The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans rejected McCain and embraced Trump. What does that say about them?

(Photos by Brendan Smialowski and Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

I was one of those naive souls who imagined that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was finished on July 18, 2015, when he called Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a “loser,” denied that he was a war hero and said, “I like people who weren’t captured.” Mocking a man who had spent more than five years in a hellish POW camp, I figured, was the third rail of American politics, particular when the mocker spent his own Vietnam War years partying at nightclubs.

How wrong I was. How little I understood what were then my fellow Republicans. It turns out that, far from being repulsed by Trump’s attack on their previous standard-bearer, many Republicans rejoiced in it. They are even happier, these fanatical partisans, now that the president could not bring himself to hide his antipathy toward one of America’s greatest heroes even on his deathbed.

Trump expressed the right sentiments but about the wrong people. “Such respect for a brave man!” he tweeted.

He was talking not about McCain but about the felon Paul Manafort, who displayed his bravery not by resisting torture but by resisting the urge to “rat” on Trump. The president tweeted that “I would like to send my warmest regards and respect” not to McCain but to Kim Jong Un, the dictator who presides over the world’s worst police state.

Editorial page editor Fred Hiatt reflects on the life and legacy of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

It took a popular outcry among veterans to force Trump to lower flags to half-staff in McCain’s honor and to issue a minimally laudatory statement. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Trump rarely does the right thing, and then only after exhausting all the alternatives. By contrast, McCain did the right thing even at considerable cost to his physical and political well-being. Trump talks a lot about American greatness, but he actually represents the worst of America. As he showed again this week, he is petty, vindictive, insecure, self-centered and utterly bereft of dignity, honor or grace. McCain, by contrast, was a larger-than-life figure, a paragon of integrity who represented the best of America.

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I cannot think of a more damning commentary on the state of the Republican Party than the fact that its voters vastly prefer Trump to McCain. Trump’s approval rating with the country at large is low — 41.4 percent in the FiveThirtyEight poll of polls — but he has the support of 85 percent of Republicans. McCain, by contrast, was viewed favorably by just 41 of Republicans. In Arizona, his approval rating among his own party was a rock-bottom 20 percent.

Little wonder that many Republicans, far from being appalled at Trump’s inexcusable mistreatment of McCain, cheer him on. One reader posted this comment on Facebook in response to my tribute to McCain: “McSTAIN was a thorn in the side of conservatism for over 30 years, a true SWAMP CREATURE, if ever there was one! GOOD RIDDANCE!!!”

What could possibly account for such hatred toward a man who devoted his life to his nation’s service? The standard explanation is that McCain was an apostate who deviated from conservative orthodoxy. It’s true that he opposed the Bush tax cuts, supported action on climate change, worked to ban torture, tried to craft immigration reform, and just last year, opposed the repeal of Obamacare. Yet he still sided with Republicans on 87 percent of party-line votes during his career. Ronald Reagan said: “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally — not a 20 percent traitor.” Republicans now disagree. Someone who agreed with them 87 percent of the time is, it seems, a traitor after all.

Here’s the irony: While McCain is written off as a RINO (Republican in Name Only), Republicans embrace a president who is actually, literally, a RINO. McCain was a Republican his entire life, while Trump has changed parties and political views more often than he has changed wives. As recently as 2011, he was an independent.

And now that he is a Republican, Trump has redefined what the party stands for. Republicans used to preach about the importance of character in America’s leaders and attack the moral relativism of the Democrats. Now they support a president who paid off a porn star and a Playboy playmate to win the presidency and who denies that America is morally superior to Russia. Republicans also used to support family values, fiscal responsibility, law and order, free trade, immigration, democracy promotion and the Atlantic alliance. Under Trump, all those views are as passe as basic civility and decorum.

The GOP’s embrace of Trump and rejection of McCain are emblematic of the atavistic tribalism, ideological extremism and authoritarian cultism that the senator spent his entire life combating. “We weaken our greatness,” McCain wrote in his farewell statement, “when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe.” The reaction to McCain’s passing in the fever swamps of the right amply vindicates his eloquent warning.

Read more:

Charles Lane: John McCain and the tragic transformation of the Republican Party

E.J. Dionne Jr.: John McCain and the last of human freedoms

Eugene Robinson: Want to honor McCain, GOP? Grow a spine.