Kathy Sheridan: Trump's ‘business’ identity no mask for spiteful incivility

US president’s draft-avoider reaction to death of hero John McCain far from normal

After declining to answer a reporter's questions about the late US Senator John McCain throughout the day, US President Donald Trump finally spoke about McCain's passing during a meeting with evangelical leaders at the White House on Monday evening.

 

This week, the president of the United States is banned from the funeral of an important, national American figure, a dedicated public servant and decorated war hero. Is that not astonishing?

As cancer ravaged his brain, Senator John McCain made it plain his president and commander-in-chief was not to be invited. This was no petty political grandstanding. The life-long Republican had named two former presidents to play prominent roles – one the Democrat who crushed McCain’s presidential hopes in 2008, the other a party rival whose henchmen subjected the McCain family to such relentless, lying savagery in a 2002 Republican primary, the New York Times still calls it “the most vicious and depressing in modern times”. Yet, beyond death, McCain reached out to both George W Bush and Barack Obama.

As the great warrior politician of civility and compromise breathed his last on Saturday following a horrific illness, the current president saw no reason to curtail his weekend golf outing. He dismissed his staff’s prepared statement, probably because it praised McCain’s military and senate service and called him a “hero”. The president chose instead to tweet at the bereaved family: “ . . . Our hearts and prayers are with you!” That jolly exclamation mark (“used to express excitement”, as in, “wow!” and “I like pizza a lot!”, according to a grammar website) is entirely his. The tweet was flashed off somewhere between his routine twitter fulminations about the Russian collusion investigation and needy, spiteful digs at Obama.

In desperation he allowed the ignorant, anti-intellectual populist Sarah Palin to be unleashed, foreshadowing the rise of Trump

Sure, worse things happen in a world of homelessness, corruption, war crimes, child abuse and screaming children forcibly separated from parents. But to what have we descended if incivility and spiteful behaviour in the face of death is regarded as something to shrug off . It’s Trump so what’s the point? The point is, this is not normal.

No saving graces

It will seem normal to the grassroots who elected him. He does this, they reckon, because he is not an – ugh – politician. They voted for a businessman in the White House, they chirrup proudly. Does the “business” tag come with a licence to flaunt the morals, manners and ignorance of a flea-ridden, putrescent tomcat ? Trump fanboys and girls in business should have a care. This is how you are now perceived by many citizens; spiteful, unprincipled, unreflective, incontinent children with no saving graces beyond the ambition to make yourselves and rich men even richer.

Senator John McCain: “The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naivety, egotism, false equivalence and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate.” Photograph: Aaron P Bernstein/File Photo/Reuters
Senator John McCain was ferociously critical of President Donald Trump, even in the immediate months before his death. File photograph: Aaron P Bernstein/File Photo/Reuters

This goes beyond the concept of civility as mere politeness. It’s true that civility – from the Latin word civilis meaning “relating to citizens” – can provide an urbane mask for malice, gombeenism and hypocrisy. But true civility goes hand in hand with respect, tolerance, the work of careful listening, negotiating and compromise. Without it there is no common ground.

John McCain knew that. He knew that being labelled a “champion of compromise” by a Republican colleague was meant to wound. In his memoir, he responded: “You’re damn right. I’m a champion of compromise in the governance of a country of 325 million opinionated, quarrelsome, vociferous souls.”

McCain’s mistakes are well-documented. He wanted to choose the Democrat Joe Lieberman (note the cross-party reach) as his 2008 presidential running mate, but in desperation allowed the ignorant, anti-intellectual populist Sarah Palin to be unleashed, foreshadowing the rise of Trump amid accusations of Obama “palling around with terrorists”.

His final years saw him become one of those rare Republican senators, one prepared to challenge Trump openly and fiercely

Yet one of the most inspiring aspects of McCain was the constant self-reset carried out in full public view. His honesty and lack of defensiveness left hard-bitten journalists in awe.

Challenger of Trump

He tried to compensate for his involvement in an early Senate scandal – of which he was exonerated – by going over the seething heads of the House Republican leadership and steering through the bipartisan Russ Feingold Act to regulate the financing of political campaigns. It took a long time for him to concede that the Iraq invasion – for which he had been a cheerleader – was a mistake but when he did, it was excoriating: “Bad tactics, a flawed strategy, and bad leadership in the highest ranks of uniformed and civilian defence leadership had allowed violent forces unleashed by Saddam’s destruction to turn Iraq into hell on Earth.”

A makeshift memorial to US senator John McCain, who died on Saturday night. Photograph: Robyn Beck / AFP
A makeshift memorial to US senator John McCain, who died last Saturday night. Photograph: Robyn Beck / AFP

Long before that admission, he had become the one prominent Republican to draw the line over torture and waterboarding of prisoners. Against intense pressure and again with bipartisan support, he introduced the Detainee Treatment Act to the Senate, prohibiting the inhumane treatment of prisoners.

His final years saw him become one of those rare Republican senators, one prepared to challenge Trump openly and fiercely, a compensation of sorts perhaps for the unleashing of Palin.

This wasn’t McCain’s only offence against Trump of course. While he was a starving captive in Hanoi for over five years, held in a cage the size of a wardrobe, his broken body routinely rebroken by torture, declining offers of early release out of respect for longer-serving prisoners, Trump was dodging the draft with a series of mysterious medical deferments. It’s not hard to imagine that when McCain returned as a hero, adored by vets, the man’s very existence became an affront to Trump.

Only now is the depth of it exposed.

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