Sen. John McCain’s funeral was the occasion for praising his dedication to friendship and fair play.
The words of former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and Meghan McCain, his daughter, were all telegraphed criticisms of Donald Trump’s rough handling of his self-designated adversaries both at home and abroad.
But the words they spoke or even election results in November unfavorable to Trump will not change underlying divisions among the American people that have been brought to the fore by Trump’s election and his demeanor.
Trump’s style may leave much to be desired. He shoots from the lip and never admits error. Faced with McCain’s political opposition, he lashed out, saying that McCain was not an American hero. When criticized, he doubled down and claimed that he, the almost certain draft dodger, did not regard a POW as a hero.
It is hard to believe that there is any American who does not believe that McCain performed heroically. A POW for more than five years, he was tortured and rejected early release, knowing it would serve as propaganda. He had accepted an extra and especially risky mission. This was a hero.
Trump has readily attacked both Democrats and Republicans. He has scorned America’s oldest allies. He shows little concern about the reaction from people whose help and support he and his country may later need. He seems to trust nobody outside of his family and perhaps a few friends.
McCain saw Trump’s attitude and actions as a departure from American values of patriotism, cooperation, and compromise. He feared the U.S. was disintegrating politically and losing its leadership role in the world.
McCain, Bush and Obama held Trump responsible for the loss of American power and influence. But they may have missed the fact that Trump represents a significant segment of the American public. His supporters may share some concern about his tweets, but they appreciate both what he does and what he represents.
It is easy to dismiss Trump’s “base,” but it is real, and it is not going away.
Some of his supporters see Trump as the embodiment of the rejection of demographic change in the country. Obama’s election was a clear indicator that the racial composition of the country is changing. In a few decades, the American majority will no longer be white.
Trump’s opposition to immigration sends the message that this demographic trend can be slowed, if not halted. If the new demographics worry a person, supporting Trump makes sense.
Trump promised change, and he obviously tries to keep his promises. Some people expected he would abandon some of his promises when he discovered they were incorrect or based on false assumptions. But he has spurned the experts, whom he saw as producing too few useful results, and kept his promises.
Suppose NAFTA is modified. Suppose China backs down on some of its trade policies. Suppose the economy continues to grow thanks in part to tax cuts and deregulation. Trump will take full credit and many people will understand too few of the details to question his claims.
If these voters are satisfied by his moves and their results, they may believe his rough treatment of others and his knee-jerk tweeting have been justified. He may be a bully, but he’s our bully. The base would remain loyal, and McCain’s call for American values could be ignored. It will be a case where the end justifies the means.
Trump worries most about being seen to have won his election with Russian help. He need not to have colluded, but still find himself and the legitimacy of his election challenged. The facts may lead as far as a serious impeachment attempt, but almost certainly he would survive as president.
In the end, the key question may be whether his base believes he is a political victim, like Clinton or a real scoundrel, like Nixon. But most Republicans back him if for nothing more than party loyalty. They see the media as biased, not their president as dishonest.
McCain believed that Americans could be called back to their values from their flirtation with Trump. However much he deserves respect, he may be proved to have been unduly optimistic.
Trump’s most ardent supporters hated McCain. One of them tweeted a threat to the life of Meghan, simply because she took her father’s side against the president.
The challenge to holding the country together may be far more difficult that McCain’s call for unity and to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”