Donald Trump and Lindsey Graham, long-time golf buddies, are having a little fight right now. Speaking to Newsmax on Tuesday night, Trump strongly disagreed with Graham on whether some of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists deserve presidential pardons if he were to retake the White House, calling the senator a “RINO,” or Republican In Name Only.
“Well Linsdey Graham’s wrong. I mean, Lindsey’s a nice guy, but he’s a RINO,” Trump said, before launching into a screed about Black Lives Matter protestors; praising Ashlii Babbit, the insurrectionist who was shot and killed on Jan. 6; and decrying the jail conditions for some of his supporters who were arrested following the riot at the Capitol.
“Lindsey Graham doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Trump concluded.
Trump first floated the idea of pardoning Jan. 6 rioters during a rally in Texas last Saturday. “If I run, and if I win, we will treat those people from Jan. 6 fairly,” Trump said. “And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons.”
Graham called the suggestion “inappropriate” a day later on Face the Nation. “I don’t want to reinforce that defiling the Capitol was okay,” he said, adding that those who breached the Capitol should “go to jail and get the book thrown at them, because they deserve it.”
It’s tempting to write Trump and Graham’s latest spat off as just another performative takedown from our WWE-superstar former president, but there’s a little more going on here. Trump often deploys the “RINO” accusation when someone disagrees with him, there’s barely anything to the clip from Tuesday night. He and Graham both know the jab is just going to slide off the South Carolina senator’s back like nothing.
Instead, the larger purpose here is for Trump to re-establish his dedication to his supporters. Graham and Trump are both playing their role — Graham as a moderating force, and Trump as the firebrand that wants to free his fans and pardon everyone for their crimes. This same dynamic played out last month, when Graham convinced Trump during a golf trip at Mar-a-Lago not to hold a big press event at the resort on the anniversary of the insurrection. Trump ultimately relented.
Still, it’s clear that justice for the Jan. 6 rioters is going to be a core of Trump’s pitch in 2024, which is already promising to revolve around a narrative of correcting the record for 2020 and reinstalling our “rightful president” that was only taken out of office by corrupt Democrats. Clips like this let Trump establish that he puts his base over his party, which is precisely what built him up as an outsider candidate in 2016. When, or if, he gets in office again, it won’t matter that he will largely serve the GOP’s interests. His fans will still think he’s a brave iconoclast. Meanwhile, GOP mainstays like Graham will have a useful avatar for their continued project of weakening American democracy and furthering our decline into corporate oligarchy and religious fascism. Everyone gets what they want. If along the way a few feelings get bruised, they can always make up over a round of golf.