowed to live here. But we can’t have this crazy business that’s being run where we run people up the western hemisphere and, you know, charge them a lot of money to get them into the country and gain the asylum system and all that. That’s just nuts. So I can sort of correct them in my view about that. But they will also point things out to me you know, just to take some obvious examples, I tend not to pay attention to.
  • Speaker 2
    0:20:43

    I’ve traditionally had what’s called white privilege. I didn’t pay attention to a lot of that stuff until more progressive people brought it to my attention. And so working with other people Will Saletan make you aware of things. And so that’s what parties should do. And that’s part of why I’m so alarmed by what said about the Republican Party being all one thing, because that’s really dangerous.
  • Speaker 2
    0:21:06

    I mean, homogeneity is the enemy. If you’re all white Christians and you all think the same way, then you’ve lost that. You’ve lost the negation of being with people who are different from you. And so while the party does need to pursue a common objective, the fact that there are differences within the party or that there should be is part of what should make parties healthy. And that’s why worry about the homogeneity you’re describing.
  • Speaker 1
    0:21:31

    Yeah. I think that that may be true. And we need god knows. We need healthy parties I think we probably need stronger parties. Right.
  • Speaker 1
    0:21:39

    This is I mean, I I joke about wishing that we could go back to choosing our Presidential nominees and smoke filled backrooms But I kind of mean it in the same way that I kind of mean that I wish we could go back to pork barrel politics. Because I feel like pork barrel politics was a a way to waste money and what you were buying for that was you were buying a hedge against polarization. Because, you know so you’re wasting resources, I guess, in in this strict dollars and cents. But what you’re buying with that is you’re keeping polarization at bay because you are making transactional allies out of people. And not ideological allies because you’re willing to get on, hey, here’s here’s twenty million dollars for a dam in your district.
  • Speaker 1
    0:22:25

    Oh, sure. I’ll vote for that thing. We’re on the same side, you know. And, you know, I I kind of wish we could go back to that. This is I would say one more thing.
  • Speaker 1
    0:22:36

    This is theme in the way I think. And I think the way you think as well is the dangers that stem from unintended consequences. Right? So the move against pork barrel politics was meant to reform government to stop waste. Mhmm.
  • Speaker 1
    0:22:53

    And it did. Except it turns out that systems are so complicated, we often don’t know what else is going on in them. Right? And it turns out that limiting pork barrel policy and performing government waste does have consequences. Same thing with the reform of the primary system for choosing presidential nominations.
  • Speaker 1
    0:23:14

    Right? This is a ultimately a much more democratic way to operate, and it it looks and feels like a an important reform for democracy. And it worked out really well for, like, the first forty five years. But then we get to twenty sixteen and all of a sudden it doesn’t work so well. And And when it fails, the the danger the possible consequences of that failure are catastrophic.
  • Speaker 1
    0:23:43

    Right? So you get you get marginal improvements in terms of your your average nominee. Right? And maybe you get you get an Obama or you get a Reagan probably would have figured out his way. But, you know, you you may get better star politicians a few times that otherwise you wouldn’t have gotten through the the old smoke filled back rooms.
  • Speaker 1
    0:24:06

    But also you are opened up to these tail risks, which which can be catastrophic, which just gets to your negation. Right? It gets to your, you know let’s not try to get the best. Let’s try to avoid the worst.
  • Speaker 2
    0:24:17

    Right. I mean, there’s the two obvious examples that come to me from I mean, what you’re talking about to some extent is fungibility. We make our problems fudge there are things that can be bought off and that avoids that limits conflict. So the good example is, it may turn out it’s looking like possibly the debt ceiling crisis might be dealt with by a little bit of you know, the Republicans now have I mean, the tea party people are kind of illustrate what you’re talking about people who come into congress who have like very strong ideological beliefs very difficult to buy them off. And they that those people can create a crisis.
  • Speaker 2
    0:24:53

    But now there’s talk about, well, we’ll get some permitting reform, we’ll we’ll we’ll recover unspent COVID money, and you start to get a bargaining list where you can cut a deal and avoid a default. And that’s great. On the other hand, you get something like Lindsay Graham saying, look, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia murdered a guy, had him cut up and, you know, a dissident journalist. That’s unacceptable. I won’t deal with him.
  • Speaker 2
    0:25:15

    But it turns out that thirty seven billion dollars of investment in in Boeing aircraft in South Carolina will buy off this senator. And you know, so the money is corrupting at the same time as it makes it possible to solve problems.
  • Speaker 1
    0:25:29

    Hey, again, it’s JBL. The conversation goes on from there. If you want to hear the rest of the show, head over to Bulwark plus and subscribe. We’d love to have you.
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