News & Opinion » Urban Journal

McCain, Trump, and the state of this nation

by

5 comments
Reading the news of John McCain's death, it was hard to keep the image of Donald Trump out of my mind. The contrast between the two is just too stark.

McCain certainly wasn't perfect. He believed that compromise is essential in a democratic government, but he could compromise his principles to an astonishing degree. (I don't know how else you explain his decision to have Sarah Palin run for vice president in 2008.)

And there have certainly been moments when he seemed to reveal a particularly condescending, racist (to me, at least) streak, sneering "that one" as he pointed to Barack Obama during a presidential candidates debate, as if he couldn't bear to say Obama's name.

But for many of us, our biggest objections to McCain had to do with his positions on important issues – positions that were consistent with his principles.

And he was willing to admit to mistakes. He was a strong supporter of the invasion of Iraq and defended it for years. But in his autobiography, released last year, he agreed that the invasion was a mistake, and that he shared in the blame for it.

He was unquestionably a conservative, and he voted that way. Despite his occasional push-back against Trump, during the first year and three-quarters of the Trump presidency, McCain voted with him 83 percent of the time.



He was willing to compromise and work with Democrats, though, joining with Ted Kennedy to push for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, with Joe Lieberman to push for controls on greenhouse-gas emissions, with Russ Feingold to strengthen campaign finance laws. And he formed a close friendship with Kennedy and Feingold.

He was willing to oppose his party, and his president – not often, but enough of the time to make a difference. In a dramatic session in the Senate shortly after he announced that he brain cancer, he joined Republican Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski in killing his party's attempt to end Obamacare.

And when he took a stand against waterboarding, in opposition to Republican leaders and the majority of Republican voters, his terrible personal experience as a prisoner of war gave him visibility and credibility few other people could have had.

In the New York Times on Saturday, Nicholas Kristof recalled McCain's strong opposition to waterboarding, in Congress and in speeches and campaign debates: “I know how evil this enemy is,” McCain told an audience in Iowa, but he added, “This is really fundamentally about what kind of nation the United States of America is.”

Yes, indeed. So are the words and actions of our current president.

The day before McCain's death, the Times published a thought-provoking column by Roger Cohen on the state of the nation under Donald Trump. Most of the people who voted for Trump, Cohen wrote, know exactly what he is – and they knew when they voted for him. They had no illusions.

Trump "was a symptom, not a cause," Cohen said. "The problem is way deeper than him."

"So the real question is: What does it mean to be an American today?" Cohen wrote. "Who are we, goddamit? What have we become?"

At some important moments, John McCain spoke out for a different kind of America than the America that elected Donald Trump. With McCain's death, we've lost not only his occasional push-back in Congress, particularly in foreign policy, but also his public voice and his conscience.

These are very scary times. And John McCain's death hasn't lessened the danger.

This post has been updated to correct a misspelling.

Comments (5)

Showing 1-5 of 5

Add a comment
 

Add a comment