Lindsey Graham’s Hypocrisy is a Product of Whiteness

He’s not merely being wishy-washy. Graham is angling to maintain his racialized standing.

Sam McKenzie Jr.
Published in
5 min readNov 29, 2019


Photo: The Washington Post/Getty Images

LLindsey Graham will have the legacy of a lackey. The South Carolina senator makes political moves to preserve privilege. As he flip-flops, Graham demonstrates the elasticity of whiteness.

Graham’s record is all over the place. He once called then-candidate Donald Trump “a xenophobic, race-baiting, religious bigot”; he now defends the president’s comments on lynching. During the 2016 election, Graham famously tweeted, “If we nominate Trump, we’ll get destroyed... and we will deserve it.” Fast forward three years and he’s one of the president’s staunchest defenders. More recently, Graham, who once passionately insisted he didn’t want to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden or his son’s business dealings in Ukraine, announced he’s now launching an investigation.

All this waffling isn’t about Graham’s reelection, mere hypocrisy, or being wishy-washy. It’s about maintaining his racialized standing.

Graham is “the white citizen” that Joel Olson described in his seminal book, The Abolition of White Democracy, a man who embodies the tension white people can feel between “equality and racial standing.” The white citizen professes equality, impartiality, and democratic values, but not at the expense of their own political power.

Back in February, Graham told the New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich that he’s in Trump’s corner to keep his good standing with the president. In the interview, Graham also described how it felt for him to have unprecedented access and influence with a president: “It’s weird, and it’s flattering, and it creates some opportunity. It also creates some pressure.”

Graham’s criticisms and defenses of Trump come from the mixture of his beliefs about equality, democratic norms, and his desire to protect his racial standing next to the president. Those mixed motives compel him, like the white citizen, to defend the indefensible. The combination creates instability, inconsistencies, compromises, stress, volatility, and “pressure,” as Graham said. That tension produces the “elasticity” of whiteness.

That’s how the…