This post has been updated with Isakson’s latest comments.
Of all the political and societal norms President Trump has bulldozed, our reverence for war heroes may be one of the most significant. Our national defense is built upon a special regard for people who have risked their lives in battle. When we as a society step outside that — such as when people disrespected returning Vietnam veterans — a correction has followed.
That correction has been slow-coming when it comes to President Trump and John McCain, because Republicans are terrified of Trump and his sway with the GOP base. They almost uniformly denounced Trump back in 2015 when he first suggested the valorous former prisoner of war wasn’t actually a hero. But today, seven months after McCain’s death and with Trump re-upping his attacks, they’re pained to uphold this very basic American ideal.
At least one of them is now stepping forward.
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) promised when McCain died that he would deliver a “whipping” to anybody — including Trump — who impugned McCain’s good name moving forward. And now he’s made good on that promise.
“It’s deplorable what he said," Isakson told Georgia Public Broadcasting in an interview Wednesday afternoon.
Before the appearance, he previewed his comments in an interview with the Bulwark’s A.B. Stoddard.
“I just want to lay it on the line, that the country deserves better, the McCain family deserves better, I don’t care if he’s president of United States, owns all the real estate in New York, or is building the greatest immigration system in the world. Nothing is more important than the integrity of the country and those who fought and risked their lives for all of us,” Isakson said.
Isakson splices into his criticism of Trump some very notable winks at the president. The idea that Trump “owns all the real estate in New York” and is “building the greatest immigration system in the world” is the kind of thing he loves to hear. So even as Isakson suggests he’s about to denounce Trump, he’s inoculating himself from the blowback so many Republicans (like McCain) suffered for their Trump-related apostasies.
But that bit of politics aside, what Isakson says is important. In many ways, he makes the case about reverence for military service that other Republicans have declined to make in recent days.
He goes on:
America deserves better, the people deserve better, and nobody — regardless of their position — is above common decency and respect for people that risk their life for your life. When the president is saying that that he doesn’t respect John McCain and he’s never going to respect John McCain and all these kids are out there listening to the president of the United States talk that way about the most decorated senator in history who is dead it just sets the worst tone possible.
Bingo. This is exactly the point. People can take issue with McCain for his politics. They can forever begrudge his style and, as Trump does, his decisive vote against the GOP’s Obamacare repeal bill. But when you take that a step further and say he’ll never be worthy of your regard, you’re implicitly opting out of the bargain I described at the top. And it does send a signal to everyone, as in the time of Vietnam, that military service isn’t something that inherently defines you as a person worthy of respect. It also degrades the attractiveness of service for would-be recruits.
Isakson said in his comments Wednesday afternoon that he hoped his decision to speak out would tempt other Republicans to do the same. “I’m not a big word-user, but I am on this," he said.
Thus far, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Arizona Sen. Martha McSally (R) have issued tweets praising McCain, but without addressing Trump like Isakson did. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) joined Isakson in urging Trump to knock it off:
The combination of that and what Isakson is saying make the already tepid reaction of Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) seem significantly more halfhearted. And it makes every other Republican who praises McCain without mentioning Trump look like they’re taking a half-measure.