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MATTHEW BOOSE: John McCain is the liberal establishment’s new martyr
When John McCain was running for president in 2008, the left didn’t spare any punches.
In its endorsement of Barack Obama, the New York Times described McCain as an opportunist who threw away his reputation to appease the far-right in a campaign built on “partisan division, class warfare, and even hints of racism.” Huffington Post speculated that he was mentally unsound. Democratic lawmaker John Lewis compared him to George Wallace.
Fast forward to today, and things look quite different. Breathless tribute after breathless tribute is pouring in from the establishments of both parties and the mainstream media. Many of the same people that once opposed McCain have suddenly discovered that he was an American hero all along.
The short answer: Trump. The slightly longer answer: the movement Trump started.
The establishment loves McCain now because he spent his last days opposing Trump and his nationalist, populist movement. McCain impugned the “crude nationalism” Trump energized and compared Trump to a despot.
When Trump demurred from criticizing Putin in Helsinki, McCain called it the “most disgraceful performance” he had seen by a president “in living memory.” Likewise for the rest of Trump’s foreign policy heterodoxy, like his NATO-bashing and his overtures of friendship with North Korea. An immigration reformist to the end, McCain was no less critical of Trump’s hardline stance on the issue.
As Donald Trump sets fire to the establishment and its norms, the liberal left rehabilitates and accepts former Republican villains who are friendly to the establishment. Mitt Romney and George W. Bush have already received this treatment, and McCain did too before his death. Now, he is being beatified. The establishment wants to mythologize McCain as the Last Good Republican.
The narrative is ready-made: McCain was the principled, courageous hero of the establishment, the last great hope for decency in a party taken over by the uncouth, wheeling-and-dealing Trump.
The left is mourning McCain’s death as if civility itself were laid in the tomb. To be sure, there is something admirable about setting aside political differences to work together. What the left admires most in McCain, though, is the political strait-jacket that “decency” placed on his party.
A “bipartisan” Republican Party offers no challenge to the left. “Bipartisan” Republicans vote like Democrats. They don’t take a strong stand on immigration.
For the left, the ideal Republican Party is the party of McCain — compromising, self-effacing — not the irreverent, revanchist party of Trump.
If Trump is the new leader of the Republican party, then what does it mean when so many of the people lavishing praises on McCain are Trump’s enemies? It’s not by coincidence that Democrats like McCain more than Republicans do.
The liberal establishment is using McCain’s death to attack Trump and pressure the GOP to marginalize populism. They want conservatives to return to the civil conservatism that they had an easy time trouncing for so long.
In this attack, the left uses value-laden language to dismiss populism as a breach of character rather than a legitimate form of political dissent. To them, John McCain was decent, and any decent person should extol his life and career without qualification, just like any decent person would reject Trump and his bigoted politics.
By the same token, the establishment now reveres McCain not because of his character, but because he belonged to the establishment.
It’s understandable that some might admire McCain for appearing to be above politics, but he wasn’t. McCain shared much of the same globalist views espoused by his former political rivals. His bipartisanship didn’t have to reach very far.
While stark in appearance, the establishment’s sudden reverence isn’t really a change. A latent connection was always there. Trump just made it more obvious.
Before Trump, the liberal establishment had no real contenders. Now that they’re under attack, former rivals are turning out to have been friendlier than many supposed.
Joe Biden delivered a eulogy for McCain on Thursday, where he called him a “brother” with whom he shared “underlying values,” though they had “family fights.”
As Biden would have it, he shared with McCain an apolitical set of values. But the virtues he has suddenly discovered in McCain were really political commitments to a shared worldview, commitments that McCain proved by opposing Trump to the bitter end.
Obama’s initial tribute to McCain sounded like a paean to globalism. McCain and Obama, “despite [their differences],” shared “higher ideals” that they hoped to “advance…around the world.”
Trump’s exclusion from McCain’s funeral is another sign that the liberal establishment is really holding a funeral for itself. Granted, Trump did more than enough to deserve the snub. But he’s not the only one. Sarah Palin, McCain’s steadfast ally, was excluded too.
If McCain wanted it that way, then this is probably about more than personal insults. After all, Palin and the Tea Party presaged the Trump movement.
McCain has a complicated legacy. The establishment’s worship of him lacks subtlety and honesty.
They want to make him a hero — but only because Trump is their villain.
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