A 2016 candidacy built on fear

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. announces his bid for the presidency on Monday.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. announces his bid for the presidency on Monday. AP

Acting on the time-tested theory of presidential candidacies known as “Why the hell not?”, Senator Lindsey Graham joined the 2016 GOP contest today. And right from the outset, after thanking folks for coming and saying he’s running, Graham got to his candidacy’s central rationale:

I want to be president to protect our nation that we all love so much from all threats foreign and domestic.

So get ready. I know I’m ready.

I want to be president to defeat the enemies trying to kill us, not just penalize them or criticize them or contain them, but defeat them.

Ronald Reagan’s policy of “peace through strength” kept America safe during the Cold War. But we will never enjoy peaceful co-existence with radical Islam because its followers are committed to destroying us and our way of life. However, America can have “Security through Strength.”

If you think about it, that almost sounds like Graham is saying that Reaganism isn’t enough, a disturbing hint of heresy. Since we can’t have peace, Graham implies, we might as well just get ready for war.

And unless his entire career has been a ruse, that’s exactly what we’d get with a Lindsey Graham presidency. You thought George W. Bush liked to play on Americans’ fears to justify military action? That was nothing.

For Graham, the threats are everywhere. Domestic? You betcha — he needs his AR-15 because there could be a natural disaster resulting in “armed gangs roaming around neighborhoods.” Foreign? Oh goodness, yes. On ISIS, “This president needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home.”

For Graham, not only is the world filled with specific dangers, but it’s terrifying in an overarching way, leading to a kind of free-floating anxiety that seems to influence how he views any particular issue. Others may see a threat here and a threat there, but Graham knows that they add up to certain doom. Two years ago, he told Fox News, “The trifecta from hell is unfolding in front of us. Iran is about to get a nuclear weapon, Syria is about to infect the entire region, taking Jordan down, and Egypt could become a failed state…I’m just telling you, we live in the most dangerous times imaginable.”

Last year, he said, “The world is literally about to blow up,” which might have been a Joe Biden “literally,” meaning “not literally,” but maybe not. “I’m running because of what I see on television,” he said two weeks ago. “The world is falling apart.”

And every problem we face can only lead to catastrophe. “I believe that if we get Syria wrong, within six months — and you can quote me on this — there will be a war between Iran and Israel over their nuclear program,” he said in September 2013. “My fear is that it won’t come to America on top of a missile, it’ll come in the belly of a ship in the Charleston or New York harbor.” Almost two years later, though Graham certainly believes the Obama administration has gotten Syria wrong, Israel and Iran have not gone to war and Charleston harbor remains oddly un-nuked.

What impact he will have on the race remains to be seen. It isn’t as though the other GOP candidates are a bunch of doves. Only Graham, though, is offering a campaign based on true white-knuckle terror. It’s hard to see it going over all that well.

Waldman writes for The American Prospect.