A few weeks ago, Steve Schmidt, the former GOP strategist who in 2018 publicly quit his party, attracted wide notice with a particularly brutal characterization of the evolution of Sen. Lindsey O. Graham. The Republican from South Carolina was once very close to late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), but Graham has now become one of the most despicable and dishonorable enablers of President Trump in the GOP.

As Schmidt explained it to Rolling Stone:

What he is in American politics is what, in the aquatic world, would be a pilot fish: a smaller fish that hovers about a larger predator, like a shark, living off of its detritus. That’s Lindsey. And when he swam around the McCain shark, broadly viewed as a virtuous and good shark, Lindsey took on the patina of virtue. But wherever the apex shark is, you find the Lindsey fish hovering about, and Trump’s the newest shark in the sea. Lindsey has a real draw to power — but he’s found it unattainable on his own merits.

Since then, Graham has quickly demonstrated to great effect just how dead-on this is. First, Graham said on Fox News that after acquitting Trump in his impeachment trial, Senate Republicans will investigate the activities in Ukraine of both former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

In so doing, Graham vowed that the GOP-controlled Senate will use its oversight authority to validate the entirely fabricated narrative about the Bidens that has been used to justify Trump’s own endlessly corrupt effort to extort Ukraine — which Republicans are set to acquit him for on Wednesday, even without hearing new witnesses or evidence.

And, of course, this is all about the 2020 election, as well: If Biden is the Democratic nominee, Senate Republicans will do everything they can to use their official capacities to validate Trump’s smearing of him.

Not to be outdone, Graham is back with a new pronouncement, this time about the disastrous meltdown in the counting of votes in the Iowa caucuses:

In spreading this conspiracy theory — that cancellation of the release of a pre-caucus Des Moines Register poll and the problems with the Iowa vote are part of a conspiracy to help Biden — Graham continues to play the pilot fish to predator Trump.

In tweeting this, Graham is being very faithful to what the Trump campaign believes are in its interests. As Yair Rosenberg shows in The Post, numerous Trump advisers and family members spread similar conspiracy theories about Iowa — including Trump’s two adult sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, and his campaign manager, Brad Parscale.

There are numerous reasons for doing this. First, as Parker Molloy suggests, if various candidates’ supporters suspect the election was rigged against them — a view that even some progressives are spreading, unfortunately — it could depress turnout in the general election.

Trump campaign officials have been known to overtly embrace such tactics. As Bloomberg’s Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg detailed, during the 2016 campaign, the Trump camp employed cynical, targeted messaging tactics to depress turnout among idealistic white liberals, African Americans and younger women.

But lurking beneath that calculation is an uglier reason: To put it simply, Trumpworld views the lack of confidence in our elections as a positive for him.

Trump himself sows this lack of confidence in every way he can. He lies nonstop about voter fraud — even setting up a commission to “prove” its existence that collapsed in a heap of buffoonish failure. The president regularly jokes that he’ll stay in office long beyond two terms; by election law scholar Rick Hasen’s count, he’s done this 27 times.

Hasen suggests that this fomenting of distrust could lay the groundwork for a scenario in which the 2020 election is extremely close and, because of counting delays, Trump could declare himself the winner before all the votes are tallied. Having constantly told his supporters elections are rigged against him — and them — Trump could then refuse to accept an eventual loss:

One of the most realistic scenarios, given Trump’s past remarks, is that the president and his supporters dig in if he’s ahead on election night, even if the race is not called and the later-counted ballots erase his victory. Trump’s 27 comments about staying in office beyond his constitutionally prescribed term offer little comfort that he would respect the rule of law in the event of a protracted election dispute.

Another insidious effect here might be that, by constantly “joking” about staying in office forever, Trump is simply trying to get people to give up on the very possibility of removing him through legitimate electoral processes, further demoralizing the opposition.

The mess in Iowa is an utter disaster, a self-inflicted one, and hopefully this ritual will now be put out of its misery. But it’s simply reprehensible for Trumpworld to try to capitalize on this for nefarious ends. Getting people to give up entirely on the very possibility of neutral or fair processes is a key feature of Trump’s ongoing degradations — one of the most wretched ones.

What’s notable is just how reflexive it’s becoming for Republicans such as Graham to feed these venal and depraved ends. There is zero sense of any obligation here to do what might be good for the country: If undermining confidence in our elections is good for Trump, Republicans such as Graham will seize any opportunity to do it — with gusto.

Corrupting everything in sight is seen to help Trump in all kinds of ways, and as such, if you help him do this, it will ingratiate you with him. That’s all Graham needs to know.

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