Lindsey Graham is a dangerous narcissist: Why his stunted worldview is such a threat

GOP presidential wannabe isn't just a neoconservative or a reflexive hawk. He's something much worse

Published July 9, 2015 6:10PM (EDT)

  (AP/Rainier Ehrhardt)
(AP/Rainier Ehrhardt)

Forgive the generalization, but most politicians are narcissists. And that’s okay, really; in many respects, the Constitution was designed to channel the energy of ambitious individuals toward the greater good. So having our politics dominated by vainglorious overachievers, while far from ideal, is not always such a bad thing. It’s a feature, in other words, not a bug.

Yet even by the standards of national politics, there are limits to how narcissistic a lawmaker can be without hurting the country as a whole. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has never been a paragon of modesty, for example; but now that he’s running for president, he is pushing those limits to their breaking point. And if he somehow wins the GOP nomination — or, God help us, the presidency — his blinding self-regard will end up harming others much more than himself.

For a case in point, take a look at what Graham said Wednesday about why he’s running for president. According to National Journal, Graham, in his “first big foreign policy speech” of the campaign, said that anyone who doesn’t believe “the world is falling apart” should support somebody else. He wouldn’t pander for such a person’s vote, he said, because he is “more worried about letting this threat grow stronger than getting criticized myself.” He seemed to think that by saying this, he was being selfless.

This is an oddly self-centered way to frame a debate over foreign policy. But as Graham continued, it became obvious that he hadn’t had a slip of the tongue, and that this was indeed how he thought about complicated issues of geopolitics, life, and death. “If you're too tired to defend this country,” he continued, “if you're too war-weary, don't vote for me.” It is as if Graham believes that the only reason one might differ with him on these matters is, in essence, because they lack moral fiber. You may be too weak and lazy to do the right thing, but Lindsey Graham, according to Lindsay Graham, sure isn’t.

At this point, it’s worth remembering the actual policy that Graham supports, the one he believes is so obviously correct that it could only be opposed for ignoble reasons. It is a policy focused on creating an even bigger, costlier, deadlier and more ambitious war in the Middle East than the ones corroding the region already. It would involve sending thousands of American ground troops abroad to destroy ISIS — while also sending special forces to “hunt the leadership of ISIS morning, noon, and night.” Graham would not only send Americans to die in Iraq yet again, but would have them thrown into the maelstrom of Syria’s civil war, too.

“I don't know how to defend this country without some of us having to go over there and fight,” Graham said, as if the standard for U.S. national security should be the annihilation of every threat on the planet. He then claimed that the members of ISIS “represent a religion that's every bit as dangerous as the Nazis,” which, like his earlier comment on the word “al,” suggested he saw the entire Arab-Muslim world as the problem. And the comparison of this “religion” to the Third Reich carried a disturbing implication as to Graham’s end-game. What happened to the Nazis, after all, was complete obliteration.

As Graham-watchers well know, this is far from the first time he’s depicted ISIS — a group which is simultaneously monstrous and limited in its reach — as an excuse to wage a global war on Islam. The way Graham sees it, in fact, a “religious war” is already happening. The goal isn’t to prevent and disrupt terrorist attacks, as has been the conventional understanding since 9/11. ISIS and groups like it, he says, “are not terrorists.” Instead they are “radical Islamists who are trying to replace our way of life with their way of life.” Subtly, perhaps without even himself realizing it, Graham changes the relevant metric from capability to intent.

But as much as Graham seems to hold a special antipathy for Islamic extremism, his Wednesday comments showed that his preferred response to every conflict is to threaten an escalation of violence. His message to Iran? “I don't want a war but if that's what you want, you're gonna lose it.” To China? “If you want to cheat, hack into our systems, cyberattack this nation, steal property [that’s] not yours — you're gonna have a contest.” To Russia? “If you think you're gonna muscle your way around Europe, forget it.” The Graham Doctrine: Skip speaking and go straight to the big stick.

What is especially notable about Graham’s worldview, though, is not its belligerence; American politics is certainly not lacking that. What’s striking is how he speaks about so many complicated geopolitical questions as if they were all personal affronts. ISIS is not the byproduct of contingent circumstances, like politics and economics, and it’s not dangerous because of its actions. No, it’s just a bunch of bad guys who have the temerity to tell Graham how to live. The leaders of China, Russia, Iran, you name it — they’re all failing to show Graham proper respect.

In short, the world that Graham lives in is not big and complex; and the president’s goal is not to see as keenly as they can through the tumult and mist. The world instead can be reduced to two actors: Lindsey Graham and those he must conquer. And to play out this fantasy, he’d risk other human beings’ lives and loved ones. It's hard to imagine anything more narcissistic — and dangerous — than that.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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