In an interview with Axios’s Jonathan Swan, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) painted former president Donald Trump as a sort of magical conservative chimera. That made it trickier, he suggested, for the Republican Party to leverage Trumpism without Trump.

“What’s hard is to take a movement that I think is good for the country, try to get the leader of the movement, who has got lots of problems facing him and the party, and see if we can make a go of it,” Graham said. “Mitt Romney didn’t do it. John McCain didn’t do it. There’s something about Trump. There’s a dark side and there’s some magic there. What I’m trying to do is just harness the magic.”

The dark side and the magic are inextricable.

There have been hundreds of articles and numerous books written about why Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016. But the “magic” to which Graham refers probably distills to three elements.

Trump was anti-elite. There was an immediately obvious incongruity to a billionaire resident of a Fifth Avenue penthouse in New York City presenting himself as a populist outsider. But it wasn’t unwarranted. Trump approached politics from the outside both literally and figuratively. He was unconcerned about the expectations his party or its elders placed on candidates for office and not dependent on their existing mechanisms for accruing power or money, save the path the party offered to the White House.

Trump said things that other candidates wouldn’t either because they didn’t want to direct fire at the party or because they were too enmeshed in the party’s established culture. That’s not the case for Graham or other elected Republicans, as it wasn’t the case for John McCain, a senator from Arizona when he ran for president in 2008, or for Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) when he ran in 2012. Trump undoubtedly scored points with some of the Republican base in 2015 when he famously attacked McCain — a demonstration of his willingness to not embrace the party’s sacred cows.

This is the quandary for Graham: Any effort to re-create Trump’s anti-establishment position from a man who’s been in Republican politics for a few decades will land hollow. That the president is a Democrat makes this slightly easier, but not much.

Trump elevated the rhetoric and approach of conservative media. Among the things he would say that others treated with more wariness were the themes and framing of right-wing media.

Trump was literally a regular on Fox News before announcing his bid in mid-June 2015 and prized his large audience on social media. In 2011, he learned that he could attract outsize attention by elevating obvious nonsense such as accusations that President Barack Obama was born outside the United States. Over the next few years, his commitment to honesty meandered instead of growing any stronger. He also watched conservative media personalities attack people such as Romney and McCain as soft and took that lesson to heart.

As president, Americans became very familiar with the symbiotic relationship Trump enjoyed with conservative media, elevating false claims and framing he found there and being rewarded by their elevating his own assertions uncritically. The culmination of that relationship, of course, was a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington by a mob convinced by Trump and allies such as Fox News that the 2020 election had been stolen.

Graham and other Republicans have learned that this symbiosis pays dividends. Few, though, are as willing to immerse themselves as fully in the right-wing media’s worldview. There’s clearly a lingering sense among some Republican officials that some things are beyond the political pale, a sense that Trump never shared. This, of course, ties back into the distance he enjoys from the political establishment.

It also has an obvious and critical manifestation.

Trump won specifically because of his rhetoric on race and immigration. When Trump announced his candidacy on June 16, 2015, his speech focused on the purported threat posed by immigrants from Mexico. The country, he said, was “sending” violent criminals north, though some, he tacked on at the end, were probably good people.

At first, the reaction to Trump’s announcement was muted. The field was already crowded, and his candidacy seemed like a novelty. But then he got a massive boost in attention when business partners of the Trump Organization decided to sever their relationships with him over his anti-immigrant rhetoric. Trump’s remarks were suddenly national news.

Over the July 4 holiday, as the controversy was roiling, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, then the front-runner for the nomination, bashed Trump’s comments.

“But to make these extraordinarily ugly kind of comments is not reflective of the Republican Party. Trump is wrong on this,” Bush said. “He’s doing this to inflame and to incite and to get to draw attention which just seems to be the organization principle of his campaign. It doesn’t represent the Republican Party or its values.”

Bush wasn’t wrong about Trump’s intent, but he was wrong about what the comments reflected. Having a Republican elite — a Bush! — rail against and elevate Trump’s comments about immigration was unquestionably helpful to the tycoon. He’d picked up that line of attack about immigrants from conservative media, after all, where it had been particularly prominent since the 2014 surge in minors at the border. Trump was saying what the Republican base was hearing on Fox News, and the establishment was battling him.


Over the course of the next few months, Trump leaned into his role as the candidate who said things about immigrants and people of color that other Republicans wouldn’t. They wouldn’t, of course, because (like Trump’s comments about immigrant crime) the claims were often untrue or sensational. But a large part of the party base was compelled by the rhetoric, a huge advantage in a crowded field.

Polling repeatedly showed that Trump supporters were more likely than other Republicans and far more likely than Americans overall to depict Whites as disadvantaged or targets of discrimination. Trump painted a picture of White America as embattled and he as its savior. It worked.

He wasn’t the first to do so. This rhetoric can be duplicated, as it was by Trump. But it’s the dark side to which Graham referred, not the populist “magic.”

At another point in the interview, Graham referred to Trump as a mix of P.T. Barnum, Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms. That’s, in order, the magic, the party and the dark side. Suffice it to say that Trump does not mix the three evenly.


This article originally misstated Graham's comment about the figures who contribute to Trump's political composition.