RIP Senator John McCain, who has died after a long battle with brain cancer. There’s no doubt that McCain was a patriot. He lived a life of service, from his time in the US Navy (including 5 1/2 brutal years in a North Vietnamese prison during the Vietnam War) to his long tenure as a Congressman and Senator.
McCain was outspoken and brash, often going against the Republican party line. He had his clashes with Donald Trump (Trump having infamously poopooed McCain’s wartime service by saying that he liked “heroes who didn’t get captured”), and word is that McCain requested that Cadet Bone Spurs be banned from his upcoming funeral.
Despite his long record of patriotism and service, McCain’s most enduring legacy will be–sadly–his brief but tragic embrace of the crazytown wing of the Republican Party, which led ultimately to the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Back in 2000, during his first presidential run, McCain publicly and rightly criticized Christian conservatives like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance,” incensing the Republican base and handing George W. Bush the perfect bat with which to beat him. McCain dialed back his rhetoric, but it was too late, and Bush went on to serve two disastrous terms as president.
Fast forward to the presidential race of 2008: McCain, struggling to catch up to his opponent, then-fellow-Senator Barack Obama, made a fateful decision to select the obscure Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin (which shored up his support with the redneck demographic) rather than go with conservative Democrat Joe Lieberman (a truly maverick move that would have touted McCain as a statesman determined to buck the trend of increasing partisanship in Washington). McCain’s gambit worked in the short term: his poll numbers rose, but he ultimately lost the race (he would have lost no matter which way he went). There’s no doubt Palin–a photogenic conservative Christian with plenty of charisma–energized the base in a way the staid, low-energy Lieberman never could have.
And here’s where the tragedy of John McCain begins. Depending on which narrative you believe, either McCain’s campaign managers hastily selected the magnetic, folksy Palin, only to discover too late her brand of smug know-nothingism, dangerous jingoism, and (eventually) her delusional conviction that she and only she knew what was best for the campaign, OR McCain knew full-well what kind of running mate he was getting, and through some sort of Machiavellian calculus, figured he could control the rabid factions of the Republican base long enough to get their vote, after which he could do what Republican presidents since Reagan had done: give lip service to Christian conservatives, but deliver little of substance that mattered to them. Where were they going to go, over to the Democrats?
McCain fully realized his error even during the campaign. He struggled to put the genie back in the bottle, but it was too late. And it was a low point in McCain’s political career, from his cringeworthy encounter with a Republican voter who insisted that Obama was “an Arab” by which she meant a Muslim) to the embarrassing boos and hisses of his election night supporters when he tried to deliver a dignified concession speech that called for unity across party lines and support for the new Democratic, African-American president.
Since then, the various insane factions of the Republican Party have been on the rise. Call them the Moral Majority, call them the Tea Party, call them the alt-right, call them Trumpsters, call them whatever you want, the deplorable base of the GOP is in full control of the party, and no amount of logic, evidence, or pleas for reason will dissuade them from the notion that Donald Trump is America’s savior, and that his profound ignorance, rampant corruption, anti-diplomacy, infatuation with murderous dictators, and inability to control his basest urges, are all worth it if conservatives can reclaim the Supreme Court, guarantee guns on demand of any type for any reason, make life miserable for Mexicans and Muslims and blacks and gays, and console themselves with the lies that global warming is a hoax, that the country can progress without levying taxes, and that if only we could say “Merry Christmas” during the holidays we would all be happy and prosperous again.
Now, John McCain didn’t make all that happen. It almost certianly would have happened without his help. But McCain made a devil’s bargain in 2008 that the country has been paying for ever since. Although he quickly realized his error, and has since expressed regret for it, he elevated and validated the Sarah Palins of the world, and accelerated the rise of the dangerously fascistic core of the GOP, and this is something Americans will have to contend with for decades, if not generations to come. There’s hope that we can begin to claw our way back to sanity in the 2018 midterms, and perhaps also during the 2020 election cycle, and I find it very sad that John McCain won’t live to see any of that happen.