A person’s smallness is sometimes clearest in the smallest of moments, which is maybe why President Trump’s initial refusal to fly the White House flags at half-staff until Sen. John McCain’s interment became Monday’s biggest story. As it turns out, flag-gate was a congruous coda to a weekend of warring over the late senator’s legacy. We’ve been arguing over symbols all along.
The American flag stands, of course, for America — whatever that means to whoever’s flying it. And McCain, to those mourning him, stands for America, too. He epitomized patriotism as his generation’s guard always defined it, and as those who observed him over the years celebrate him they spell it back out: a devotion to some idea of a greater good that transcends partisanship, a willingness to admit wrongness and wrongdoing, a graciousness even to one’s adversaries.
It’s no surprise that the through line in McCain remembrances hits on his characteristics rather than his accomplishments. That’s how symbols work. After all, many Democrats don’t agree with McCain where he held the most sway: international affairs and, more specifically, war-waging. But it’s because McCain was a symbol that his hawkishness wasn’t enough to lose him liberals’ regard. He was a soldier, and the wisdom says that we should support our troops, who suffer and who sacrifice, even if we don’t support the conflicts they’re fighting in.
That’s decorum, the same way it’s decorum to fly the flags low until the body is buried, and the same way it’s decorum — and dedication to a sacred code — to refuse a prisoner exchange until those captured first have been set free. These codes of noble conduct were what defined McCain throughout his time in Congress. And even when he did not live up to them in practice, even when he was a run-of-the-mill Republican instead of a maverick, he always, in the end, broadcast his devotion to the values that believers in both parties thought made America America.
Then there’s Trump. Decorum is exactly what he doesn’t have. Wells of ink would have been spilled after McCain’s death even if Hillary Clinton were in charge — certainly the flags would have flown at half-staff — but whether as many people would have put as many pens to as much paper is less clear.
The precise height of a piece of cloth seems the least of our concerns with this president. Yet many see McCain as the embodiment of everything our country once was and everything it ought still to be, and Trump as the embodiment of the opposite. To them especially, the current commander in chief’s failure to honor one symbol of patriotism with another was a sign of our miserable times. Trump was denying them even this vestige of the vision of McCainian Americanness. The dream, along with the man himself, really was gone.
In many ways, though, the dream ended a long time ago. “No, ma’am,” McCain says in a clip from a campaign rally that has circulated these past few days. He has taken the microphone away from an elderly woman who called Barack Obama an “Arab.” McCain corrects her: “He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with.” The moment was meaningful — symbolic, even. This man, known for taking stands, was taking one not only against an arena of angry supporters but against the nativist strain that had corrupted his campaign and was, bit by bit, corrupting his entire party.
The problem was, it came too late. A paean to principled campaigning couldn’t cut off the racist energy coursing through the Republican base. Sarah Palin, thanks to McCain’s own misstep, was already a national name. Americans everywhere were calling Obama an Arab, because that’s what they’d been hearing for months. A reality television star was peddling the birther lie, and you wouldn’t believe the ratings.
Okay, so, the flags are at half-staff again. Do we feel like we’ve won?