The McCain Eulogy Was as Frustrating as It Was Inspiring

The bipartisan condemnation of Trump was inspiring, but those who delivered it must examine their own role in creating his rise to power.

The eulogy service for John McCain yesterday was equal parts inspiring, instructive, and deeply frustrating.

On the simplest and most superficial level, it was a remarkable, multi-faceted comdemnation of Trump’s brand of bigoted despotism from all sides of the establishment political spectrum. From George W. Bush’s folksy direct appeals to the value of democracy to Barack Obama’s measured decency, each speaker in their own way contrasted McCain’s values with those of the current would-be tyrant in the White House. Trump’s name was never mentioned, but the entire affair was a stinging indictment of all the nasty, selfish ugliness he represents. And not surprisingly, the president refused to even sit in silence to take in the criticism, choosing instead to vaunt off to his private golf course attired in farthest-from-funereal whites and reds.

But to observe those present in that room was also to observe the institutional failures that led both directly and indirectly to Trump. One could not help notice, for instance, that Henry Kissinger, Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush were all seated together in honor of a man who consistently advocated for ever more expansive wars and sang capriciously about bombing Iran. It was more than a little disconcerting to observe half a dozen men who could and should themselves stand to serve in the dock of a war crimes tribunal speak in not-so-subtle invectives about the lack of decency and humanity of the current occupant of the White House–as if they themselves had not been the architects of multiple unnecessary wars and immoral coups and invasions all around the world at the cost of trillions in treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives.

It was strange to see such supposed antipathy expressed for the malign occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from a group of people who, unlike most Americans who must rely either on Robert Mueller or new election results in November, every single day possess the power to stop him. It was odd to see them do so in honor of a man who also possessed that power, but refused to use it except on a few high-profile votes. It would only take one Republican Senator to cross the aisle, and Trump would be forced to release his taxes and submit to multiple overlapping investigations that would likely drive him from office. Instead, Senator Lindsey Graham nodded solemnly at the eulogy even while loyally serving as Trump’s new pal and golf buddy over the last several months.

Perhaps most importantly, the old guard of politicians represented at the service were directly responsible for creating Trump. On the conservative side, every Republican politician has not only aided and abetted Trump since his election, they also for decades built an edifice of conspiratorial rhetoric against the left upon which birtherism and InfoWars were only the latest and newest parapets. They fed and nurtured the combined Southern Strategy and coddling of evangelical hatred that obsessed over welfare queens and Willie Horton and reveled in Islamophobia, misogyny and homophobia until it was only the next natural step to elect an openly racist serial sex abuser. They allowed Fox News to so utterly warp their messaging and incentives that rather than Fox News being their communications arm, they themselves became the legislative arm of Fox News.

But among both liberals and conservatives, the established order also represented an economic orthodoxy that led to a catastrophic decline in the middle class, a collapse in standards of living and life expectancies of the white working class, skyrocketing inequality, ballooning tuition, outrageous housing costs, shameful inequality and much more beyond. Worse, the normative order on both sides told us that these problems had no big solutions: that people would just have to adjust to the “new economy,” be flexible and willing to uproot themselves and their families geographically and spiritually, learn new skills on the fly or be crushed underfoot, find new innovative living arrangements, major in STEM fields or face starvation, drive Uber on the side, and use GoFundMe to beg for help to pay their medical bills. And we were told that all policymakers could do in either direction was tweak a few things around the edges, but that nothing transformative was either possible or desirable.

This careless dissociation from the needs and cares of the majority of Americans led to a sense of disconnection among a legion of young voters who lost faith in both capitalism and traditional mainstream liberalism. Combined with fears of growing demographic majorities among people of color and culturally progressive educated urbanites, a perception of economic scarcity exacerbated a gross racist backlash among the white working class designed to protect what little they felt they had left. This formerly Democratic constituency, when added to the usual group of well-to-do vaguely racist suburbanites that the GOP has been able to count on for decades, gave Trump just enough of an electoral college margin to take the Oval Office. Neither the Republican establishment in the primary nor the Democratic establishment in the general had compelling enough arguments to stop him, even granted that he had more than a little help from Russia and James Comey.

So yes, we should celebrate the fact that America’s most prominent current and former lawmakers came together to condemn the ghoulish creature running the Executive Branch. But we should also be unnerved by the utter lack of self-awareness of the people in that room about their own awful militaristic transgressions, as well as the direct hand they all had in creating him.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.