The recent death of US Senator John McCain has inspired an establishment ‘fightback’ against the ‘dangerously isolationistic’ Donald Trump presidency. There is near complete personalisation of US politics around mostly fictional political positions united by the desire to perpetuate American global preponderance, but at loggerheads over tactics.
McCain is painted as an all-American hero, almost a god and certainly a saint, while Trump is a pantomime villain at whom it is perfectly polite to hiss and boo. The former backed a broadly hegemonic ordering strategy for US global domination while Trump backs bilateral transactionalism resulting in part from his business experience and partly from the conservative-nationalist playbook.
In truth, neither McCain nor Trump occupy anything other than positions extolling the virtues of an aggressive and violent American empire at war virtually across the globe and responsible for mass suffering caused by illegal wars – Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and unconditional support for the Israeli onslaught against Palestinians, among others. The debate is over tactics to be deployed against America’s main perceived ‘rivals’ – Russia and China – and the way of dealing with traditional US allies to those ends. It is largely that simple.
Born at the arrogantly self-proclaimed ‘American century’s’ birth, to a family steeped in the country’s armed services, a man of the establishment, John McCain appears to have passed away in the midst of what some are claiming is the American century’s twilight. And he and his establishment allies view President Donald Trump as the extinguisher of America’s ‘light’. Hence, against all the evidence, McCain – who is relatively unknown beyond America’s shores – has been elevated to national hero and the voice of the global oppressed.
He is the non-existent hero the American establishment needed, and has therefore had to invent.
His much-lauded career as an honourable naval officer and ‘public’ servant is starkly contrasted with Trump’s acknowledged low moral standing, military service evasion and political buffoonery.
Yet McCain is hardly beyond criticism: he may have represented another, past, Republican party but it was he who ushered in the era of right-wing populism with Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate in 2008. Palin enthused the GOP base against Barack Obama, championed overt lying over any comprehensible political position, and hastened the emergence of the Tea party, the birther movement and eventually the rise of President Trump, if not a virulent Trumpism that may well outlive the man himself.
- John McCain is the non-existent hero the American establishment needed, and has therefore had to invent.
The establishment likes to paint Trump as an aberration. His roots, however, lie deep in the establishment’s own drive to the Right – since at least the time of Richard Nixon in the 1970s and the backlash against civil and women’s rights, and the crushing failures of an unchecked globalising corporate sector at home and its war machine abroad.
Of course, McCain claimed later to regret choosing Palin. But who had been his first choice? US Senator Joe Lieberman – the neoconservative who had backed the Iraq war and the whole war on terror against the so-called ‘axis of evil’. Not for nothing did Lieberman declare at McCain’s funeral that “The name John McCain was a source of hope and inspiration for oppressed people around the world.”
It was a staggeringly Orwellian moment, even by the standards of US hegemony.
The oppressed of Iraq felt the full fury of McCain’s inspiration. Having backed US military aggressions including Vietnam, he argued that the US military should remain in Iraq for a hundred years. He was honoured that the latest massive military budget passed by Congress had his name on it.
At home, Senator McCain largely backed every measure that has increased corporate power and diminished workers’ rights and conditions, opposed legitimate trade unionism, and supported tax cuts for the richest in American society. In the 1980s, as a Congressman, he voted against a national holiday to honour Martin Luther King, Jr.
According to FiveThirtyEight, McCain voted with Trump initiatives 83% of the time, 21% higher than he would have been predicted to on the basis of his positions in 2016.
McCain’s death has reopened fractures within US foreign policy elites on its global role, as ‘traditional’ imperial establishments at home and globally weigh in on praising McCain’s support of NATO and transatlanticism, opposition to Russia, among other things.
Trump is aggressive, nationalistic, and imperialistic but ultimately backs a more selective global engagement strategy to manage US power in globally-challenging conditions. His principal crime is to refuse the ‘hegemonic ordering’ strategy favoured by the establishment since 1940s, in favour of aggressively-nationalistic bilateral transactionalism. Where the establishment largely favoured building orders – the UN system, Bretton Woods, NATO, the European Union, and more recently NAFTA, WTO, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership – Trump favours a strategy of bilateral transactionalism to weaken blocs and agreements, and deal with each nation separately from America’s position of strength. He is leveraging American power in the most crude, brutal ways, showing its true face.
Trump recognises other states’ and blocs’ ‘bottom line’, and understands America’s most significant strengths – military superiority, dollar power in global finance and trade, and the leverage offered by a massive US domestic market.
And he is wielding it like a bludgeon. And bringing it into disrepute, diminishing its ‘moral’ authority, the cover of ‘soft’ power which the traditional establishment prefers.
Inderjeet Parmar is a professor of American studies at City University in London.