A hero for their class, not for ours
The glowing eulogies for John McCain weren’t just a rebuke to Donald Trump, but a bipartisan appeal for the good old days of the “Washington consensus” before Trump. The left has a duty to expose this myth — and McCain — writes.
SINCE ARIZONA Sen. John McCain’s death, the American political establishment has staged a succession of patriotic and militarist commemorations of his life that implicitly attack the billionaire bigot in the White House, Donald Trump, who was told not to attend any of them.
McCain planned these events in collaboration with other leaders of both parties to send a political message.
Their goal was to not only to rebuke Trump, but to celebrate the old order in Washington — the so-called “Washington consensus,” where the U.S. government presided over neoliberal globalization through diplomacy and a system of alliances, while reserving the right to use unilateral force against “rogue states” that buck American dictates.
Trump’s hard-right politics, economic nationalism, attacks on the FBI and CIA, and undermining of various U.S. alliances are a challenge to this consensus. His slogan of “Making America Great Again” by putting “America First” has disrupted political and trade relations with almost every state in the world, whether or not they are a U.S. ally or enemy.
Thus, at each ceremony for McCain, from Arizona to Washington, D.C., a Who’s Who of ruling-class politicians, from Barack Obama to George W. Bush, took the opportunity to celebrate McCain as a hero willing to buck his own party, take supposedly principled positions and stand up to Trump.
At the Washington commemoration, Obama declared, in an obvious reference to Trump: “So much of our politics, our public life, our public discourse, can seem small and mean and petty, trafficking in bombast and insult, in phony controversies and manufactured outrage. It’s a politics that pretends to be brave, but in fact is born of fear. John called us to be bigger than that. He called us to be better than that.”
Many liberal commentators followed this lead, seeing the funeral tour as the long-awaited birth of bipartisan opposition to Trump. Writing in the New Yorker, Susan Glasser even called it “a meeting of the Resistance, under vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows.”
But McCain’s political positions and legacy are the opposite of everything claimed by his eulogists, as Mehdi Hassan (at the Intercept), Tom Bramble (for Red Flag and Socialist Worker) and Branko Marcetic (at Jacobin) have amply documented. Certainly, they offer no basis for galvanizing the resistance to Trump.
DESPITE THE many tributes to his military service, McCain was no war hero, but a war criminal. He started his career bombing the people of Vietnam and followed it up as a mouthpiece for the Pentagon in the Senate, ramming through massive defense expenditures and supporting every U.S. military operation, right up through Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen today.
He infamously bastardized a Beach Boys song, turning it into a call for the U.S. to bomb Iran. And he despised any and all opponents of the U.S. military machine, going so far as to call Medea Benjamin and Code Pink activists “low life scum” for protesting war criminal Henry Kissinger.
McCain was also a devoted representative of capital and enemy of workers in the Senate. Like other politicians before him, he got caught fleecing working-class people who lost their retirement savings when the savings-and-loan industry collapsed in the 1980s.
McCain survived this scandal, but he never stopped serving the bosses, ending his career by supporting Trump’s tax cut for the rich. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave him an 80 percent grade on his voting record, while the AFL-CIO ranked him at 16 percent over his Senate career.
Like most fellow Republicans, McCain had a long history of bigoted statements and positions. He repeatedly used the racist term “gooks” to describe Vietnamese, opposed divestment and sanctions against apartheid South Africa, voted against Martin Luther King Day becoming a national holiday, supported a ban on abortion and verbally unleashed his temper on his own wife in the crudest misogynist language imaginable.
Even McCain’s opposition to Trump is exaggerated. Despite his sometimes sharp disagreements with Trump, McCain is responsible for helping open the way for him when he pandered to the Republican right by selecting Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008.
And even though McCain and Trump traded shots over the past two years, McCain voted for Trump-supported legislation 83 percent of the time in the Senate.
His most famous moment of actual opposition to the Trump regime was his vote that doomed Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act in July 2017. But he undermined this action with his support for a provision in last year’s tax-cut legislation that further gutted Obamacare by ending the individual mandate without any mechanism to replace it.
BACK IN 2008, when McCain ran for president against Barack Obama, his reactionary record led liberal Democrats and many on the left to describe him as the greatest threat to peace, justice and democracy yet.
But all that has been flushed down the memory hole in the many tributes to him since his death.
The Democratic and Republican Party establishments have more in common than differences, and they both defend a wretched status quo. For readers of this website, it’s not surprising when McCain is praised by the likes of Obama, Joe Biden or Chuck Schumer.
But what was shocking was to read statements from socialists Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that echoed the same themes. Sanders, the senator from Vermont and 2016 candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, called McCain “an American hero, a man of decency and a friend of mine,” while Ocasio-Cortez, the surprise primary winner for a congressional seat from New York City, tweeted praise for his legacy as “an unparalleled example of human decency and American service” and for his friendship with the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Not only are these statements praising McCain groundless, but they do nothing to challenge — as socialists must — the patriotism and militarism that is being celebrated as a “lesser evil” to Trump among liberals and the Democratic Party.
Was this simply a matter of Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez issuing a standard statement on the death of another politician? In a critical article in The Call, Joe Allen argues that the root of their mistake was falling into adoption of ritual expressions of condolence.
By contrast, journalist Arun Gupta argues that their praise for McCain flows from their participation in the Democratic Party, where “the gravitational force of the media, lobbyists and Democratic Party honchos will pull them ever closer to elites.”
Gupta makes the case that there is a logic of accommodation at work: “In all likelihood, as soon as Ocasio-Cortez won, Sanders and other political insiders told her, “You must ‘moderate’ to win. If you don’t, elites will destroy you. You will never get elected to Congress.”
THE LIBERAL establishment denounced McCain as the very incarnation of the “greater evil” in 2008. Now he is seen as an ally in defending the good old days of Washington bipartisanship against Trump.
Nothing could be worse for the resistance to Trump than to accept the idea that the alternative to him and his right-wing agenda is the bipartisan U.S. political establishment and its two capitalist parties.
Both the Republicans and Democrats are responsible for precipitating the rise of Trump and Trumpism. Their “Washington consensus” immiserated workers at home and abroad, deepened institutionalized oppression, led the U.S. into unending wars for global domination and drove the world economy into the Great Recession.
Trump and the new right — encouraged by McCain when he selected Palin as his running mate — took advantage of the real crises in our world to put forward reactionary solutions. Trump was able to win because the Democrats ran the very embodiment of the neoliberal status quo against him: Hillary “America is already great” Clinton.
Now, watching the commemorations for McCain, there was no question that members of both parties wanted to use the flag-waving to rally support for a different brand of nationalism to Trump’s. As The New York Times described it: “The two-and-a-half-hour ceremony blended the majesty of the officially designated national house of prayer, the discipline of his cherished Naval Academy and the unabashed, unapologetic patriotism of a Fourth of July fireworks display.”
Daughter Megan McCain took advantage of this atmosphere to resuscitate Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan: “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great.”
Socialists ask: For whom has America ever been great? Certainly, it has been a great ride for the rulers of America, from the slaveholders and architects of Native genocide who founded the nation to today’s robber barons like Jeff Bezos.
But the same can’t be said for the exploited workers and oppressed peoples who have paid for this wealth in blood, sweat and tears. Even more obviously, America has never been great for the countries it has occupied and bombed, beginning with the Philippines in 1898 and extending to “war on terror” of the 21st century.
As in every country, the American ruling class has always used patriotism to bind workers and the oppressed to them — to encourage the idea that U.S. workers have more in common with their bosses and political leaders than with the people of countries that are deemed to be enemies of America.
THUS, AT the heart of socialism is internationalism: the idea that the international working class has a common interest of opposing their own rulers in every country.
For Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez to call McCain “an American hero” and praise his “American service” compromises this fundamental cornerstone of socialism.
The rejection of nationalist fealty is all the more important given the intensifying inter-imperial rivalries taking place today — most importantly with China, but also with Russia and regional powers like Iran.
Trump has obviously used nationalism to whip up support for his confrontations with those powers, but the party leaders of both the Democrats and Republicans do exactly the same. McCain made an art of that during his decades of beating the drums of war, and far from dissenting, the Democratic Party has always been a devoted servant of U.S. imperialism.
Today, Trump often finds more support for his policies toward China among Democrats than Republicans.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, for example, echoed Trump’s talking points in praising the administration’s imposition of new tariffs: “China takes total advantage of the United States. They steal our intellectual property using cyber theft...China will bark back. But they need us more than we need them — President Trump is right about that — and we should be strong. So I thought what he did on China is right.”
On Russia, the Democrats have staked out an even more hawkish position than Trump, using alleged interference in the 2016 election to whip up the conflicts. In general, their criticism of Trump is that he has upset the U.S. imperialist alliance structure, compromising relationships with states like Canada and Germany.
In this regard, Sanders falls short of where socialists need to stand.
By comparison to other officeholders in Washington, including many liberal Democrats, Sanders has voiced greater opposition to national chauvinism and imperialist policies. His comments are often a welcome contrast to the hawkish Democratic Party leadership.
But his record is not consistently anti-imperialist. Sanders supported Bill Clinton’s war on Serbia in 1999, voted in favor of Bush’s war in Afghanistan and cast a “yes” vote on many military budgets, including those that funded the Iraq War. Sanders is also an endorser of boondoggle military program in his home state: the basing of the F-35 fighter at the airport in Burlington.
On trade issues, Sanders has lined up with Trump’s trade protectionism, tweeting, “I strongly support imposing penalties on countries like China, Russia, South Korea and Vietnam to stop illegal dumping of steel and aluminum.”
His position echoes the labor movement’s support for protectionism over many years, which has disastrously deflected attention from the real culprits for U.S. poverty and job losses — the American bosses who laid off workers in the U.S. and super-exploited them internationally — by making workers taking “American jobs” in other countries into the “enemy.”
ALL THIS is important background for understanding the controversy over Sanders’ and Ocasio-Cortez’s statements honoring McCain. They are more than a ritual — the ideas they represent should be confronted and challenged by the left.
By contrast, Seattle City Councilor and Socialist Alternative member Kshama Sawant sent a very different message with her statement on McCain:
A politician’s legacy is a political not personal question. An enthusiastic supporter of every imperialist war while in office, John McCain shares responsibility for hundreds of thousands of deaths. To whitewash that is to disrespect those who died in Iraq, Afghanistan, elsewhere...Not to mention the countless working people’s lives damaged by McCain’s support, as a Senator, for brutal neoliberal social and economic policies in the United States. Our solidarity belongs with the millions of families suffering under such policies here and abroad.
The new socialist left should follow this example in challenging McCain as a lesser evil and protesting the supposedly kinder, gentler form of imperialism put forward by the bipartisan establishment against Trump’s version.
We should argue for an entirely different kind of politics and strategy, one of working class independence from both capitalist parties, international solidarity with workers and oppressed people around the world, and opposition across the board to U.S. imperialism as, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, the “greatest purveyor of violence in our world today.”
The resistance to Trump — in all its forms, from the Women’s Marches to Black Lives Matter, to the immigrant rights movement, to the teachers’ strike wave — can’t take its lead from the eulogies at McCain’s funeral, but from a left-wing politics that opposes all forms of exploitation, oppression and injustice.