On Saturday morning, America’s political and media elite joined together at Washington’s National Cathedral for two purposes: to pay tribute to Senator John McCain and to themselves.
The funeral, which had been planned by McCain to offer a bipartisan rebuke to the current occupant of the White House, featured speaker after speaker obliquely, though never directly, criticizing Donald Trump. They spoke of decency and civility in politics, for bipartisanship and for adherence to country over party. In the New Yorker, Susan Glasser called it “the biggest resistance meeting yet.”
The subtext was not difficult to discern: we’re not like him.
But each of the funeral speakers, in his or her own small way, are responsible for Trump being president.
George W. Bush, the man responsible for the Iraq War and the 2008 economic crash, praised McCain for detesting “the abuse of power.” The Arizona senator, said the former president “could not abide bigots and swaggering despots.” This was seen as reproach of Trump for his affinity to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian leaders.
But did W ever criticize Trump in 2016? Did he endorse his opponent? What about his administration’s embrace of crony capitalism and fear-mongering after 9/11,SPACE which contributed to the feelings of insecurity and fear of “others” that Trump took advantage of during his presidential run?
What about the congressional Republicans who solemnly nodded their heads during all the talk of bipartisanship and the attacks on “mindless partisanship”? They spent the Obama years refusing to reach across the aisle, ceaselessly vilifying a Democratic president, winking and nodding at those who questioned whether he’d really been born in America — like Donald Trump. All of them are preparing to ram through a lifetime nomination of a Supreme Court justice appointed by the same president who was the target of Saturday’s moral preening.
What about McCain himself? In 2008 he had the opportunity to put a Democrat on his presidential ticket. Instead, he selected the supremely unqualified Sarah Palin to be his running mate — a precursor for our current reality-show president.
For all the talk of bipartisanship, which McCain, in death, seemed so inclined to extol; in life, he contributed to the demonization of Obama and did precious little to stop the rise of Trump or hold him accountable once he took office.
And what of Obama? He is the antithesis of Trump, and there is no moral equivalency to be made here. Yet he made his mistakes as well. His decision not to prosecute those responsible for torture during the Bush years and not hold Wall Street responsible for the 2008 financial crisis contributed to the frustrating absence of accountability in Washington — and almost certainly stirred the populist anger so evident in 2016.
Indeed, nothing better exemplifies the DC elite’s allergy to accountability than the presence of Henry Kissinger, who not only was warmly welcomed to McCain’s service, but actually spoke.
I understand the impulse of those in Washington to contrast themselves with the toxic sewer that is Trump’s presidency.
But hoary praise cannot and should not allow them to run away from their roles in contributing to his rise to power and the continued enabling of his authoritarian, anti-democratic impulses.
It is perhaps most ironic that they did so in violent opposition to the one virtue that many extolled in McCain — namely not acting out of principle, but rather out of craven and political self-interest.
More than a few people suggested on social media during McCain’s memorial service that we need a national politics that looks like the gathering inside the National Cathedral.
In reality, America doesn’t need whitewashed bread and circuses that offer symbolic paeans to American greatness. We need tangible actions, not speechwriter-crafted rhetoric. We need politics and politicians that recognize their own culpability in Trump’s ascendancy. We need a national cleansing and a larger recognition that Trump didn’t seep out of the primordial ooze. He is the logical outcome of decades of politics — and let’s be clear, overwhelmingly Republican politics — that has been small, mean, dishonest, tribal, and cowardly.
Trump is a blight on our national politics. But he’s no aberration. Getting rid of him is a good start toward fixing what’s wrong in American politics, but to get to the nub of the issue would require traits that John McCain often demonstrated — true introspection and self-reflection. What we saw on Saturday was something quite different — an elite class of politicians and pundits patting themselves on the back for being better than Donald Trump, with no intention of changing their ways.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.