Like most political journalists in Washington, D.C., I just knew Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was over the minute he insulted John McCain.
On July 18, 2015, just a month after declaring his candidacy, Trump groused that the Arizona Senator and former Republican presidential nominee “was a war hero because he was captured” and “I like people that weren’t captured.” Three days later, I attended a foreign policy colloquy with McCain at the Hudson Institute, his first public appearance since Trump’s disparaging comments. A wall of cameras lined the back of the room. Not wanting to leave his friends in the press empty-handed, McCain began by addressing the “issue du jour.” Avoiding explicit mention of Trump, McCain characteristically deflected attention away from himself, instead taking offense on behalf of the many “18, 19-year-old draftees, who went and answered their country’s call and came back and were not well treated” by an America divided over the Vietnam War. “No matter . . . how this present controversy plays out,” McCain continued, “I’d like to make sure that whatever happens we maintain the respect and affection and appreciation for those who served a long time ago.”
Of course, Trump’s campaign did not collapse over his denigration of McCain’s war record. Nor would it flop when he joked about then-Fox News host Meghan Kelly’s menstrual period, mocked fellow candidate Carly Fiorina’s “face,” proposed banning all Muslim immigration, claimed he saw “thousands” of American Muslims cheer the attack on the World Trade Center, praised Vladimir Putin as a “strong leader,” asserted that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” and not lose any supporters, or suggested the “Second Amendment people” assassinate his opponent Hillary Clinton. Neither Trump’s years-long questioning of Barack Obama’s American citizenship nor his insult about Mexicans being rapists and criminals were sufficiently outrageous to stymie his ultimately successful campaign for the presidency.
And so the same will be said about the rousing sendoff given for McCain earlier this month at Washington, DC’s National Cathedral. McCain’s parting gift to the nation he loved was a dramatic, nationally-televised event at which speaker after speaker essentially endorsed his 2008 presidential campaign slogan, a modest statement of principle which defined his entire life: Country First. In a remarkable display of humility, McCain asked the two men who bested him in his own presidential ambitions—Obama and George W. Bush—to deliver eulogies. And as McCain had himself done at that think tank event three summers prior, none of the speakers mentioned Trump. But they didn’t have to, for the message throughout the morning was clear: The man Washington had come to bury exemplified the sort of traits—personal courage, patriotism, self-sacrifice, bipartisanship, honor—so clearly lacking in the current Commander-in-Chief.
Before the assembled guests had even departed the church, pundits were already declaring the service an epochal moment in the struggle against the Trump presidency, “the Biggest Resistance Meeting Yet,” in the words of the New Yorker’s correspondent. But it is this very perception—the great and the good of the nation’s capital convening at a funeral to denounce the sitting president of the United States—that all but guarantees the event will eventually be seen as just another episode in the country’s ongoing process of deepening polarization. Just as it was mistaken, in retrospect, to presume that Trump’s presidential campaign could be torpedoed by an insult about a war record, so are we are similarly deluding ourselves if we believe that a stirring expression of the old, bipartisan spirit will drive him out of Washington.
For in the minds of Trump and his many supporters, arrayed in that church was The Swamp. Dick Cheney, Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all sitting chummily together in the same pew to mourn the last lion of the Senate might represent an enviable sort of civility to those of us appalled by the current President’s rhetoric and behavior. But to those who voted for Trump and continue to support him through each and every outrage against decency, such a distinguished assemblage is exactly what they voted to overthrow: a smug, self-satisfied elite responsible for disastrous foreign wars of adventure, the financial crisis, the illegal use of a private email server for government business, the politicization of the IRS, and so on. That every bold-faced name in media was there among the mourners, waxing nostalgic about “The Maverick” (who, in the minds of many Trump backers, was a “warmonger” and advocate of open borders) further confirmed the corrupt nature of the spectacle.
Many of the President’s most steadfast supporters thrill to him not in spite but because of his insults, rudeness, and utter lack of decorum. In this sense, Trump could not be more different from McCain. In all the tributes offered to the late Senator since his death, perhaps the most oft-cited example of his virtue was an encounter during the 2008 presidential campaign when, at a town hall, he took the microphone away from a woman who had said his Democratic opponent with the funny-sounding name was an “Arab.” McCain, former Senator Joe Lieberman eulogized, “defended his opponent’s name and honor and thereby elevated for that moment our politics and made us a more perfect union.” According to Obama, McCain “saw himself as defending America’s character, not just mine.”
These tributes are correct in their appraisal of McCain the man, whose antiquated sense of honor was such that he ordered his campaign staff to avoid any mention of Obama’s radical preacher, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, on the dubious grounds that doing so was racist dog-whistling. (Of course, McCain’s conscientiousness didn’t stop those very same Democrats and journalists, who today laud him as a secular saint, from accusing him of racism anyway.) And yet the prominence afforded to this decade-old encounter in the eulogies for McCain illustrates how far we’ve gone through the Looking Glass: The white racial grievance which McCain scrupulously tried to avoid on the 2008 campaign trail was precisely what Trump appealed to eight years later.
“Have you left no sense of decency?” the lawyer Joseph Welch famously asked Senator Joe McCarthy in the summer of 1954. Today, historians point to this exchange as marking a major turning point in public opposition to McCarthyism, and one could hear an echo of it (as well as a little bit of Charles Spencer) in the eulogy delivered by the late Senator’s daughter, Meghan, who decried “cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly.” But as much as the media try to portray John McCain’s funeral as the Joseph Welch moment of the Trump presidency, its effect will likely be a sharpening of our divisions.