Over the past few days, President Trump has decided it’s a good idea to continue a feud with a dead person, in this case, John McCain. This is a bad look and counterproductive on several fronts. While I understand the complaints about McCain (we’ll discuss them here), and while I know some of you are already headed to the comments section to let me have it, I’d encourage you to take five minutes and at least understand the bigger picture that I’m hoping to lay out.
First, let’s recap some of Trump’s recent comments.
It started with this tweet.
So it was indeed (just proven in court papers) “last in his class” (Annapolis) John McCain that sent the Fake Dossier to the FBI and Media hoping to have it printed BEFORE the Election. He & the Dems, working together, failed (as usual). Even the Fake News refused this garbage!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 17, 2019
Let me posit that the President could have made this point and actually been taken seriously had he punted on the personal insults. Poking at a deceased guy for being last in his class immediately gives fodder for everyone to ignore the bigger point, which is McCain’s role in spreading the dossier.
Trump then doubled down while giving a speech at a tank factory.
Trump then launched a lengthy rant in which he claimed without citing evidence that McCain had pushed for a war and failed America’s veterans.
“I gave him the kind of funeral that he wanted,” Trump told reporters at a campaign-style rally in Lima, Ohio. “I didn’t get (a) thank you but that’s OK.”
Off topic, but let me just point out that it’s patently ridiculous for the AP to assert that saying McCain pushed for the Iraq war lacks evidence. He was one of its biggest cheerleaders and continued to be so until his death, but I digress.
Again, Trump steps on his own toes here. Attacking an apparent lack of gratitude for the funeral is just dumb. Trump already knows the McCain family hates him. If he was expecting a thank you, he should not have agreed to their requests in the first place because that was never going to happen. McCain’s funeral is irrelevant in all this and it just makes Trump look petty, gross, and insensitive.
Does that mean you can’t criticize McCain? Of course not.
In fact, I disagree with Meghan McCain’s general retort that her father is off-limits, which she’s expressed at even the mildest critique numerous times. Now, I’d expect nothing less than for her to defend him. I’d do the same as would most anyone, but as a matter of public examination, the idea that we can’t discuss the ramifications of someone’s politics just because they’ve passed is nonsensical.
John McCain was as calculating and underhanded a politician as anyone else in the past thirty years (not that such is unusual in Washington). Being a war hero does not change that, nor does it absolve his legacy of examination and response. He had a reputation for being fairly vicious behind the scenes and he routinely turned his back on the base that kept re-electing him in order to appease Democrats.
For example, his foreign policy ideas were mostly disastrous and it’s important we learn the lessons of that. As someone with a personal connection to Syria, I was especially unhappy with his support to prolong the civil war and arm jihadists in response. It was a ridiculously dumb position that helped lead to massive numbers of dead. To be sure, Assad is a dictator and has done some clearly reprehensible things, but Syria was far better off as a secular society before the civil war we helped foment. Dictators exist everywhere. The question should always be whether you are helping or hurting by overthrowing them and McCain never seemed to grasp that calculation.
On the domestic front, McCain’s betrayal of his campaign promise on Obamacare was the last straw for a lot of people. His immigration policies earned him scorn long before that. He continually put the mythical prestige of the Senate over his voters and that’s a bad look for any politician. The fact that he and his staff pushed Trump-Russia conspiracy theories to media members is also a black mark on his legacy that can’t be ignored. The vindictiveness of his actions toward Trump throughout that period started long before the President chose to engage back with him. It was not a one-sided feud. McCain was not a politician who rose above the fray as he’s so often portrayed. Instead, he was someone ensconced in the backwater dealings of Washington D.C.
Clearly, McCain deserved and still deserves criticism. The question is how you do it and when it’s smart to do so. If Trump can’t stay on topic in his criticism, he should just shut up about John McCain. There are a few reasons for this.
One, attacking a dead person as if they are still alive, bringing up ancillary parts of their life unrelated to the criticism at hand, is going to raise serious moral questions and I can’t say that’s unfair. Am I saying you can’t ever discuss those aspects of McCain’s life? No, but some things are best left for discussion in more private settings, not to hundreds of millions of people on Twitter.
Did I like John McCain as a politician? No, not even close. But he’s not going to be on CNN tonight to defend himself. There are some things you just leave alone and this is a case where Trump should just let it go. Was McCain someone who benefited in the military because of who his father was? Given his record of crashes and discipline, that’s almost certainly true. But that’s not relevant to the dossier or Obamacare. By choosing to attack the person generally instead of their involvement with the relevant issue, Trump is crossing a line that I don’t believe should be crossed. It also looks hypocritical considering Trump never served at all and got deferments.
If you’ve made it this far, maybe you are saying you disagree and that you have no problem with Trump’s comments. Yet, even if you dismiss everything I’ve written to this point, there’s another reason why Trump should just shut up about McCain.
What he’s doing is politically dumb.
I’ve observed a trend over the past two years that seems to bear out continually. That is, when Trump stops tweeting insults (or at least doesn’t insult someone important enough that it makes national news), his approval ratings rise. The country grows more comfortable with him. He also begins to disarm all the those who hysterically drone on about norms and temperament. When he starts furiously tweeting insults and getting into meaningless feuds (such as with George Conway), his approval ratings decline.
Some of you may not care about those things, but that’s because you are his base. He doesn’t need to convince you to vote for him again in 2020. He does need to convince suburban women in battleground states, a group that largely shifted away from him in 2018. He also needs to convince independents that his policies are worth another four years of putting up with him.
I have a rule when it comes to politicians. I can’t help those who won’t help themselves. Trump has to get it through his head that he gains nothing by continuing this battle with John McCain, at least in the way he’s going about it. Even if he finds no moral objection within himself about his comments, he should at least be smart enough to recognize the political objections. All he’s doing is providing fodder to the media and making it easier for those who were already lukewarm on him to justify not supporting him.
The Democratic primary field is absolutely bonkers. If Trump wants to win in 2020, he simply has to sit on the sidelines and point at the other side. Sucking all the oxygen out of the room and dominating news cycles with attacks of John McCain’s military career is a bad political strategy. When the Democrats are eating each other while promoting insane socialistic ideas, the President would benefit from standing back and watching it all burn down. Don’t hand them buckets of water while setting your own hair on fire.
Donald Trump is a means to an end for me, as are all politicians. That’s likely true for the majority of Republican voters. Most are not true believers in the sense that Trump is a transcendent figure to them. 2020 is too important to throw away over a lack of discipline, even if it can be satisfying in the moment. The policies the Democratic candidates are pushing are dangerous and harmful to not only the economy but also the basic constitutional liberty of the country. Losing long term just to feel good for a few days about attacking John McCain is a terrible trade-off. I hope the President recognizes that. I also hope his most ardent supporters can recognize that.
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