While the death of Arizona Senator John McCain has inspired heartfelt tributes from mainstream Democrats and Republicans alike, his long-time detractors have shown little reluctance to call his legacy into question. Here in Arizona, where he was regularly criticized for his tendency to seek positive coverage in the national media instead of the legislative results his constituents were hoping for, many conservatives expressed relief that he was finally out of the way. And, while most political moderates spoke approvingly of the service he gave his country, progressives were less likely to let him off the hook for the role he played in its imperialist adventures, from Vietnam through Iraq and Afghanistan.
My own left-leaning social feed seemed to be split evenly between positive and negative assessments of McCain, which is surprising when you consider the respect typically shown for the newly deceased, regardless of past misdeeds. David Bowie was practically turned into a saint overnight, despite widespread accusations of statutory rape in the 1970s. Michael Jackson’s disturbing interactions with grade school-age boys was barely mentioned in the wake of his overdose. And even Richard Nixon was given favourable burnishing, with numerous stories about his administration’s foreign and domestic achievements stealing the limelight from Watergate.
No doubt part of the reason McCain was handled so roughly is that Donald Trump has inaugurated a new era in American political discourse, in which causing offence is practically a badge of honour. McCain, a notoriously hot-tempered individual, was not exactly a model of decorum himself. But he had a gift for reframing his outbursts as stepping stones to the “straight talk” others were too timid to provide. And he usually managed to use his carefully cultivated personal relationships, both with fellow politicians and members of the media, to give the impression that his long-term goal was constructive dialogue in the service of the greater good.
I think this is a big deal.
Earlier this month, John McCain and I sent a letter to Romania’s government pushing them to stand up to corruption. Then, Giuliani – Trump’s spokesman – sent a letter contradicting both our letter and the State Dept position. And he got paid for it. https://t.co/jk2EEciC9r
— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) August 30, 2018
In the eloquent farewell letter to the American people shared after he had passed away, McCain once again returns to the seemingly contradictory arguments he made over and over again, throughout his political career. On the one hand, he reasserts his staunch belief in American exceptionalism. After declaring that, “we are citizens of the world’s greatest republic”, he goes on to indicate his definition of greatness: “We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the progress.”
In other words, that greatness does not simply consist of wealth and power. It also derives from the United States’ commitment to making life better for people who do not live there. Coming from someone who was the son of an admiral, who dropped a great many bombs during the Vietnam War, and consistently advocated for an interventionist foreign policy that has led to tremendous loss of life, these words may seem hypocritical. But there is no doubt whatsoever that McCain was a proponent of Carl von Clausewitz’s famous dictum that war represents the continuation of politics by other means.
Unlike the increasingly large percentage of political hawks in both the Democratic and Republican parties who never came close to serving in the military, McCain knew firsthand how horrible war could be. Despite reminding anyone who’d listen to this fact, however, he still maintained that war was sometimes necessary in order to achieve long-term goals like spreading democracy and improving the standard of living. To be sure, it is easy to look at the United States’ history of military interventions since World World War II and conclude that, even when these goals were partially achieved, the “collateral damage” inflicted in the process was too extreme to justify. The crucial point is whether these failures were strategic or ideological.
If it were possible to pursue military action that did not cause large-scale suffering in order to achieve goals that might eventually alleviate it, would McCain’s approach to foreign policy be ethically defensible? Or is the problem that any use of force, no matter how limited and precise, is already hopelessly compromised. When McCain’s legacy is debated in the future, the answer to these questions will undoubtedly be at the forefront.
That is surely why McCain was one of the least popular American politicians worldwide, despite his popularity back home. The contrary fearlessness that seemed to characterize his best moments as a legislator could look every bit as dangerous from afar as the ignorant ramblings of Donald Trump. Many critics on the Left have been advocating that we counteract the mass-mediated reverence being devoted to McCain this week by imaginatively occupying this outsider’s perspective, to try to feel what it’s like to be in constant danger because of the foreign policy decisions he both pushed for and, as an advocate for veterans’ rights, legitimated.
It’s a necessary exercise. The problem, though, is that if we reduce McCain to his international influence alone, we will fail to appreciate the significant role he played in domestic American politics. Although his experiences as a prisoner of war and supporter of the military shaped everything he did in Washington, as well as the way in which he was perceived by and through the media, McCain was both less consistent and more interesting when discussing domestic policy.
Again and again, he would seem to be inching towards more moderate positions on the social issues that the post-Reagan Republican Party has used to leverage its base, only to snap back into line with more ideologically consistent conservatives. It was never entirely clear whether this retrenchment was the result of McCain actually changing his mind; pragmatic political calculations about his potential for being reelected in a state full of hard-core reactionaries; or the fact that shadowy party operatives had kompromat on him – a distinct possibility, given his role in the Keating Five scandal of the late 1980s, not to mention some of the stories I’ve heard during my two decades in Arizona – that they were using as political blackmail.
Certainly, McCain’s much-derided choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential campaign piqued the interest of those with suspicious minds. Although he publicly declared his support for her, his facial expressions and body language told another story. During his otherwise gracious concession speech after Barack Obama had defeated him, McCain practically dripped disdain for Palin and her supporters in the Republican Party, an impression seemingly confirmed by the fact that, like Donald Trump, she wasn’t invited to attend his funeral.
Maybe it doesn’t matter why McCain’s voting record diverged from the rhetoric that led him to be branded a political maverick. Similar arguments have been made about Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom had a gift for giving speeches that seemed a lot more progressive and cosmopolitan than the policies their administrations pursued. Then again, when you consider how radically transnational corporations and billionaire donors have remade the political landscape in the United States, it might no longer be possible to do more than gesture towards a more supportive, inclusive society. As depressing as it may be to conclude that idealistic words rarely translate into deeds of consequence, the evidence is impossible to ignore.
But that doesn’t mean that the link between speech and action should be irrevocably severed, as Trump seems to suggest. Even if implementing certain policies and procedures is not politically feasible, that doesn’t mean that the desire for them should be snuffed out. Perhaps the most striking thing about McCain’s farewell letter is its resolute insistence that the greatness of the United States can only be sustained if the nation realizes how wrongheaded Trump’s flirtation with reactionary populism truly is.
“We weaken our greatness,” McCain exclaims, “when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.” The critique of the White House’s 1920s-style isolationism couldn’t be more clear, right down to the implicit juxtaposition of Trump’s campaign promise to “build a wall” with Ronald Reagan’s famous call to tear down the Berlin Wall.
More and more commentators have suggested that the divisiveness in American society right now has become a permanent affliction that will one day lead to some form of civil war. McCain rejects that pessimism, however, with a stirring call for solidarity. “We are 325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.”
McCain is hailing the American in both his supporters and opponents, an irreducible national identity that is supposed to transcend all partisanship. It’s the same move that Abraham Lincoln made in his best speeches and one which Barack Obama used to make himself a figure of importance at the 2004 Democratic convention when he declared his resistance to the idea that there are “red” and “blue” states. And it’s a move that a lot of people who disliked most of McCain’s political positions could be moved by, particularly if they were brought up to believe in the superiority of the nation’s political institutions.
— Liberal Resistance (@LiberalResist) August 30, 2018
The reality, as books like Howard Zinn’s influential A People’s History of the United States forcefully demonstrate, is that “Americanness” has always been differentially allocated. While most people living here may be susceptible to the sort of interpellation McCain’s farewell letter performs, whether their self-perception aligns with the perception of others is another matter. Skin colour, gender, sexual preference, religious beliefs, and the ancestry of immigrants – to name just the most obvious factors – have all been used over and over to reinforce structures that perpetuate discrimination and abuse.
Although McCain in many ways represented the essence of white male privilege, he sometimes tried to address the discrepancy between the ideals he promoted and the reality that fell far short of realising them. His effort to make American immigration policy both more efficient and humane was one important example. So was his dogged refusal to legitimate conspiracy theories about Barack Obama on the campaign trail in 2008, a decision that may well have cost him the election. It’s no accident, after all, that Donald Trump’s political career began with him supporting the call for Obama to prove that he was an American citizen. Whatever else you want to say about McCain’s successes and failures – which he confesses to in the farewell letter – this resistance to Internet-fueled rumour looks even more admirable and important a decade later than it did at the time.
In the end, though, perhaps McCain’s most important contribution to American politics was inadvertent. In repeatedly articulating his vision of a United States brought together by conflict with an external enemy, whether concrete – Iran, Russia, and many others – or abstract – “tyranny” and “poverty” – he made it clear how difficult it is to sustain a national identity without intervening in international affairs. The first-person plural of his farewell letter only manages to be so inclusive because of what it excludes. “We” are defined by what, where, and who we are not.
Nationalism is always going to be at odds with the sort of international cooperation that progressives have been seeking for centuries. That is nothing new. But at a time when it is reverting to its most virulent historical form, fortified by a reactionary populism that seeks to target the enemy within as well as the enemy without, McCain’s commitment to a different worldview is worthy of note. Yes, his declaration that “we are citizens of the world’s greatest republic” unapologetically endorses an American exceptionalism that has caused a great deal of collateral damage. But the whole sentence tells a different story: “We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideas, not blood and soil.”
Even if we must excoriate McCain for his role in promoting military interventions or how frequently he ended up voting the Republican Party line, we would do well to remember these words, which were carefully chosen to signal his fear that the greatest existential threat to the United States right now is the reactionary populism that Donald Trump has cheerfully exploited, yet lacks the political will or personal ethics to control. Although a staunch anti-communist throughout his career, John McCain devoted his last words to warning Americans about the danger posed by fascism.
Photograph courtesy of Gage Skidmore. Published under a Creative Commons license.