John McCain: The impossible man

John McCain’s legacy reflects the internal contradictions of the US imperial experience.

John McCain
US Senator John McCain visits operating base Gamberi in the Laghman province of Afghanistan on December 25, 2014 [File photo: Reuters/Lucas Jackson]

On August 25, senator and former presidential candidate John McCain died aged 81. In the obituaries that poured in, “war hero” and “maverick” were the most frequent epithets used to describe him. Both these terms, however, frame the irreconcilable paradox of the dysfunctional empire McCain called his homeland – its rosy self-perceptions and the truth of its vile militarism.    

John S McCain,” declared the New York Times obituary in august mournful fonts, “the proud naval aviator who climbed from depths of despair as a prisoner of war in Vietnam to pinnacles of power as a Republican congressman and senator from Arizona and a two-time contender for the presidency, died on Saturday at his home in Arizona. He was 81.”

That pretty much sums up the abiding liberal sentiments at the heart of the empire Senator McCain served valiantly. In the same obituary we read, “a son and grandson of four-star admirals who were his larger-than-life heroes, Mr McCain carried his renowned name into battle and into political fights for more than a half-century.”

What did those battles mean for the humanity at large – how many millions have perished around the globe at the receiving end of those waged wars? What did those political fights signify for the poorer and disenfranchised communities at the fractured heart of the empire itself? These are the places where the real obituaries of the senator will be written. 

Upon his passing, we remember McCain for his sustained oppositions to the public spectacle of indecency that Donald Trump commits as US president – and for his agreement with the majority of his policies.  

From Ronald Reagan to John McCain, the quintessence of the Republican Party war against the poor and the weak worldwide breathes fire into the Trump administration. 

A ‘common sense’ conservative

Senator McCain has left behind a brand of conservatism that his supporters consider “common sense” when compared with the politics of his fellow Republicans Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan – two conservative robots who happily embrace any legislation that favours their enduring power, no matter the human misery it may cause.

McCain may indeed have been different from them, but his presence in the legislative body of the US empire was integral to a deeply reactionary, fanatically militaristic legacy that is wreaking havoc in the US and around the globe.  

Being a military man, McCain was adamantly militaristic in his politics. He was a hardline supporter of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, considering the government of Saddam Hussein “a clear and present danger to the United States of America.” He voted for the Iraq War Resolution in October 2002, promising US forces would be welcomed as liberators by the Iraqis. 

When the extent of the US atrocities in Iraq became evident in the Abu Ghraib torture chambers, however, he was leading a public outcry against such practices, presumably because he was personally tortured while a prisoner of war in Vietnam. He was committed to upholding a military code of honour for an army that had done pretty dishonourable acts around the globe. 

McCain never saw the prospect of a war anywhere in the world he did not instantly support – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere. He advocated for prolonged wars. He died not seeing his wish to “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” fulfilled. But his legacy is alive and well in Trump’s military logic of US domination around the globe. 

McCain staunchly supported Israel, could not care less for the fate of Palestinians, and for a while even considered the arch-Zionist Joseph Lieberman as his running mate in 2008. Yet he also backed the Arab revolutions, criticising dictators Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Bashar al-Assad. 

But with his hardline support for sending arms to Syria, he played a key role in aggressively militarising the peaceful resistance to the murderous Assad regime. This militarisation, with the help of Damascus, which released from prison hundreds of fighters the regime had been using against the US in Iraq, enabled the creation of various extremist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS).

At the same time, McCain’s criticism of Sisi and Assad was, of course, seriously compromised by his fanatical commitment to the Saudi ruling clan, even and particularly during their slaughter of Yemenis, when he rejected calls to limit the US sale of weaponry to Riyadh. 

Give a pen and a piece of paper to a Yemeni or Iraqi or Palestinian child and ask him or her what “war hero” and “maverick” mean at the receiving end of US militarism.

In many ways, McCain was a typical US politician, projecting an image that he means well, but in effect being integral to a structural violence definitive to a trigger-happy dysfunctional empire. In his moral confusions, he embodied the impossibilities of the American empire parading its moral cake for the whole world to believe and gobbling it up too. 

The moral confusion of an empire

The moral confusion of John McCain, however, was not personal, it was endemic to the nature of the empire he cherished as his homeland. In the figure of John McCain, as in the moral fabric of the US empire, singing the praise of liberty and freedom, while bombing nations to smithereens, there is no reconciling between its innate militarism and its professed moral high grounds on what it calls “human rights.”

McCain and his empire protested too much about liberty and freedom and did too little about it; they did not even know of their guilty conscience. 

As a military man, he served his country with steadfast, unwavering, and straightforward convictions. But as a politician, McCain was caught between the rock of moral opprobrium he had inherited from his military family, and the hard-hitting miseries his militarism had caused at home and abroad. 

He was a contradiction in terms. He was an impossible man. But that contradiction, and that impossibility was the persona US imperialism had solidly, transparently invested in him and he best exemplified it, carried it with convictions and pride. 

We all remember when his infamous singing “bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb … Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ classic “Barbara Ann” during a presidential campaign rally delighted the US, Saudi, and Israeli neocons and Zionists to no end.

But in another campaign rally in October 2008, when someone said she did not trust Obama because “he is an Arab”, McCain went out of his way defending his rival for being a “decent family man” and “not an Arab”. Meaning: No decent family man could possibly be an Arab.

This is not being paradoxical, ironic, or even personally racist. This is being true to the contorted moral imagination of a constitutionally racist imperialism, in which “a decent family man” can only be approximated to John McCain himself.

There was and there will always be a moral conundrum in being a John McCain, a consistent inconsistency, for he embodied and personified an empire that lacks any semblance of normative or moral hegemony, a militarism that murders and mourns at one and the same time.  

Any time a mass murderer went on a rampage slaughtering innocent children and adults, McCain was quick to send his condolences: “Cindy & I are praying for the victims of the terrible #LasVegasShooting & their families”, and yet he was the absolute largest recipient of money from the NRA.    

Between Trump and McCain: The future of an empire

The ignominy of Trump in just about anything he says and anything he does, of course, makes McCain look like a towering statue of moral authority – particularly to his liberal admirers.   

“He’s not a war hero,” Trump once infamously said about McCain, “He’s [called] a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.” 

The indecency was repeated later when a White House staffer dismissed McCain’s vote because he “was dying anyway”.

Spewing such vulgarities about a man who was captured, tortured, and maimed for life while serving in an army Trump’s wealthy father had protected his son from being drafted into is positively obscene. 

But Trump and Trumpism could not possibly be the measure of anything. Trump is at once at the rotten roots of American politics and yet an aberration to the liberal veneer McCain best personified in his conservatism.

We may indeed be witness to the end of an era by the passing of John McCain. The rise of Trump and Trumpism has ushered the end of the era of blunt and unbridled racism. The sorts of paradoxical tension McCain personified between highfalutin convictions and dastardly actions, between high-horse morality and cold-blooded murder, between exuding compassion while committing war crimes, may have indeed come to an end. 

If Trump is the future of the American empire, we have a clear consistency between racist convictions and murderous acts. There is no camouflaging here. He kills while he shouts insults.   

With the passing of John McCain, the American empire may have indeed lost an iconic figure definitive to its moral mystification of itself, and thus shed all its false pretences to be a shining city on any hill it has not yet bombed or else turned into a military base.

There is a strong sense of liberal nostalgia in much of the obituaries we read about John McCain these days. There is a strong sense of a desire to put this ugly chapter of Trump behind and move back to a polished imperialism of Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama – when Daddy was bombing the world 9 to 5, and then coming home for a civilised dinner with his lovely family. 

The vulgarity of Donald Trump is just too much in the face, too much telling it like it is. In mourning John McCain, US liberalism is also mourning its own refined and cultured costume party that camouflages its murderous militarism in the refined garb of soft-spoken and cultured pride in one’s county. 

Read carefully these obituaries – there is a pronounced politics to their mourning. They are positing a “liberal conservatism” (or what they term “common sense” conservatism) to defeat Trump and discredit what passes for the left wing of the Democratic Party at one and the same time. 

Come next presidential election, Americans will have a chance to go one way or the other once again: with the open racism of Donald Trump or the refined militarism of what they call “McCain Democrats”. They will make their choice and the rest of the world will have to decide which way to run for cover.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.