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Trump's McCain Attacks Further Mold the GOP in the President's Image

Confidants of the late senator have either buckled, joined #NeverTrump plotters, or bolted.

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||| Kyle Mazza/ZUMA Press/Newscom
Kyle Mazza/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Many people are speculating this week about President Donald Trump's motivation for expelling fresh new buckets of spittle in his long-running feud with John McCain's ghost. Daughter Meghan McCain says Trump just knows "he will never be a great man." Vanity Fair's Tina Nguyen reckons the president is haunted "by a sense that his enemies are closing in." Maybe it's "because McCain always had Trump pegged for what he was," writes Commentary's Noah Rothman. Washington lawyer and Kellyanne Conway husband George Conway famously (and flippantly) suggests narcissistic personality disorder.

Any of these are certainly possible, but ultimately unknowable. What we can better assess is the practical impact of Trump's rhetorical barrage. And it is this: By making this feud a top political issue of the week (with the help of an always-willing media), the president is forcing elected Republicans and other high-profile conservatives to respond—with support, opposition, subdued subtweets, mealy-mouthed half-criticism, or silence. Through this ritual the Grand Old Party becomes more Trumpified and less McCained. And the brain trust that surrounded the late senator gets pushed further out into the #NeverTrump fringes of the GOP, or out of the party altogether.

Take John Weaver, a key strategist in both of McCain's presidential campaigns, though he was jettisoned from the second one in July 2017 after a disastrous first few months. Weaver's response to the president's attacks sounds like a declaration of political independence, maybe even war:

Weaver has been orchestrating the not-quite-happening presidential campaign of CNN contributor John Kasich, who sent out a fundraising email in response to Trump v. McCain. ("When we don't speak out about these things, we become numb to them and we simply can't let that happen," the former Ohio governor said in the mailer.)

Just about every potential #NeverTrump presidential challenge has a senior McCainster in the middle of things. Who's running the not-quite-declared campaign of independent Howard Schultz? McCain 2008 senior campaign advisor Steve Schmidt, who quit the GOP in 2018 over Trump's family separation policies and promptly declared that the Trumpified party must "burn to the ground." McCain alter-ego and longtime co-author Mark Salter reportedly gave a hand to the second inaugural address of Maryland governor and #NeverTrump hopeful Larry Hogan, and has been saying stuff like "I would prefer a Democratic nominee who appeals to centrists like me and not to the fringes of his or her party." Even Bill Weld's threadbare staff includes Jennifer Horn, who, while not a McCain intimate, did campaign with the maverick in New Hampshire and took succor from the senator in her opposition to Trump.

The president's attitude toward these maverick remnants and their class cohorts along the Acela corridor is clear—scoreboard! Also, don't let the door hit you on your way out. Until proven otherwise, this is Trump's party now, which means that those McCain intimates who wish to stay on golfing terms with the GOP leader are going to have to almost ritually debase themselves, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) did this week:

(Schmidt, for one, says Graham has been "corrupted by ambition.")

Every good divorce story requires compelling arguments on both sides, and the Trump-McCain split is no exception. The president bashes his nemesis for "a war in the Middle East that McCain pushed so hard," and he's right about that. (McCain only got around to admitting that the Iraq War was a "mistake" in the memoir he and Salter published last year.) Say what you will about the current commander in chief and his herky-jerky foreign policy, but he has not started the kinds of interventions that McCain spent the last two decades of his life fervently advocating.

Trumpworld also sees the McCain rump as being too cozy with the media, too embedded in the deep state, too contemptuous of the conservative grassroots. Certainly, the senator's central role in distributing the controversial Steele dossier to the FBI and media ties all three of those truth-containing critiques into a neat bow.

The McCainite complaint about Trumpism overlaps so neatly with the media's that it almost doesn't require stating, but: The president is a draft-dodging boor who lies like a rug, pits Americans vs. Americans, scapegoats immigrants, embraces dictators, and debases everything he touches. The complaint contains much truth.

The questions going forward are whether the #NeverTrump brigades buckle, revolt, or defect; whether those in the latter two categories have enough manpower to make a noticeable numerical difference; how the Democratic Party and third parties/independents respond to these untethered political souls; and if there will be some big-tent reunion/reformation once the Trump Train passes through town. Judging by the dizzying number of Trump-accommodationist manifestos floating around, I'd put the likelihood of the latter rather low. Particularly among those closest to the cantankerous Mr. McCain.

Speaking of which: My obituary for the maverick.