Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, has a theory about President Donald Trump. The president is a “narcissist,” not a racist, Graham told reporters on Wednesday. A racist hates everyone of a certain color or ethnicity, said Graham. A narcissist, on the other hand, makes exceptions for those who flatter or support him.
That’s an accurate assessment of how Trump thinks. But it’s an elaboration, not a refutation, of the president’s bigotry. Trump is a narcissist and a racist. He uses racism as a weapon to serve his narcissism. And his narcissism, in turn, shapes his racism. Because Trump equates love of America with love of himself, he treats his domestic critics—particularly those of African, Middle Eastern, or Latin American ancestry—as enemies of the United States.
In his latest attack, Trump tweeted that four Democratic congresswomen—one black, one Latina, one Palestinian American, and one Somali American—should “go back” to the countries from which they “originally came.” Reporters reminded Trump that all four women were citizens and that three were born in this country. He refused to back down. At a rally in North Carolina on Wednesday night, the president lambasted the congresswomen, particularly Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who was born in Somalia. He paused for effect as the crowd chanted, “Send her back!”
None of this, according to Graham, was racist. “A racist says, ‘Go back to Somalia because you’re a Somalian or you’re a Muslim or whatever,’ ” Graham told reporters on Wednesday before the rally. Trump doesn’t operate that way, said Graham. “If you’re a Somali refugee who likes Trump, he’s not going to say, ‘Go back to Somalia.’ … It’s not about being from Somalia. It’s about whether you support him or not.” On Thursday, Graham presented a similar defense of the “Send her back” chant. “If you’re a Somali refugee wearing a MAGA hat, he doesn’t want to send you back. You’ll probably have dinner at the White House,” said Graham. “If you embrace his policies, it doesn’t matter where you come from.”
It’s true that Trump makes exceptions for people of color who are nice to him. In 2016, he praised a black man at one of his campaign events, telling the audience, “Look at my African American over here.” Trump called the man “a fan of mine” and commended him for punching a protester. To Trump, the loyalty was personal: my, mine. But when Omar criticized the president, he accused her of disloyalty to America. On Monday at the White House and on Wednesday at the rally, he smeared her as a traitor and terrorist sympathizer. He baited the rally crowd into its “Send her back” chant by telling lies about Omar, including a fabricated quote: “Al-Qaida makes you proud. You don’t speak that way about America.”
The president is waging a similar campaign of character assassination against Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a congresswoman of Palestinian descent who was born in Michigan. In January, Tlaib called for Trump’s impeachment, referring to him as a “m—–f—–.” Trump declared her language unpatriotic, calling it “highly disrespectful to the United States of America.” At Wednesday’s rally, he framed Tlaib’s contempt for him as contempt for America. Tlaib “used the F word to describe the presidency and your president,” Trump told the crowd. “She was describing the president of the United States and the presidency with the big fat … vicious F-word. That’s not somebody that loves our country.”
Trump has been playing this l’etat, c’est moi game for years. Throughout his first presidential campaign, he impugned the patriotism of people who disagreed with him. He targeted Latinos, Muslims, Arab Americans, and African Americans. Even giving one’s life in military service wasn’t enough, in Trump’s eyes, to overcome the sin of opposing Trump. When Khizr Khan, the father of a slain Muslim U.S. Army officer, criticized Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States, Trump repeated his warnings about “radical Islamic terrorism” and suggested that Khan’s wife, as a Muslim woman, “wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.” Trump justified his smear by complaining that Khan had “viciously attacked me.”
The clearest case of Trump’s narcissistic racism was his 2016 slander of Gonzalo Curiel, a federal judge in California. In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Trump declared Curiel unfit to preside over a lawsuit against Trump University because, although Curiel was a U.S. citizen born in Indiana, the judge was “of Mexican heritage.” According to Trump, this presented “an inherent conflict of interest” since “I’m building a wall. I am trying to keep business out of Mexico.”
Trump said he had no problem with most Latinos. “I employee thousands of Latinos,” he told Tapper. “I employ, over the years, thousands of Mexicans. They’re great. … I sell them apartments.” Trump said he wouldn’t have had any issues with Curiel, either, if Curiel had treated him better. “If he were giving me fair rulings, I wouldn’t be talking to you this way,” said Trump. But Curiel was handling the case in a way Trump didn’t like. And that, according to Trump, raised a sinister question: “Why?” The answer, according to Trump, was that Curiel was Mexican—and, on that basis, “should recuse himself.”
Everything in Trump’s rant against Curiel matches Graham’s diagnosis. If Curiel had ruled in Trump’s favor, Trump would have treated him no differently from a white judge. But when Curiel made trouble, Trump played the race card. He framed the judge’s unfavorable rulings in a private fraud case not just as anti-Trump, but as anti-American. It’s the same racist-nationalist-narcissistic maneuver Trump is now attempting against Omar and Tlaib.
Graham understands this. Three and a half years ago, he excoriated Trump for proposing the Muslim ban. “He’s a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot,” said Graham. “He doesn’t represent the values that the men and women who wear the uniform are fighting for.” But now, as Trump vilifies two Muslim congresswomen and tells them to leave the country, Graham says it’s not racism. Trump is the same man he was then. It’s Graham who has changed.
Trump has no principles. He doesn’t believe in white supremacy any more than he believes in equality, pluralism, or civil rights. All he has is a set of resentments—his and his supporters’—that he’s willing to deploy whenever they suit him. He’ll go after whatever he can use against you: your ancestry, your religion, your disability, your sex. Racism is part of his narcissism, and narcissism is part of his racism. That’s his sickness. And the sickness in his party is that to men like Graham, the narcissism somehow counts as a defense.