Lindsey Graham #ReadyToLead

Why Lindsey Graham is the Defeated Commander

21 minutes to read
Lovise Neess


Lindsey Graham failed to capture the electorate. In this paper, I analyze his communication: his political message will be identified and scrutinized to understand why his campaign failed in getting electoral support.



The world is literally about to blow up! (Mulero, 2014). Senator Lindsey Graham was certainly not cheerful when he was commenting on President Obama’s State of the Union address of 2014. As it seems, Senator Graham was troubled by the external threats of terrorism, ISIS in particular, to the extent that this  foreign policy issue was his main political argument in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination (Graham, 2015a). Unfortunately for the former U.S Air Force lawyer, it turned out to be too challenging to compel the voters, and the Senator ended up at the low end of the polls (Rappeport, 2015a). By November 2015, Graham did not even qualify for the forth debate stage and was forced to engage via the social media platform “sidewire” during the debates (Rappeport, 2015b). On December 21st, 2015, Graham announced his withdrawal from the 2016 presidential campaign (Haberman & Rappeport, 2015).

Although Lindsey Graham did not manage to win the electorate, his voice was loud, clear and known to be one of the most hawkish when it comes to foreign policy issues (Weignant, 2015a). In contrast to other politicians, Graham was remarkably specific in his strategies for beating terrorism, and he often supported his arguments with a reference to his 33 years of U.S military experience. Additionally, he challenged his fellow Republican candidates to express a clearer stance on foreign policy issues (Graham 2015b), and to be more explicit on “what it takes to make our country safe”(Graham,nd). In the light of the attention put on defeating terrorism and ISIS by the Republican side, it has been commented that it is a bit odd that Graham did not pick up more votes (Weignant, 2015b). Interestingly, various media announced Graham as the winner of several debates (Schram, 2015 ; Bump, 2015), however, his political message did not seem to convince the voters.

Thus, despite promoting himself as a strong leader with a clear agenda and the ability to take action, as well as doing well in several debates, Lindsey Graham clearly failed in capturing the electorate. In this paper, I will analyse that failure. 


Methodology, Method and the Data

This analysis has its basis in ethnography, as this method provides an approach to analyzing language in its wider context (Maly, 2016). A fundamental part of ethnography is to understand the role of language in society: what a certain language means to its users, and how this is manifested. Furthermore it is important to bear in mind that language is contingent on context, and thus “operates differently in different environments" (Blommaert, 2005). 

This paper will focus on the political message Lindsey Graham sent to the electorate. The context is “presidential campaign communication”, and the data will be collected within this context from various media platforms. 


We need a president who is prepared to be Commander in Chief on day one. Our nation faces grave threats at home and in every region of the globe. - Lindsey Graham

I will mainly analyze Graham´s own communication on his personal and official campaign website and Facebook account, as well as in debates and interviews. I will additionally explore how a variety of media conveyed his communication. First, the discursive battle shall be identified. With this concept I refer to ‘discursive battles for hegemony in the sense of creating temporary fixations of meaning’ (De Cleen 2015: 2; Torfing 1999: 36–38). Maly (2016) stresses that such discursive battles are waged over the definition of words, the interpretation of facts, the understanding of the ideology or the general image of the party. It is from that perspective that I will analyze Graham’s discourse in detail. The following concepts will be of great importance in that analysis:

  1. Intertextuality: Lindsey Graham's discourse is interpreted in the historical context of courte durée, namely the past decades and present, primarily in the light of the events of 9/11 and the “war on terrorism” discourse that emerged after the terrorist attack.
  2. Communication and indexicality: How Graham communicates and frames his political message and identity.


Discursive battle: The fight against radical Islam, ISIL.

“I’m running for president because the world is falling apart”, Lindsey Graham stated when announcing his presidential campaign. “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”, he continued (Jaffe, 2015).

As such, Lindsey Graham declared a clear and determined mission that would dominate his presidential campaign. No ambiguous veil was cast over his political message, and on his own official campaign site his discursive battle was conveyed in a detailed manner.   

"We need a president who is prepared to be Commander in Chief on day one. Our nation faces grave threats at home and in every region of the globe. Radical Islam is on the rise, and authoritarian leaders in Russia and China perpetrate their aggressions with impunity. Our allies distrust us and our enemies have no reason to respect or fear us. We need a president who understands the complex threats we face, has a clear and coherent strategy for addressing them, and will restore American leadership as a stabilizing force that reduces the chaos and conflict that currently engulf so much of the world. As president, Lindsey Graham would ensure we have the capability, the capacity, and the will to preserve our security and our values at home and abroad" (Graham, 2015b).

Graham thus makes clear that there are great threats “out there”, which need to be defeated. In order to do so, strong and clear (American) leadership is paramount. 


Securing our Nation, our Future and our Values

On his personal campaign site, Graham announces three main political issues: “Securing our Nation, Securing our Future, Securing our Values”. Interestingly, these issues seem to be fundamentally intertwined. Under “Securing our Future”, Graham states: 

 National security and economic security are inextricably linked. A strong prosperous, growing economy enables our nation to project leadership worldwide and effectively address the range of security threats we face. By the same token, a strong national defense preserves our liberties and ensures that every American has the opportunity to achieve economic success and pursue a higher quality of life.xv

By linking economic growth and protection of liberties to national security, Graham establishes his discursive battle for an aggressive foreign policy as something fundamental to the quality of life. It may also seem like Graham is taking advantage of as many opportunities as possible to convey his message. In the first round of the CNN Republican Presidential Debate on September 16th, 2015 Graham interestingly chose to use the thirty seconds for self introduction to focus on his main issue, as well as how he views the role as president. This can be seen as a contrasting move compared to the other Republican candidates, who put their focus on “belief in America” (Pataki) or emphasized their most important role in life as “proud father and husband" (CNN, 2015)

Lindsey Graham is a “one issue man”.

Graham, however, went straight to the issue that concerns him the most: security and the thread of 'radical Islam':

(..) I´m running for president, to destroy radical Islam. To win the war on terror. To protect you and your family. And in that quest I have an uncompromised determination to win this war (…) I´m the most qualified to be Commander in Chief on day one. I understand this war. I have a plan to win it. And I intend to win it. (CNN, 2015)

The most important notion to be aware of, however, is that Graham explicitly presented the idea of himself as the dominant spokesman on foreign policy issues during his presidential candidate announcement. And he particularly accentuated his “hands on” experience: “I have one simple message. I have more experience with our national security than any other candidate”.( Easley, 2015). One can quite clearly identify Lindsey Graham as a “one issue man”, and that the emphasized focus on foreign policy and defeating radical Islam was a deliberate strategy for his presidential campaign (Allen, 2015).


From Bush to Graham: The War on Terrorism

International political attention for terrorism increased markedly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and in that regard the discourse on the subject also went through a change. Discursive research shows that former President Bush’s rhetoric in the time that followed after the terrorist attacks increasingly turned defining and categorical, which lead to an emergence of certain “parameters of thought” (Maggio, 2007). (Radical) Islam became 'the enemy' and was associated with anti-democratic tendencies, oppression of women, hatred of the West and terrorism. 'We' were defined as the opposite of 'them'. 'We were democratic, tolerant and pro-human rights (Maly, 2009).

The discursive limitations and the defined categories, therefore, created a certain way of thinking about the subject of terrorism. These features lead us to the notion of intertextuality: namely the notion that when we speak, we use the words of others.xii In the historical context of a so-called courte durée, the discourse of Lindsey Graham in his discursive battle on foreign policy and terrorism will be further analyzed relative to the concepts of ideology and hegemony.

The War on Terror and the Axis of evil

In his address of September 21st to the Congress and the American people, Bush announced the well-known “War on terror”.  In the same speech one also finds: “The course of the conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know God is not neutral between them." (Bush, 2001)

Here, one can see a use of the rhetorics of good vs. bad, by contrasting the words. Furthermore, the speech has a clear link between political actions as to defend core human values, and it makes a distinction between those who want to secure these rights and those who do not: “This is a world’s fight. This is civilization’s fight. This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom” (Wurx, 2013).

Also, in the State of the Union address of 2002, Bush introduced the now very wellknown expression “axis of evil”, to categorize states (Iran, Iraq and North Korea) that were seen as helping terrorism and being in possession of weapons of mass destruction (Nobrega, 2013). This use of “evil” to define a certain group additionally has a clear parallel to President Reagan who used the term “evil empire” about the Soviet Union in a speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983 (CNN, 2015).

The evil empire is back

In the CNN debate in the Ronald Reagan Library on September 15th, Lindsey Graham drew specific reference to the “evil empire” metaphor, comparing the current terrorist threats to the cold war as well as using Bush’s “war on terror”:

I’m running for president to destroy radical Islam, to win the war on terror, to protect you and your family. And in that quest I have an uncompromising determination to end this war, just like president Reagan had an uncompromising determination to destroy the evil empire and win the cold war. ("Islam is Peace" Says President, 2001).

Another relevant aspect of comparison is how a certain definition of Islam versus terrorism is made. Bush held his “Islam is Peace” speech on September 17th, 2001, which disassociated Islam from the terrorist actions in order to remedy his 'crusade speech' of the 11th of September in order to secure the ties with the allies in the Middle-East. In that speech he explicitely said that “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war” (Terkel, 2015).

In the CNN GOP debate of 15th December, Lindsey Graham stated in an attack on Donald Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country:

This is a religious war between radical Islam and the rest of the world. And there is only one way we’re gonna win this war. Help people in Islam who reject radical Islam to fight over there and destroy this ideology. Donald Trump has done the one single thing you cannot do. Declare war on Islam itself. ISIL would be dancing in the streets. They just don’t believe in dancing. (…) If I am president we will work together. People in the faith through all over the world will destroy this radical ideology. Declaring war on the religion only helps ISIL. (CNN, 2015)

First of all, the frequent use of  “war” and “win” is worth noticing, being the very same terms Bush established to describe the world situation in the aftermath of 9/11. In Graham’s statement, like in Bush' speeches, there is only one certain outcome; namely victory. There is a clear comparison with Bush’s perspective of a “world’s fight” and “civilization’s fight” (Text of George Bush's speech, 2011), between the “bad guys” and the rest of the (good) world, when Graham states “religious war between radical Islam and the rest of the world”.

Thus, it seems like Graham aims to frame the same message Bush attempted to, namely to mark a distinction between “true” Islam and the terrorists, as well as the need to support “peaceful” Muslims in order to create allies in the Middle-East. 

The (radical) Islam is the enemy

Here is a notable difference: the Obama administration deliberately avoids any mention of Islam so as not to connect extremism to religion (Democrat vs Republican, 2016). And even the Bush administration chose not to frame the War on terror all to explicitely in terms of Islam. Lindsey Graham, on the other hand, points out that the “radical ideology” must be defeated, while he simultaneously states that it is a religious war. Hence, he mixes the terms in describing radical Islam both as a religion and ideology that needs to be fought. It is even more confusing when Graham says that there is a religious war, but in the next turn claims that one should not declare war on Islam itself. 

The discourse is fuzzy, and that is no coincidence. Graham importantly frames the message of a definite “enemy” that needs to be fought. He talks in a well established tradition of political speech that frames the (Radical) Islam as the enemy 'par excellence'. This discourse is hegemonic and has proven to be electorally rewarding. At the same time, he used it strategically and in specific contexts, in order 

  1. to distance himself from the 'very radical' anti-Muslim-discourse of Trump and 
  2. secure the good relations with allies like Saudi-Arabia. The question whether the audience is able to distinguish the terms and their meanings, is irrelevant. His message is one-dimensional and clear. We should see him as the experienced commander of the War against (radical) Islam. The question is, whether this one-dimensional position as a warrior will score.

Graham clearly slides quite smoothly into typical “neoconservatism”. He is a strong defender of the core, conservative values such as traditional marriage, pro-life, right to bear arms and so on. However, the most relevant concern in this regard is that conservative Republicans are known to be more supportive of military interventions and of maintaining a strong army (Democrats vs Republicans, 2016).

As such, one may view Lindsey Graham's discourse as representing a certain culture and ideal, a result of a historical development. He is in line with 'the Bush-discourse' and the war-hungry republican stance, and speaks like a true hawkish Republican. But times have changed.

Noteworthy is the fact, that the support of Republican voters for American warfare has declined remarkably in the last years (Terkel, 2016). This means on the one hand that Graham’s rather “masculine”, political message probably does not even look sexy to many fellow party members who share the same core values. As such, Graham becomes too much for his own "gang", and the votes remain absent. And on the other hand, all those within the Republican party longing for a hawkish and 'masculine' discourse on War against (radical) Islam, have another candidate: Mr. Trump.


Communication & Indexicality


Graham’s political message has been established, as well as why it fails from an ideological point of view at this point in time. The following part will analyze how his political message is communicated, by using indexicality as a framework for understanding. The term refers to the constant use of particular signs to address various social and cultural frames, in which the communicated message is desired to be understood. Every meaning, every message, is therefore also context contingent, because the social norms and expectations vary in the different environments (Blommaert, 2015)


Indexing Identity: Commander in Chief

“I’m ready to be Commander in Chief on day one”, Graham proclaimed when he announced his candidacy (Graham, 2015d) As already mentioned, Graham tends to be more a fan of the job description “commander in chief” rather than that of “president” (Graham, 2015e)





The preference of “commander in chief” as work title is perhaps the most reasonable choice, considering his discursive battle. By referring to himself as the top military leader, Graham is indexing himself with a specific identity that corresponds perfectly with, and even accentuates, his political message. Quite opposite to his fellow candidates, Lindsey Graham has been remarkably specific in his political agenda, to defeat radical Islam, and introduced the “GrahamPlan”, which entailed a detailed strategy, including the need of at least “10,000 boots on the ground” in Syria I(n-Studio With WMUR's Adam Sexton, Graham Discusses The #GrahamPlan To Destroy ISIL, 2015).


Semiotically and linguistically, Graham indexed his “commander in chief” identity by using images with text. He operated with hashtags such as #ReadyForCommand, #GrahamPlan and #ReadyToLead, on his social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook.



Graham moreover holds on tightly to his southern accent, and with that, he also gives the typical “southern American culture” a face; down to earth, “taking no shit”, saying it as it is, - perhaps like a modern cowboy. It seems that his indexed identity is strategically wrapped around his political message, merely with a twist of the “southern man”. The downside is, however, that when having a strong identity on a hotly debated and sensitive issue, one cannot expect other than a love or hate response from the audience.


The hawkish & simplified rhetoric of Lindsey Graham

As a comment on the terror attempt on the train bound to Paris last year that was stopped by two American citizens, Graham stated to Fox News Sunday: “The whole world is a battlefield and radical Islam is everywhere”. In answering whether passports should be limited by the U.S government, Graham continued: “Absolutely. I think we need to be a nation at war. We’re letting our defenses down. We’re not acting like we’re at war anymore. We’re acting like we’re trying to fight a crime. It’s going to come back and bite us” (Schuldberg, 2015).

The same rhetoric wording was used in interview with MSNBC on terrorism and ISIL:

We are a magnet to these people because we won´t bow to Islam. At the end of the day it is nothing we have done that creates this problem. They have a view of religion that would kill us all simply because we don’t bow to Islam. This idea that we bring this upon ourselves is a misunderstanding of the war. (…) These people are religious Nazis. Would you have said that about the Nazis? Do you believe they are worse than the Nazis, equal the Nazis or not as bad as the Nazis? I think they are equal to the Nazis and in many ways worse. The wake up call is coming. They’re coming here if we don’t stop them. This is a religious war. We didn’t bring it upon ourselves. I don’t know why they’re crazy, but they are (MSNBC, 2015).

The first extract demonstrates a sense of pride and righteousness by concluding that acts of terrorism exist “simply because we won’t bow to Islam”. Further on, the statement “nothing we have done creates this problem” frees any responsibility related to political actions or involvement that could be suggested to induce growth of terrorism. Graham moreover plays with the rhetorics of life and death by saying “kill us all”, “they are coming here”. 

The parallels to death, on a rather big scale, continues with a straight comparison of ISIL with Nazi Germany in the second extract. By doing so, he naturally evokes fear, but moreover gives the audience a point of reference that makes the idea of ISIL more concrete to grasp. The big problem is that the complex historical, cultural, economical, geographical and political aspects are not taken into account, and then the discourse ends up being too simplified and perhaps even wrong. 

In that course, the right to call arms also becomes justified, necessary even, because if an enemy is publicly perceived as “the worst”, as bad as Hitler, nobody wants to be the one who ignored the danger before it was too late  (Lennard, 2015). As such, it makes sense that Graham uses the Nazi analogy in his discourse, to shorten the path to the Commander in Chief office. 

Graham did not succeed, but simplified rhetoric is very dangerous when abused. Ironically, one can have a look at the Nazi propaganda to discover that. Also, by asking: “Do you believe they are worse than the Nazis, equal the Nazis or not as bad as the Nazis?”, Graham puts the adressee in a position where it’s hard to disagree or come up with a nuanced, short answer, and it becomes an easy move for Graham to “win” the argument.


The one-liner man

Aside from being consistent in his political message on defeating radical Islam and securing the homeland, Lindsey Graham has marked himself as having a sharp tongue, and one who adds a witty, entertaining tone to his points.                                                                              



In the GOP debate, Graham freshly articulated his feelings about President Putin “I'm not afraid of a guy riding around on a horse without a shirt” and as such, he ridiculed the famous photos of Putin where he shows off a macho image. To his Republican competitor Ted Cruz and his foreign policy, Graham stated in the final CNN debate; “Ted, getting in bed with Iran and Russia to save Assad is inconceivable. Princess Buttercup would not like this.”, referring to the movie “The Princess Bride”, which Cruz has quoted quite a lot in his campaign (Krieg, 2015).                                               



Along with his wit, Graham worked with a “funny” body language, particularly in the final CNN debate, by making eye rolls when not agreeing with the other candidates. This received laughter in the audience. About his Democratic opponent, Bernie Sanders, Graham said: “The number two guy went to the Soviet Union on his honeymoon, and I don’t think he ever came back! (Cheney, 2015) By that, Graham made the point that Sanders is a bit too socialist for his taste. 

However, the most lethal verbal attacks were to be found in his quarrels with Donald Trump. On the aforementioned proposal on banning Muslims from entering the country, Graham reacted with: “He’s a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot”, and “You know how to make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.” (Graham, 2015f). As such, he used Trump’s own slogan against him. 

Although Graham remained low in the polls, his rhetorical style with these spiced up insults received great applauds from the media and audience, both during the debate and in the online world (Kireg, 2015 ; Alberta & Levinson 2015 ;; Roldan, 2015 ; Voorhees, 2015) However, being applauded for funny and direct language does not necessarily mean that the White House is the next stop. It is possible that people merely enjoy the show more when politicians make the debate more exciting. Committing and agreeing to his discursive battle are different things. Although Graham was a hawk and sometimes a comedian in the debates, the Trump circus beat him tremendously, in terms of celebrity value, insults and entertainment effort. That is perhaps also one explanation why Graham did not shine through to the voters.



This analysis indicates that having a clear, political message is not enough to win the electorate. One of the reasons is that the discourse represents a certain ideology and hegemony whose power is dependent on the social context, and right now, it is implied that Americans are tired of aggressive war. Graham favored an aggressive - 10 000 boots on the ground - war against ISIL. As such, he made himself truly unpopular even in his own party. This notion turned highly problematic for Graham when he only had one issue to focus on.

Graham’s communicated identity as “commander in chief” together with his hawkish discourse, are designed to embrace the one political message, and very little else. This also means that witty performances cannot aid a strategy that does not engage the voters, perhaps even the opposite, as “eye rolling” is not normally associated with a strong, military leader. Graham may therefore risk weakening his original, indexed identity and message. So, instead of sitting in the Oval Office and defeating radical Islam with his #GrahamPlan, Lindsey Graham is instead left with the harsh reality of being the defeated commander.

However, although Lindsey Graham did not make it to the White House, his hawkish discourse still may have pushed the general discourse towards a “Graham” direction. By challenging the other candidates to answer on his own terms, not only the discourse, but also ideas on how the world is perceived, change. As such, he might, if just slightly, have altered the current political discourse and ideology on defeating terrorism.



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