Why conservatives aren't buying Sen. John McCain's Trump-bashing

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Story highlights

  • Conservatives are not buying into the media narrative of McCain bravely calling out Trump, Bauerlein writes
  • McCain and others in the GOP are responsible for the party's long inability succeed -- until Trump, he writes

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University, senior editor of the journal First Things and author of "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)There is something the media must remember when it breathlessly reports on prominent Republicans speaking out against President Donald Trump. Sen. John McCain's recent criticisms, for example, are news, yes, and so were Mitt Romney's and Paul Ryan's and others' in the past. They deserve to be reported.

But viewers and readers of this kind of news, especially longtime conservatives who voted for Mr. Trump, receive this news in a particular way. They remember.
When it comes to Romney, they remember 2012 and the image of him destroying President Barack Obama in the first debate, then settling back for the rest of the campaign, believing he had it all sewn up. For Paul Ryan, it's the embarrassing retraction he issued in 2014, after he was accused of racism for pointing out the obviously deteriorating "culture of work" in inner cities.
    And with John McCain, conservatives recall every detail of the ineptitude and waste in the 2008 election. They know stories of the infamous "economic summit" that Sen. McCain pressured President George W. Bush to hold in the midst of the economic crisis of summer 2008, but that then-Sen. Obama dominated as if he were a distinguished professor running a seminar, while McCain, in his turn, muttered a few feeble Republican talking points and disgusted even President Bush.
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    As Sarah Palin, McCain's choice for VP, crashed during her NBC interview with Katie Couric back then, McCain's supporters wondered how in the world his campaign could be so stupid as to allow Palin to appear without ample awareness of what was coming. Obama went on to obliterate McCain in fund-raising.
    Those memories don't go away, not when conservatives list the disasters (in their eyes) of Obama's foreign and domestic policies. They can forgive McCain those things because they respect his military service and acknowledge his failing health. But when he steps to the front of the Trump critics, the content of his words fades and the fact of defeat stands out.
    Because of you, they think, we got identity-politician Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court, not another Neil Gorsuch-type justice instead. We had to read steady reports of "the emerging Democratic majority," which told us our days were numbered, these conservatives fume. When we voiced other beliefs, cowering Republicans handed us the condescending, inclusive language they'd adopted to adapt to the Obama era. Those other beliefs -- God and country, family and home -- "That's not what we're all about," conservative members were told.
    It is hard for liberals to understand this kind of dismay from conservatives over such failures, precisely because Democratic figures led by Barack Obama and backed by progressive entertainment and media worlds have made them think they have history on their side.
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    Every time a Republican loses, liberals take it as a sign of the times, not just one loss for the time being. John McCain's 2008 fiasco didn't leave conservative voters thinking, "Well, it was a good fight, and we'll get 'em next time." No, they thought, "Something is wrong with the Republican Party." The Tea Party sprang up soon afterwards.
    When John McCain and other Republicans berate and chide President Trump, they go after a man who won. His supporters don't forget, either, the former losses.
    On Monday, the senator appeared on The View alongside his daughter, Meghan McCain, a new co-host on the program. It was a pleasant conversation, at times solemn, and Sen. McCain refused to turn it into a Trump-bashing session. Liberals watched it and likely found this old statesman a noble and lovable politician.
    But conservatives can't help noting the inconsistencies. Sen. McCain chastised the administration for not providing Congress with information about military adventures abroad, but he didn't note the problems Congress had in getting answers out of Susan Rice, Obama's national security advisor.
    The hosts played a clip of him at the National Constitution Center recently blasting the Stephen Bannon agenda, in his words, "some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who'd rather find scapegoats than solve problems" -- not taking the moment to consider that scapegoating is a favorite tactic of liberal identity politics.
    He mentioned "my friend Joe Biden," who "is a great and wonderful man," but we remember Biden in 2012, telling an audience made up partly of African-Americans that Republicans are "going to put y'all back in chains." And McCain yukked it up with Whoopi Goldberg, who loathes Republicans -- except when they attack other Republicans.
    In ordinary times, Sen. McCain's remarks about Trump would sway people on both sides of the spectrum. But these aren't ordinary times. Everything that happens in national politics must be set in a wide foreground of liberal vilification of conservatives -- and conservative defeatism.
    The old way of losing was silence. Romans fell on their sword. Nobody should wish Sen. McCain anything but peace and contentment. But a leader who has let his followers down in the past must understand that they aren't inclined to listen in the present.