We are now learning that President Trump nixed plans for a White House statement that praised the heroism of John McCain, who died Saturday at age 81. Instead, Trump put out one tweet that seemed deliberately perfunctory in its use of the phrase “hearts and prayers,” while offering no kind words — indeed, no words at all — about McCain himself.
This has only underscored the emerging official interpretation of McCain’s passing, which holds that McCain’s death — and Trump’s refusal to honor him, even as statements pour forth from dignitaries in both parties — represents the final death rattle of “civility and unity” in our politics, which has now succumbed entirely to Trumpism.
In this telling, the personal feud between McCain and Trump pitted a vanishing ethic of honor in national service, and bipartisan civility even amid profound disagreement, against Trump’s narcissism and megalomania, his contemptuous insults toward McCain’s war captivity, his coarsening of the political dialogue, and his refusal to put aside personal differences at a moment of national grieving.
But this focus on the clash between the two men’s characters, and on the breakdown of decorum that Trumpism has supposedly wrought, risks obscuring the significance of what may be their most consequential substantive public disagreement — the one about immigration, racism and white nationalism.
Of all the crusades and causes that McCain is getting lauded for, this one is getting relatively short shrift — which is odd, given its centrality to the current political moment and the human toll that Trump’s worldview is inflicting as we speak.
Yet McCain devoted a great deal of space to these topics in his 2018 book, “The Restless Wave.” In it, McCain calls out the truly bigoted and ugly nature of the sentiments undergirding Trumpism — and squarely pins the blame for them mostly on Republicans. McCain and co-author Mark Salter write:
It’s the true believers who fear America is contaminated by the customs of non-European immigrants who make this moment so fraught. They believe the President shares their prejudice, and has promised to enact it into law. They’re not only opposed to illegal immigration, they’re opposed to immigration, at least immigration from south of the border, and the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
While McCain does not directly call Trump a racist and a white nationalist, this is a more forthright calling-out of the white nationalism animating Trumpism than you will hear from pretty much any mainstream Republican politician today. Note that McCain also essentially declares that Trump is enacting a white nationalist policy agenda.
Indeed, in the book, McCain sharply dismisses Trump’s immigration policies on moral grounds. McCain denounces Trump’s treatment of refugees as “appalling,” ripping Trump for a “lack of empathy” toward people who are “innocent, persecuted, desperate.” McCain calls out the stepped-up deportations of longtime residents as not just foolish but also deeply cruel and inhumane. McCain also extensively denounces Trump’s depiction of undocumented immigrants as job-stealers and criminals — demagoguery that McCain partly ascribes to “racial prejudice.” McCain asserts that far from representing a threat, a blight or an invading force, many immigrants are contributing positively to America, in keeping with the country’s values and history.
McCain’s real immigration legacy
McCain, of course, was a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that shepherded a comprehensive reform bill through the Senate that would have legalized millions of undocumented immigrants. In his book, McCain properly calls out the House Republicans who killed this bill.
It is often claimed that the Republicans who did support reform — including some GOP leaders — helped pave the way for Trump’s rise. These Republicans revealed themselves to be allied with the globalists and the cheap-labor-craving business elites, ignoring U.S. workers’ legitimate grievances about labor market competition from migrants, leading them to fall under Trump’s spell. In this telling, denouncing Trump’s racism and cruelty risks further alienating working-class whites by showing insensitivity to their very real economic woes.
But one legacy of McCain’s career should be to bury that narrative once and for all. In his book, McCain goes well out of his way to acknowledge that many U.S. workers might understandably believe immigrants pose a serious economic threat to them. But he also argues, rightly, that this view is largely mistaken, and in any case, that the best and only solution for the country is to sensibly integrate the undocumented into this country, not to instill a regime of deportations that is an enormous waste of law enforcement resources and is spreading fear and misery among otherwise law-abiding immigrants in a manner that is indefensible.
And by treating people’s economic anxieties with sensitivity even as he also denounces the racism and cruelty at the core of Trumpism, and also speaks about immigration’s positive contributions to the country, McCain shows that the latter two points can be stressed without short-shrifting those anxieties.
So one way to honor McCain is to honor his side of this particular argument. To this day, many journalists — including those hailing McCain’s life — are reluctant to directly label the true animating sentiments underlying Trump’s immigration agenda. Doing so would be uncivil, and civility is what McCain stood for.
Yet Trump has confirmed those animating statements with three years of public statements. Indeed, there is a thumbnail way to contrast the two men in this regard. One of McCain’s biggest moments was to denounce in 2008 a woman who had called out Barack Obama as an Arab. Trump then went on to make the racist birther conspiracy theory the foundational myth of his racially revanchist presidential run — an effort to capitalize on the very white backlash that McCain denounced a decade ago.
What better way to honor McCain’s life and legacy than to point out what that contrast really means, and the human toll it is taking in the real world?
I don’t know whether McCain would personally approve of the act of directly calling out Trump’s racism and white nationalism. As The Post reports, McCain’s longtime confidant John Weaver says he keeps his worst views of Trump to himself. But we know what those views are: McCain’s book leaves little doubt that he sees Trump in just these terms.
And at bottom, there is just no way to do justice to McCain’s actual arguments on these topics while maintaining civility and decorum. Because giving McCain’s views the reverence and respect they deserve calls for denouncing Trump’s competing views not with punch-pulling or euphemism, but with extreme clarity and bluntness.