Back in 2013, when such a universe still looked plausible, The New Republic asked Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) how he would react to a 2016 presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), a man he had famously derided as a "wacko bird." "It's gonna be a tough choice," mused McCain. Clinton, he said, was a foreign policy "rock star," while Paul represented "the isolationist, America-Firsters."
At the time, I wrote that "given the depth of the interventionists' commitment to blank-check executive-branch prosecution of war and American hegemony, no one should be surprised by the burgeoning Republicans For Hillary caucus." Prescient! Less so was my prediction that if the GOP nominated Paul, McCain would give the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. In fairness, that's because it never occurred to me in a million years that the five-term senator would debase himself with yet another re-election at the ripe old age of 80. After all, he's not exactly hard up for money, and his namesake father and grandfather died at ages 70 and 61, respectively.
McCain has been making news and inspiring anguish over the past month by letting people know that he really feels bad about a presumptive GOP nominee that nevertheless he (unlike his fellow Arizona senator Jeff Flake) is supporting. "You have to listen to people that have chosen the nominee of our Republican Party," the erstwhile maverick told CNN this weekend. "I think it would be foolish to ignore them." The 2008 GOP nominee won't be attending the 2016 Republican National Convention, and said he wouldn't campaign actively for Trump unless the nominee retracts his cavalier (and inaccurate) crack that U.S. prisoners of war can't be considered "war heroes" because they were captured, but insists he can do business with this actual America-Firster ("Well, I think American leadership, he emphasizes that, and I think that's important"), and says—in public, anyway—that Trump isn't impacting his difficult re-election bid.
In private, however, it's a whole 'nother matter. Last week, Politico obtained (without any noticeable difficulty) a recording of McCain from a private fundraiser in April, in which the legendary straight-talker fretted that, "If Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket, here in Arizona, with over 30 percent of the vote being the Hispanic vote, no doubt that this may be the race of my life…. The Hispanic community is roused and angry in a way that I've never seen in 30 years."
Part of the transcript in particular rang eerily familiar to my ears, in a way that I think speaks a lot about McCain's—and the Republican establishment's—own culpability in fostering Trumpism:
Frankly there's an element of nativism in it as well, as you know. The first wedge that Donald Trump had that gave him notoriety was, "Build a wall," "rapist," "murderers," etc.
Why, John McCain would never demagogue immigration politics by calling Mexicans murders and advocating for more border fencing!
That remains one of the five most painful political ads I've ever seen. Right down to the (still-active!) website and the plaintive, thoroughly unconvincing "You're one of us!" But there are four broader lessons here beyond McCain's eternally situational political courage.
1) GOP elites are terrified of their own base. As I wrote in March,
McCain, a lifelong elitist with open hostility toward the conservative grassroots, famously went to "crazy base-land" when he could finally smell the ring of power, reversing his positions and rhetoric on gay marriage, immigration, and even condom use. Mitt Romney, the Republican who has taken on Trump with the most gusto during this campaign season, arguably paved the way for his success by out-immigrant-bashing the 2012 field while promising hardest to protect old-age entitlements. Couple this with the old establishment chestnuts about somehow balancing a budget while undoing the allegedly "devastating cuts" to our military, and a picture emerges of structural insincerity and the ritual, nose-holding manipulation of the activist base.
2) #NeverTrumpers and their less courageous friends have not begun grappling with their own responsibility in what they now consider to be a political debacle.
McCain's co-author and alter ego Mark Salter, is part of the burgeoning Neocons 4 Hillary brigade (a list that includes Max Boot, Bret Stephens, and Robert Kagan, at minimum). Like the others, Salter's sputtering condemnations of Trump and his fans are heavy on bile—"Nothing anyone could reveal about Trump could get me to change my opinion that he's an asshole….a cartoon villain, a fake, a cheat, a liar, a creep, a bullying, bragging, bullshitting, blowhard kind of asshole….There have been lots of candidates in the past I've disagreed with, even loathed. There's only one I've wanted to punch in the face," etc., ad infinitum.
And also like the others, Salter is almost magically free of any introspection about the role played by decades' worth of support for constant, ruinous, and increasingly unpopular U.S. military interventionism. Instead, it's literally la-la-la-I-can't-hear-you: "I don't get it, and I've stopped trying." Even his own side's ample political cynicism only comes up when provoked, as in this almost-funny Salter exchange with Politico's Glenn Thrush:
"Do you think you opened the door a crack for a Trump-type candidate because of Palin?" I asked him.
A pause. "Maybe," Salter says. "Maybe a little."
3) Neocons for Hillary was gonna happen anyway.
It's already been consigned to the national memory hole, but before Donald Trump entered the race, GOP hawks sent successive human waves to wipe out the potential electoral menace of Rand Paul. Many lashed him into the same category of foreign policy untenability as fellow Wacko Bird (and neocon-baiter) Ted Cruz. And Trump, unpalatable as he is to many internationalists, may well be the most interventionist of the three, though it's genuinely hard to tell.
The "establishment" candidates in the 2016 race had two main things in common—they were super-hawkish, and they wildly underperformed expectations (it's almost as if there's a connection there). Elite interventionists have always been conscious of their separation from the body politic, and have been prone over the years to fantasies about launching their own third parties, such as the forgotten early-2001 "Bull Moose" musings by McCain-supporting National Greatness conservatives such as Bill Kristol.
Therein lies what may prove to be the most salient lesson at all: 4) After failing to stop him, many people who hate Trump and his foreign policy will instead try to co-opt him.
Who is Bill Kristol's biggest new protégé? Surveillance-loving hyper-interventionist crime warrior Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas). Who did Cotton just announce he was supporting, and willing to be nominated as vice president for? You'll never guess. There are worse ways to hedge your bets against an anti-nation-building GOP nominee than quietly backing a VP with more, shall we say, robust views. This possibility of history repeating itself is the biggest reason why I maintain that Trump is not the peace candidate.