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Lindsey Graham’s latest Fox News Sunday appearance highlights the GOP’s identity crisis

Graham is still all-in on Trumpism. Bill Cassidy? Not so much.

Lindsey Graham  reaches for the door of his car.
Sen. Lindsey Graham leaves the US Capitol on February 13, 2021, after Trump’s second impeachment trial concluded.
Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

Two very different interviews on the Sunday morning news shows illustrated the Republican Party’s post-Trump impeachment acquittal identity crisis.

With Trump now out of office, banned from social media, and fresh off a trial in which a bipartisan majority of senators voted for his conviction, the Republican Party is polarized.

Some Republicans want to try to finally push the party past Trumpism and its anti-democratic impulses, while others — perhaps more mindful of Trump’s continued hold over the GOP base — are using his acquittal as an occasion to wrap their arms more tightly around him.

Sunday, the anti-Trump faction was represented by Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA). After four years of loyalty to Trump, Cassidy somewhat surprisingly joined six other Republican senators on Saturday and voted for Trump’s conviction on an article of impeachment accusing him of inciting the January 6 insurrection. And while Cassidy has already been censured by the Louisiana Republican Party for crossing the former president, he indicated during an interview on ABC’s This Week that he has no regrets.

“I think I may already represent a majority view,” Cassidy said, downplaying the censure. “I have voted to support and defend the Constitution ... the Republican Party is more than just one person.”

On the pro-Trump side stands Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Graham was one of Trump’s most loyal supporters during his time in office, but that momentarily changed following the January 6 insurrection when Graham gave a speech distancing himself from Trump.

“Count me out. Enough is enough.” Graham said.

Graham quickly had second thoughts about this stance, traveling with Trump during his last trip as president and shamelessly defending Trump on TV.

If Graham’s Sunday morning appearance on Fox News Sunday is an indication, his loyalty to the former president is stronger than ever.

“Donald Trump is the most vibrant member of the Republican Party,” Graham said, distancing himself from former UN ambassador Nikki Haley’s comments about Trump not having a future in the GOP. “The Trump movement is alive and well ... all I can say is that the most potent force in the Republican Party is President Trump.”

Those comments came at the end of an interview that began with Graham suggesting Republicans will go as far as to retaliate for Trump’s second impeachment by impeaching Vice President Kamala Harris if they take back the House next year.

Both Cassidy and Graham were comfortably reelected for fresh six-year terms last November, but each lawmaker is using his mandate differently at a moment when principles and politics are at tension in the GOP.

Cassidy is using his job security to distance himself from a president he views as violating his oath of office, but Graham seems to be calculating that Trumpism represents the Republican Party’s best bet to retake one or both chambers of Congress next year.

That was apparent toward the end of Graham’s latest Fox News interview, when he basically endorsed Lara Trump — Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law — to fill a North Carolina US Senate seat being vacated in 2022 by Sen. Richard Burr, who, also surprisingly, joined Cassidy in the camp of former Trump loyalists who voted to convict Trump.

“North Carolina, the biggest winner, I think, of this whole impeachment trial is Lara Trump,” Graham said. “My dear friend Richard Burr, who I like and have been friends to a long time, just made Lara Trump almost the certain nominee for the Senate seat in North Carolina to replace him if she runs. And I certainly will be behind her, because I think she represents the future of the Republican Party.”

A third Republican — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who has been an outspoken critic of Trump — made a case on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday morning that Cassidy’s stand should represent the future of the party.

“I think the final chapter of Donald Trump and where the Republican Party goes hasn’t been written yet, and I think we’re going to have a real battle for the soul of the Republican Party over the next couple of years,” Hogan said. “Are we gonna be a party that can’t win national elections again, that loses the presidency, the House, and the Senate in a four-year period?”

Hogan is right to point out that the two election cycles following Trump’s 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton saw Republicans losing power in that way, which often served as a rebuke of Trumpism’s broader appeal. But the former president remains very popular with the GOP base — polling conducted just before the second impeachment trial found Trump’s approval rating among Republicans still in the 80s.

So while Cassidy’s stand for democracy is commendable, and Hogan’s optimism notable, it’s an open question whether there’s a place for people like them within a party so complicit in Trump’s authoritarian attempt.