I have always recognized John McCain’s heroism as the most impenetrable sort possible in the United States. It is a militaristic heroism. A violent heroism. An obstinate heroism, and one so stereotypically masculine that it works doubly in affirming all it is we profess about men and how their behavior should be: stony, sturdy, resolute.
By now, the story of McCain’s valor during wartime is canon. And with that reverence in mind, the gradual diminution of the senator from Arizona since his foray into politics in 1982 has been rattling to observe.
There is a vast chasm between the esteem once demanded for a man with McCain’s background and the present environment, in which officials and spokespeople from his own party savage him at will.
In a recent staff meeting, White House staffer Kelly Sadler joked that McCain’s concerns about the nomination of Gina Haspel to head the CIA didn’t matter because — invoking the senator’s brain cancer — “he’s dying anyway.”; a former lieutenant general in the Air Force referred to McCain as “Songbird John” in an interview on the Fox Business Network, mocking McCain’s alleged confessions under the threat of torture in Hanoi; and Donald Trump infamously suggested McCain isn’t a “hero” because he was captured at war.
My concern about this tenor of rhetoric being excused isn’t rooted in a particular fondness for Sen. McCain. In fact, my concern is rather selfish and premised upon a belief that a system that so frivolously injures a man who has done its bidding for almost four decades carries little promise for the people that man, himself, has injured.
Excluding the past three years, the entirety of my life was spent as a constituent of John McCain’s, raised on the south side of Phoenix, Arizona. And in that time, it was not so much that John McCain didn’t know who I was that offended me — he had millions of constituents, of course. Rather, it was the perception, as a young adult, that he didn’t want to know who I was; he didn’t want to know who we — the largely black working class on the south side — were; and he didn’t care for our concerns as tenderly as he had for those voiced throughout Phoenix’s more affluent (and notably more white) north side.
For years, John McCain employed a carefully crafted identity as a statesman and, in so doing, obfuscated a lot of the turmoil within his state. He accomplished this while earning praise from no less than his most prominent foe, Barack Obama himself. And with this, it took very little time for me to learn that the experience of being black in Arizona ― a petri dish for stringently conservative policies and fanatical conservative leadership ― historically required stomaching the elevation of your most virulent and cruel opposition to the highest levels of import. In my view, John McCain represented this dichotomy.
When the time came for him, as a wet-behind-the-ears representative in the 1982 Congress, to issue a vote on the establishment of a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, he voted against it. (Senator McCain has said he regrets this.)
When Arizona legislators enacted SB 1070, the bill championed by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and found largely unlawful by the Supreme Court due to racial and ethnic profiling concerns, John McCain supported it, praising it as a “good tool.” He did this while manicuring his persona as a centrist and the Senate’s primary dealmaker on matters of immigration.
When the time has come for John McCain to lend his support to conservative causes ranging from the privatization of health care to tax reductions for wealthy Americans and the authorization of war, he has done so reliably.
So many of his stances occurred despite my objection, and yet still, as an onlooker I envisioned a world in which this sort of ideological loyalty would bear fruit eternally for Senator McCain. I, as an American, have been trained to believe that happily giving yourself — particularly, as a white man — to the American project would result in unending adulation or, minimally, respect from the state.
Quite evidently, this is not so.
The reality is far more complicated, and McCain is, instead, presented scornfully as the failed stalwart who couldn’t steer America from its first black president. He has, since his failure in 2008, been treated with the sort of disdain one may expect from an ethno-nationalist party hellbent on avoiding that outcome and nullifying its results.
I worry that the removal of that veneer will give rise to a viciousness we have not yet seen.
There is an irony in the facade of decency and decorum John McCain worked so hard to uphold crashing down all around him in the most deeply personal way: with colleagues who’d worked at his side for decades refusing to meaningfully hold those besmirching his name and mocking his most traumatic moments to account. He has been the most fitting hero possible for a nation equally invested as he is in the illusion of fairness and order. It would seem a man like John McCain would have his praises sung in perpetuity.
That this is not that case is a harsh reality I cannot wish on anyone in earnest. At some level, it is sobering to witness a widely proclaimed hero destroyed in that fashion, even if that hero is not yours. My gripe with John McCain has never been that I’ve believed him unheroic, but instead that his heroism has been confined only to instances where he encountered a physical threat. Under political threat, he has traditionally behaved differently.
But the neglect with which he is treated by members of his own party does speak to our arrival at a new stage in American politics. It betrays a coldness — a disinterest in the facade and the pleasantries that accompany it, a disinterest in playing the game, and an outright rejection of integrity.
I worry that the removal of that veneer may give rise to a viciousness we have not yet seen.