President Trump’s relations with the late Senator John McCain (R., Ariz.) were fraught, to say the least. Trump questioned McCain’s war heroism — he infamously joked that he liked soldiers who “weren’t caught” — and repeatedly slammed him for his supposed treachery in failing to support Trump’s presidential bid sufficiently. After McCain’s death, Trump initially offered no presidential statement, then had the White House flag raised to full-staff before the generally accepted period between the death and burial of a sitting senator. All of this was petty and childish.
McCain, for his part, obviously couldn’t stand Trump — he sniped at Trump’s Vietnam War deferments and launched into Trump’s “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.” In part, McCain may even have voted in favor of preserving Obamacare thanks to his antipathy for Trump. McCain let his family know before his death that he didn’t want Trump at his funeral. (Other representatives from the administration were present.)
So it wasn’t much of a surprise when speaker after speaker at McCain’s funeral used the occasion to carve into Trump. McCain’s daughter, Meghan, stated, “We gather to mourn the passing of American greatness, the real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice, those that live lives of comfort and privilege while he suffered and served.” These were the words of an aggrieved daughter; on that basis alone, they’re understandable.
But the same wasn’t true for the attacks on Trump by former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Bush stated, “John McCain would insist we are better than this. America is better than this.” Obama explained, “Trafficking in bombastic manufactured outrage, it’s politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but in fact is born of fear.” The political world fawned over video of Bush handing a piece of candy to Michelle Obama.
Here’s the problem: This mythology from both Bush and Obama about the Good Old Days™ of American politics represents revisionist history at its finest. Trump is a symptom of our broken politics; he is not, in fact, its progenitor.
George W. Bush should know better than anyone that America is not “better than this” — he endured eight years of being labeled a Hitlerian character determined to commit war crimes, a stupid monkey attempting Freudian revenge on Saddam Hussein. John McCain received similar treatment in 2008; so did Mitt Romney in 2012. Barack Obama routinely trafficked in bombast (in 2009, he infamously warned bank CEOs that he was “the only thing between you and the pitchforks”) as well as manufactured outrage (remember, Trayvon Martin could have been his son); he routinely pretended to be brave and tough (see, e.g., his overblown rhetoric about the arc of history) and yet preyed on fear (by deploying, for example, his vice president to suggest that Mitt Romney wanted to put black Americans back in chains).
For those of us who have watched politics for the past several decades, pinning the death of a common American ethos on Trump is like blaming gravity for the Hindenburg disaster: It had something to do with the problem, but the bigger problem was the enormous fire ripping through the dirigible. George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not have a common vision for America. Neither did George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. What’s more, the hobnobbing and backslapping of these supposed representatives of sharply varying philosophies — the notion that an elite class of political actors were playacting their conflict in public, but smoking cigars together in private — led to the rise of an outsider such as Trump.
This isn’t a case against civility, of course. Trump has seriously degraded the public discourse; unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t hide his personal animus behind a veneer of niceness. But that wasn’t all that Obama and Bush were calling for. They suggested an ideological unity that no longer exists — and everyone knows it. The day before Barack Obama and George W. Bush at McCain’s funeral were signaling supposed American unity against unpalatable politics, Bill Clinton was sitting next to anti-Semites Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Louis Farrakhan at Aretha Franklin’s.
We are disunited. Trump is a symptom of that. If political actors want to criticize the specifics of Trump’s philosophy, or if they want to criticize Trump’s character overtly, they should have at it. But presenting a false façade of unity where none has existed for decades only leads Americans to believe that the political elites are united by their elite status. And ironically, that plays directly into Trump’s populist hands.