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Jacob writes: "Unprincipled decisions by the left to give voice to disgraced figures of US security only serve to further disorient an already bemused American populace trying to interpret political events under the ever-chaotic Trump's strategy of distraction."

Former Sen. John McCain. (photo: Getty)
Former Sen. John McCain. (photo: Getty)

Measuring McCain: Political Judgments in the Age of Trump

By Edwin Daniel Jacob, Reader Supported News

05 September 18


olitics has always concerned itself with making judgments among competing alternatives. The extent to which policy alternatives can be articulated – and, perhaps more importantly, distinguished from one another – is the degree by which progress is ultimately measured. Hegel could thus identify freedom as the “insight into necessity.” Americans, however, rely on moral sentiments and abstract symbolism – instead of material interests – when judging policies. The mystical veneration of Kennedy, despite his horrid foreign policy that quite literally brought the US to the brink of a hot war with the Soviets, and, more recently, the NFL controversy, stand out as prime examples of this phenomenon whereby political situations are reduced to moral symbolism. Yet a new, more odious form of this has entered the political landscape in the age of Trump, as exhibited by the exaggerated and under-analyzed coverage of Senator John McCain’s passing.

McCain had an iron will, an unyielding code of principles, and battle-tested bravery and honor that few can match. At his best, McCain served as a political gadfly of sorts against the most radical elements within his party. This was reflected in his vociferous condemnation of the torture practices introduced by Bush and his band of neo-conservative chickenhawks following 9/11 as well as his co-sponsoring of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which eliminated “soft money” from national campaigns before it was stripped down in the landmark Citizens United case. But these cases were general exceptions for the Arizona senator who has filled Barry Goldwater’s seat for the last three decades.

John McCain has been the recipient of undue praise simply for his (symbolic) opposition to Trump. Never mind that despite his opposition to repealing “Obamacare,” he voted for Trump’s agenda in kind, including Trump’s 2018 tax bill, which gutted the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. What was worse, though, was his unprincipled selection of Sarah Palin to join his 2008 ticket against Obama, who rightly noted that a straight line could be drawn between the former Mayor of Wasilla and the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Palin was the prototypical modern Tea Partier, whose anti-intellectualism was equally matched by her homespun approaches to domestic and foreign policies alike. A skeptic of expertise and a critic of cosmopolitanism, this torchbearer of traditional American values set the table for what would ultimately become the modern Republican Party of Trump.

There is no doubt as to the personal bravery of John McCain, who chose to suffer years of torture at the Hanoi Hilton even though his captors offered the admiral’s son an early release. But contrary to American attitudes, politics is not about a political person’s character – it is about the policies they embrace. And what of McCain’s policies? McCain was a hawk’s hawk who, like his Senatorial bestie, Lindsey Graham (R-SC), never met an intervention he did not encourage. Who can forget his classic rendition of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann,” which substituted “bomb” for Barbara and “Iran” for Ann? Worse, he never reconsidered the staggering costs of the Iraq War he championed, which cost the US thousands in blood and trillions in treasure. This is, of course, to say nothing of the million Iraqis who paid the ultimate price, or the geopolitical reconfiguration of power that culminated in not only the rise of ISIS but also the abysmal ongoing state of affairs in Syria.

McCain’s domestic politics did not fare much better. McCain was more in line with Republican doxy than his so-called “maverick” status would suggest. He was in favor of (unequal) tax cuts, even as he opposed a federal minimum wage, and encouraged privatization of social security funds a decade before the 2008 financial crisis disrupted his already faltering presidential bid. A deregulator, McCain ultimately came to regret his (prudent) vote for Sarbanes-Oxley, while he voted against the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

All of this speaks to an ever greater phenomenon: an extreme rightward shift of the discourse since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. The mainstream liberal media and the Democratic Party have unceremoniously wedded with neo-conservative elements of the “never Trump” movement out of unprincipled expediency. Sharing a collective enemy in Trump has effectively domesticated the strategically failed and morally bankrupted Bush regime, whose neo-conservative luminaries are now held up as exemplars of democratic virtue in Trump’s America. The rightward shift of popular political discourse is evidenced by tuning into Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, Bill Maher on HBO, or any other progressive voice of one’s choosing to see the likes of a Bill Kristol, David Frum, or Max Boot being legitimated by their former political rivals in terms of (rightly) vilifying Trump.

Unprincipled decisions by the left to give voice to these disgraced figures of US security only serve to further disorient an already bemused American populace trying to interpret political events under the ever-chaotic Trump’s strategy of distraction. Politics, as I suggested at the outset, is the art of distinguishing between alternatives. But with Trump as the ultimate point-of-reference for today’s not-so-bifurcated American political system, judgments have been generated in an antinomic fashion. Judgments, in other words, are based upon their relation to Trump and Trump alone. This situational criterion has resulted in an ever-reduced standpoint by which to make sense of contemporary society and political culture, leaving Americans aimlessly wandering in Hegel’s night in which “all cows are black.” And, as John McCain himself was fond of appropriating Mao: “It is always darkest before it is totally black.”

Edwin Daniel Jacob is a Visiting Assistant Professor of International Relations with the Department of Political Science at Arkansas State University. His unique edited collection on security, Rethinking Security in the Twenty-First Century, was published with Palgrave MacMillan in 2017. your social media marketing partner
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