On Wednesday night, the Wall Street Journal broke the news that White House staff asked Navy officials to keep a ship bearing the name of the late senator John McCain out of the president’s sight lines during his recent visit to Japan.
While the USS John S. McCain could not be moved, shortly before the visit the ship’s name was covered by a tarp. That was quickly removed. Then a work barge was placed in a position that all but hid the name. That too was quickly moved. Then, according to The Post, senior naval leadership put a stop to the maneuvers. By the time the president would have been in a position to see the ship, the configuration was back to normal. But sailors assigned to the ship — unlike others assigned to other nearby American naval vessels were not invited to hear Trump’s Memorial Day speech on the USS Wasp.
Trump quickly stepped forward on Twitter to deny on knowledge of these events and there is no reason to doubt him. But it’s also worth noting he later characterized the staffer responsible as “well-meaning.” The destroyer was originally named for McCain’s father and grandfather, both Navy admirals; the senator’s name was added shortly before his death in 2018.
The fact that people working for our president went out of their way to try to make sure that Trump saw no reminders of McCain while on his visit to Japan is more than the usual outrage of the day. It’s not a distraction from the results of Mueller report, which all but stated the president of the United States sought to obstruct justice, and the White House’s ongoing defying of congressional subpoenas. Instead, it’s all of a piece — and shows what a dangerous spot our nation is in.
Trump is a notoriously thin-skinned man, quick to dish out insults, but unable to take anything resembling normal give and take, whether in politics or life. He shows no grace, humility or growth as a human being, never mind a politician. Trump bashes his enemies — either real or perceived — with a third-grader’s wit, coming up with nasty nicknames or other insults for those who he believes are against him. But he can’t abide even the slightest criticism, no matter how light. And when nasty names don’t work, Trump issues threats, urging Americans to consider boycotting everything from CNN (for being “unfair”) to motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson (for contemplating moving manufacturing operations out of the country). He’s demanded investigations of Hillary Clinton and former FBI director James B. Comey.
Trump’s feud with McCain perfectly captured the former’s thin skin. The man who skipped the draft to Vietnam courtesy of “bone spurs” in his foot that mysteriously disappeared routinely raged against the man who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war and was left permanently disabled as a result. McCain’s famous thumbs down on repealing the Affordable Care Act did add to Trump’s rage against him, but it’s no coincidence that the president hated a living, breathing rebuke to his faux patriotism. McCain, agree or disagree with his politics, served his country and did a heroic thing when called to do so. Trump, on the other hand, appears less than concerned he might well be in the White House thanks to Russian interference in the 2016 election.
As for the appearing, disappearing and reappearing USS John S. McCain, the entire episode contains more than a whiff of a reminder of how censors in the Soviet Union made formerly prominent figures who’d fallen out of favor with Joseph Stalin disappear in official photos. If a former high-ranking Communist Party official was executed, assassinated, sent to the gulag or otherwise exiled from government, their literal likeness often also vanished from official photographs. It happened to well-known political rivals such as Leon Trotsky, and as well as to the faces of those only factotums connected to the Kremlin would likely recognize. It was a form of rewriting history by erasing it from existence.
Trump, it is obvious, would like to do the same. He repeatedly exaggerated the size of the crowds at his inauguration, and just last week retweeted a Fox Business montage of House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi having trouble speaking. He repeatedly lies about matters large and small, all but willing a not unsubstantial number of Americans to believe his own personal version of reality, which can often best be described with the phrase he so often likes to use — fake news. At the same time, he governs the White House in a stream of invective and chaos, subjecting people who fall out of favor to public humiliation.
No doubt the White House staffer who asked that the USS John S. McCain get temporarily vanished thought it was a good idea. This person no doubt didn’t want to risk a presidential temper tantrum, or Trump saying something vile and inappropriate about McCain on — of all days — Memorial Day. But democracies can’t survive when good governance is downgraded in favor of attempts to satisfy the moods and whims of a small, petty and greedy man at the top. But Trump, it seems, is just fine with that.