President Donald Trump is in no mood to take lectures from John McCain and the weeklong national civics lesson the Arizona senator sketched with his own funeral rites.
On a day of poignant juxtaposition, McCain’s flag draped coffin left his beloved home soil of Arizona for the last time Thursday after his friends eulogized a life embroidered with honor, self-sacrifice, American exceptionalism and the idea of serving a cause greater than oneself.
Leaving Washington to mourners, Trump flew west and unspooled the kind of brazen campaign trail performance – tearing at the nation’s political and cultural divides and bashing institutions such as the Justice Department – that McCain planned his final goodbye to repudiate.
The former combat pilot’s last flight ended in the gathering dusk of Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, as McCain was borne back to the capital, where he was once a ubiquitous figure, for the first time since December. Though McCain never became president, the military ceremony and sense of solemnity had the historic sense of a state occasion.
Less than an hour later, Trump, soaking in the adulation of a wildly cheering crowd, strolled on stage in Indiana to the strains of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” and opened his speech with a boast about his 2016 presidential win in the state and his economic record.
“Where the hell did she come from?” Trump asked, as his supporters booed a lone protester escorted from the arena, before bashing “dishonest, terrible” people in the media and lambasting the “old and corrupt ruling class,” of which America could be “ashamed.”
Chants of “lock her up, lock her up,” echoed through the arena, aimed at Hillary Clinton.
The split screen moment of Trump, the showman in his element on stage, and Washington grandees gathering to mourn McCain, exemplified competing strains between traditional establishment politics and grassroots insurgencies at radical wings of each party that may define the just-stirring 2020 presidential campaign.
With that in mind, it seems fitting that in the next stage of McCain’s farewell, his coffin will rest Friday in the Capitol Rotunda on the catafalque that first bore the remains of Abraham Lincoln, the President who warned his nation that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
A feud that will not die
Thursday’s political theater personified the running feud that has raged between McCain and Trump even after the Arizona statesman’s death from brain cancer on Saturday.
On the one side is politics McCain-style, in which a sometimes irascible temperament, relish for battle and dedication to conservatism did not preclude the late senator carving friendships across the aisle or seeking compromise on some of the most divisive issues.
By meticulously planning his funeral arrangements, including addresses by former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama – but not Trump -- McCain spelled out a clear message that he believed the current administration had taken an un-American turn.
On the other hand is the raucous rejection of traditional Washington values exemplified by Trump, whose insurgent fury, fondness for conspiracy theories and contempt for convention inspired Americans who felt rejected by the very political elites now lauding McCain.
Nearly two years since Trump’s shock 2016 election win, McCain’s brand of politics may be sorely missed by those who idealize it. But the President has the power, a fact that raises questions whether the nostalgia for McCain is also a valediction for a fading mode of politics.
Trump did not mention McCain at his rally. But earlier, he told Bloomberg News that he didn’t think he had done anything wrong in his grudging response to his foe’s death.
“We had our disagreements and they were very strong disagreements. I disagreed with many of the things that I assume he believed in,” Trump said.
The values that McCain revered were encapsulated in a moving eulogy by his friend and Senate sparring partner, former Vice President Joe Biden at a memorial service in Phoenix.
“It was always about basic values with John: Fairness, honesty, dignity, respect; giving hate no safe harbor; leaving no one behind; and understanding that as Americans, we’re part of something much bigger than ourselves,” Biden said.
A volatile week, even by Trump’s standards
Most politicians are ego driven, hungry for the next headline and sometimes attack the motives of their rivals, a practice Biden decried in his speech. But most take pains to hide such traits, and a few, such as McCain, honestly reflect on their own transgressions in a way that forges bonds with the public.
But Trump makes no attempt to disguise such behavior. His quintessential political insight was to put it at the core of his campaign trail persona – and it helped him capture the Republican Party and the presidency. His unapologetic style is one reason he refused to temper his behavior in the week of McCain’s passing – and further alienated the more conventional politicians who loved the Arizona senator.
Trump’s most fervent supporters would probably not recognize qualities in the President that Biden saw in McCain. But that is exactly what made him so popular with a political base ready to embrace a scorched earth candidate.
The proof has been everywhere in a week that has been volatile even by Trump’s standards and suggests the President has little time for the notion that politics is about a cause greater than the individual. Often as he boasts about ratings and his poll numbers and his 2016 election triumph, it seems that for Trump, it’s all about him.
Over the last week, Trump reacted to comparisons between him and McCain by offering lukewarm tributes and only belatedly lowering the flag over the White House to half-staff.
His determination to continue to wage a quarrel with a dead man exemplified his intense sensitivity to slights and prompted critics to conclude that he fails to put the wider duties of the office of the presidency above his personal image and preoccupations.