The President's Post-Death Feud with McCain Is Trump at His Petty Worst
The absurd disrespect on display says a lot about what American politics has become.
Photo of Trump SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty; photo of McCain by Paul Morigi/WireImage
As pundits, journalists, and other angry people on the internet debate the complicated legacy John McCain left behind, the Arizona senator's colleagues paid tribute to him. Even Senator Bernie Sanders and congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—lefties who likely didn't agree with McCain on much of anything—called him an "American hero" and said his "legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service." This speaks to the kind of respect McCain commanded in DC, but it's also a somewhat routinized process: An important person dies, other important people genuflect to his memory. The norms that used to govern Congress have been eroded by decades of partisanship and bad faith, but the paying of respect to a figure like McCain shows that at least a veneer of civility remains.
The exception to the rule is Donald Trump, whose petulant, self-centered response to McCain's death says a lot about the president and the movement he leads.
Trump did issue a brief, vague tweet saying his "deepest sympathies and respect" went out to McCain's family. But the president also reportedly rejected a statement written by his staff that would have gone into more detail about McCain's life and referred to him as a "hero." On Monday, flags in the capital remained at half-staff, which is normal when a sitting senator dies—but the White House flag was flying high after being lowered on Sunday, while the president ignored reporters' questions about McCain. (Other flags were later raised to match the White House's flags.)
That profile in pettiness was widely seen as the continuation of a long-running feud between Trump and McCain, which began in 2015 during the GOP primary when the senator criticized Trump's remarks about Mexicans and the presidential candidate replied with customary vitriol, saying during a campaign event, "He's not a war hero. He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured.”
That Trump not only survived the resulting controversy but won the primary while painting himself as an advocate for veterans says a lot about American politics. Firstly, it reveals that no matter how revered McCain was in DC, that reverence was not shared by the Republican base, who didn't punish Trump for those remarks. But Trump's campaign did not thrive in spite of his viciousness but because of it. His blunt, sometimes offensive statements might have turned some people off, but they also convinced some voters he was a truth teller. "He doesn't put a sugar coating on it. He's fucking America—I love that," one veteran told VICE during the campaign.
Trump's willingness to hold a grudge and publicly gripe about his opponents in public may have helped him win in 2016 because people were in the mood to cheer an insurgent who was just as fed up and distrustful of DC as they were. But the constant beefing wasn't a campaign tactic, it was just who Trump is. In stark contrast to McCain, who was famous for maintaining friendships with Democrats and helping build bipartisan coalitions on issues like campaign finance reform and immigration, Trump's hostility to anyone who criticizes him even lightly appears to be his driving motivation at times—and it's impeding his ability to govern the country.
The president's dispute with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer over a border wall is one factor stalling a key bit of New York infrastructure. He utterly failed to build any kind of coalition even among his own party during the push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, contributing to the repeal's failure when McCain cast the deciding vote against it. And his narcissistic personality evidently doesn't appeal to a majority of Americans, who disapprove of his performance even though the economy is performing well.
If it wasn't obvious before his response to McCain's death, Trump is making American politics even nastier and more negative than it was. Just before McCain died, Kelli Ward, a Trump-loving Republican running to replace Arizona Senator Jeff Flake this year, accused McCain of timing an announcement that he was discontinuing treatment for his brain cancer to hurt her campaign. And though McCain's former running mate Sarah Palin had kind words about him after his death, before he died she complained to the Daily Mail that people around him "weren't serving him well" and that "I believe he was told things about what America really wanted or really needed because he's been in that DC bubble for so many years."
It's unlikely that Trump's disrespecting McCain will cause him any lasting damage. That's because that kind of pointless sniping is by now baked into the cake of this administration and government. No one expects the president to be honorable or decent or pause even for a second in shit-talking his many enemies. I'd say the flag thing is a low point even for Trump because it's utterly unnecessary, but it's all low points and it's not going to get any better from here on out.
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