McCain's political legacy is Trump's presidency
The late Sen. John McCain was laid to rest over Labor Day weekend, with family and friends, political colleagues and opponents, and a coterie of other respectable and respectful people all gathering to grieve over the war hero and lawmaker they loved and admired.
President Trump was notably absent. Before his death, McCain reportedly made it clear that America's 45th president was not welcome at his funeral. This isn't particularly surprising, as the two had long and famously feuded, their divergence perhaps best highlighted by Trump's widely derided criticism of McCain for being "captured" and held as a prisoner of war for more than five years in Vietnam.
But despite Trump's physical absence from McCain's funereal events, the president very clearly loomed over the whole thing.
We all know Trump lacks the nuanced pageantry of the elite lawmakers and power brokers who gathered to mourn the late Arizona senator. But it was still a little surprising to find a not-so-subtle undercurrent of anti-Trumpism at McCain's funeral. The most obvious example was Meghan McCain, who eulogized her father by saying, "We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness. The real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly, nor the opportunistic appropriation of those who lived lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served."
She was hardly alone in throwing shade at Trump. So many of the gathered elites seemed to seethe with the same question: How dare this tacky New York billionaire ascend to the nation's highest office through his brash rhetoric and hostility to longstanding institutions?
The truth is that America's political elites have only themselves to blame for Trump's rise. Trump didn't ascend to the White House in spite of McCain and Co. It was because of the politics of the McCains, Bushes, Obamas, and Clintons of the world.
President Trump ran against nearly everything McCain championed for 35 years, not just in style, but on policy grounds. Trump said the Iraq War — which McCain aggressively trumpeted — was a mistake that we were lied into. Trump vowed to deport illegal immigrants, build a wall, and reduce legal immigration. McCain — despite his laughably pandering "Complete the danged fence" ad of 2010 — wanted to extend amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants and drastically increase annual legal immigration. Trump has long vowed to fight the forces of globalization that have hurt American workers. Even in the last few months of his life, McCain held the line against Trump's position. "To our allies: Bipartisan majorities of Americans remain pro-free trade, pro-globalization & supportive of alliances based on 70 years of shared values. Americans stand with you, even if our president doesn't," McCain said in a tweet.
McCain — along with the Clintons, Bushes, and Obama — was a pillar of the neoliberal order that Trump is intent on smashing. Is it any wonder they hated each other?
But the real lesson is this: The politics of McCain and Co. failed in the eyes of tens of millions of Americans. In 2016, America didn't pick the McCain-lite brand of politics as usual represented by Hillary Clinton. In the GOP primaries, they didn't pick longtime McCain pal Lindsey Graham, or any of the other establishment GOP candidate simpatico with McCain. They picked Trump.
A year before Trump ever came down his golden escalator, polls showed that not only did voters disapprove of sending troops to Iraq, even 70 percent of active military didn't want to send more troops to the nation they liberated a decade earlier. While McCain was advocating increases to immigration, a plurality and at times a majority of voters were demanding that Washington curb legal immigration and get tough on illegal border crossings. On free trade and globalization, even McCain's most loyal ally, Lindsey Graham, was able to see that the center had moved and many Americans wanted more protectionist policies.
McCain and his allies in Washington proved unable to see that tens of millions of Americans were fed up with politics as usual. This created a vacuum that Trump filled, as Bernie Sanders filled a similar opening on the left.
As images surfaced this weekend showing Hillary Clinton consoling Dick Cheney, the media reminisced about the political ruling class they once knew. Meanwhile, millions of voters were reminded of the out-of-touch elitism they rejected.
Americans lost a war hero whose courage and sacrifice should be commended. But they are also losing belief in a political system that has abandoned them.