Trump is unique in his indifference to America’s long-standing civic faith; he’s a nationalist but not a patriot.
During George W. Bush’s very bad presidency, liberals would sometimes invoke Ronald Reagan with a sort of incredulous nostalgia, astonished that he seemed reasonable in comparison. More than once, I jokingly wondered if we’d ever see a president so catastrophic that we’d one day look back fondly on Bush.
It’s not a joke anymore. On Saturday, the pre-Trump bipartisan political establishment gathered at the Washington National Cathedral to honor Sen. John McCain, as well as the small-r republican and small-d democratic ethics he came to symbolize. At McCain’s request, both Barack Obama and George W. Bush eulogized McCain, their praise an implicit rebuke to the current president, who possesses none of McCain’s virtues or, for that matter, any virtues at all.
For many who detest President Donald Trump, the spectacle of the country’s former leaders championing embattled American principles — principles once shared by even the bitterest political enemies — was fiercely moving. Esquire columnist Charles Pierce described it as “a morality play shot through with Shakespearian portent and foreshadowing, a pageant of democracy’s vengeance.” A New Yorker headline called the funeral “The Biggest Resistance Meeting Yet.”
On the left, there was an immediate backlash to this sentimental yearning for a deposed establishment. Some jeered what seemed like a complacent hope that when Trump is gone, America can return to normal.
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This argument over the meaning of the McCain funeral is part of a deeper left-wing debate over how to understand Trump’s relationship to the Republican Party and official Washington. A few on the left, like The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, have adopted an odd anti-anti-Trumpism, born of the belief that the establishment that abhors the president is as bad or worse than he is.
Others see Trump’s distinct malevolence, but still reject attempts to paint him as aberrant. New Republic writer Jeet Heer criticized the way McCain’s funeral sought to juxtapose Trump and the political leaders who came before him. That’s “a false dichotomy,” Heer tweeted. “That old establishment created Trump.”
There’s obvious truth to this. Trump is a uniquely grotesque individual, but nothing he’s done so far has been nearly as destructive as the Iraq war. And much of what’s awful about Trump’s administration has Republican precedents.
Richard Nixon conspired with a foreign power to win the 1968 election, enlisting the South Vietnamese to sabotage peace talks. Reagan was a race-baiter who said, during his campaign for governor, “If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so.” An official from Bush’s administration — widely believed to be Karl Rove — spoke contemptuously of the “reality-based community,” prefiguring Trump’s assault on truth.
Yet Trump still differs from his predecessors in kind as well as degree. In many ways he’s distinctly American; he sometimes seems like a golem composed of America’s sins. But his reign still often feels like a foreign occupation, and not just because a majority of Americans never consented to it.
Other presidents haven’t lived up to transcendent American values of human equality and respect for the rule of law. But every president in living memory professed reverence for these values, recognizing a foundation for public life other than blood and soil nationalism. As Bush — who I still can’t believe I’m quoting positively — said at McCain’s funeral, “He saw our country not only as a physical place or power, but as the carrier of enduring human aspirations.”
This idealism could be destructively self-righteous, but it also created a standard that the dispossessed could appeal to.
Trump is unique in his indifference to America’s long-standing civic faith; he’s a nationalist but not a patriot. For some on the left, that faith was always a joke, a sanctimonious alibi for imperialism and plunder. But Trump’s presidency has made me — and, I think, many other liberals — aware of my own deep attachment to much of the American creed, particularly the unrealized promise of Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty.
It wouldn’t have occurred to me during the interminable years of Bush’s administration to be grateful that we had a president who believed in the basic tenets of American democracy, because I couldn’t have imagined one who didn’t. Trump can’t help but shine a forgiving light on everyone who opposes him.
America’s political elite — particularly members, like Sen. Jeff Flake, who are still in office — owe us much more than veiled put-downs at a funeral. Still, even their symbolic repudiation of Trump matters. At moments, McCain’s funeral reminded me of the “La Marseillaise” scene in “Casablanca,” when refugees from occupied Europe — one of them deeply compromised — belted out the French national anthem and for a moment remembered who they used to be.
You can mourn the passing of a bipartisan consensus on liberal democracy without believing that we can or should return to a pre-Trump status quo. Whatever comes next will have to draw on some of the ideals of honor, decency and sacrifice celebrated Saturday. It was ugly when America failed to live up to them, but it will be uglier still when it doesn’t even try.