Funeral For A Dying Doctrine

The most significant line uttered at John McCain’s funeral probably came from George W. Bush, which is kind of an unexpected accomplishment for someone with the oratorical prowess of George W. Bush. Nevertheless: light-heartedly recalling some of his favorite McCain memories, Bush revealed that he and the late Senator had recently taken to reminiscing about their 2000 rivalry. The GOP primaries that year became infamous for the nasty turn in South Carolina, when McCain was taken out by a legendarily vicious whisper campaign. But that didn’t stop the two from later developing a warm friendship; Bush said yesterday that he and McCain would remember their old battles like “football players remembering a big game.”

A big game.

For legacy media pundits, there’s something weepily consoling about the fact that a fraternity of America’s most elite political leaders can set aside their differences and gather together in the National Cathedral to remember a deceased colleague and war hero. (Even the term “National Cathedral” is an almost too-perfect encapsulation of the weird secular religion these people subscribe to.) But what they don’t seem to want to reckon with is that the conditions which make this kind of thing possible are eroding. Only in a relatively low-stakes political situation — where your adversary is an opponent, but not necessarily an enemy — can such exercises in “unity” even take place. As McCain himself keenly recognized, the stakes are shifting, which is why he planned the funeral the way he did: to showcase a display of “bipartisan” solidarity, where the nation’s upper-crust political elites tell each other how fundamentally alike they are, beneath it all.

By his own doing, the funeral seemed less for McCain the individual, and more for the increasingly obsolete ideology he so fully embodied — “national greatness,” or the eternal global primacy of the United States. This is the ideology which in its various permutations has sustained American hegemonic power for decades, and has undergirded an elite political culture where simple partisan differences can always be easily overcome when there’s a national initiative to unify around (usually involving military adventurism). If that era hasn’t fully passed, it’s passing, and the process is probably only going to accelerate. That’s why the McCain Holy Week goodbye tour had an ineffable feeling of finality about it, even if was hard to pinpoint exactly why. The “game” is coming to an end.

Joe Biden echoed George W’s sentiment at yet another of these endless funeral processions earlier in the week in Arizona, when he declared McCain his “brother” with whom he had “a lot of family fights.” Biden and McCain ran against one another in a presidential election. They were members of opposing political parties which consistently emphasized their differences as profound and intractable. In 2008 they competed for control of the most awesome state power in the history of the world! It’s one thing to be collegial with colleagues, but if you feel a brotherly affection for your vanquished opponent, maybe the stakes aren’t quite as high as you let on. The 2008 election seemed at the time like an incredibly seismic event. Biden, essentially, reduced it to a family squabble.

Obama kept the sports analogy going by proclaiming, with apparent earnestness, that he and McCain always knew they were “on the same team.” American politics now seems to be entering a phase when being on the “same team” is no longer a given, largely because that sense was always undergirded by an unspoken, unexamined ideology — in American greatness, or exceptionalism, or civil religion; whatever you call it, this ideology isn’t widely shared any longer, as Americans increasingly contest the foundational premises of citizenship. And the ideology was always largely confined to the elite anyway, who’ve long invoked it as a self-justificatory mechanism to give themselves an air of authority that draws on the mythological cliches of American tradition.

The rituals, monuments, and slogans dedicated to the “American greatness” ethos will live on past McCain, but with McCain went their most pure and enthusiastic proponent. As one Twitter follower of mine described it, he’s the “last pallbearer of a defunct ideology.” It might not be completely defunct, but it’s on the way out. Again, that’s why yesterday felt more like more like a funeral for a dying national doctrine than a funeral for a specific individual. McCain wanted it that way.

Trump, as I’ve written, is the first truly “post-exceptionalist” president. Some give that designation to Obama, and maybe they’re right that he was a kind of precursor, but Trump is the first of the modern era to totally repudiate the core tenets of American exceptionalism and replace it with a kind of crude transactionalism that is not at all contingent on any belief in the immutable and eternal greatness of America. He doesn’t expound the mythos in which McCain was so deeply invested. In fact, Trump seems instinctually scornful of it.

This doesn’t mean Trump as a person has brought about any kind of revolutionary shift in the habits of American governance. His main legislative initiative so far was a tax cut, which McCain voted for, and he’s propped up the conservative establishment in many ways, especially with judicial appointments — all of whom McCain supported. Nevertheless, Trump’s rhetorical departures are genuinely stark, and that’s what continues to incense the political elites the most, to the point where they would use a National Cathedral gathering to directly repudiate him from the heart of the nation’s proverbial inner-sanctum. (But isn’t Trump a political elite, you ask? By dint of being president, yes, of course he is. And a large section of the Republican elite is now firmly aligned with him. But there are rival elements of the political elite!)

One might be inclined to understate the significance of funeral rhetoric because of the decorum and deference involved, but these occasions provide a venue for the revelation of certain truths that would otherwise be hidden. To continue George W’s metaphor, it would probably be premature to declare “Game Over.” But games end eventually.

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