McCain's wars helped get Trump elected

McCain's wars helped get Trump elected
Comment: John McCain's support for the disastrous war in Iraq allowed Trump to appeal to a sense of anger and defeat, writes Wilson Dizard.
4 min read
28 Aug, 2018
George W Bush endorses John McCain's run for the presidency in 2008 [AFP]
President Donald Trump owes his political career in part to Senator John McCain, who died last Saturday of brain cancer.

The bloody failure of the Iraq war, which McCain initially supported, helped stoke the racism, paranoia and fear Trump later exploited to become president.

Throwing the United States into a disastrous war of colonial aggression based on outright lies destroyed not only countless Iraqi lives, but also caused young American men and women to come back maimed, mentally ill or dead.

For many, their first encounter with Muslims and Arabs was of extreme violence, their families and friends fighting a war the US might never have officially "lost", but surely never won, and probably never will.

Republican voters resented being hurled into the slaughterhouse of Iraq, but no one in their party was able to express this sentiment on their behalf, until Trump did.

Their resentment did not come from well spring of humanitarianism, but rather a feeling of defeat and purposeless suffering. That's why Trump's promise to "win again" struck such a raw nerve. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, like McCain, had also voted for the Iraq war when she was senator, and was similarly vulnerable to Trump's attacks.

"I've always said, shouldn't be there, but if we're going to get out, take the oil... If we would have taken the oil, you wouldn't have ISIS, because ISIS formed with the power and the wealth of that oil," Trump said in September 2016, applying a brazenly gangster-like logic to international relations that would continue into his gangster-like presidency.

Trump is still fighting McCain's war, but has left behind the rhetorical pretences of justice, democracy and freedom

McCain, meanwhile, had cultivated an arsenal of patriotic shibboleths and concern trolling about freedom and democracy for the Iraqi people that only seemed to work on people without real skin in the game - wealthier Republicans in suburbs who Democrats sought, in vain, to win over. 

Rural Republicans, and Democrats, too, who had cast their vote for Barack Obama in 2008 did so knowing that he wasn't responsible for the Iraq war. In 2016, they cast their vote for Trump, who also wasn't involved in the planning or execution of the war. That he was a reality TV grifter busy bilking gamblers out of their money in 2003 when the war began didn't matter. What mattered was that Trump wasn't linked to failure.

Read more: John McCain, an unlikely friend to Syrians in Washington

Neither Trump nor Obama had voted for the war, McCain, running against Obama in 2008, certainly had.

While comparisons between Trump and Hitler are certainly hyperbolic, both men benefited from similar historical moments. Hitler would not have won without the pointless calamity of World War I and the desperate humiliation of its aftermath.

Germans vulnerable to Hitler's fascist appeals watched in delirious rage as blind Wehrmacht veterans sold pencils on the streets of 1920s Berlin, while a decadent class of frivolous bohemians seemed to dance on their living graves.

Americans susceptible to Trump's tweets promising a restoration of victory saw their families torn apart by PTSD, trauma and opioid addiction, as the glittering bacchanalia of Burning Man festival kicks off each summer without awareness or shame. That kind of inequality and pain is where fascism gets its start.

Trump's unforgettably uncouth 2015 dig at McCain, who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, "He's not a war hero... He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured," reflects how much appealing to a sense of anger at defeat propelled Trump's political career.

"I think John McCain's done very little for the veterans. I'm very disappointed in John McCain," the then-Republican presidential hopeful added.

The worst thing McCain did for veterans was sending them to war in the first place, something Trump seemed to understand intuitively. Ronald Reagan, albeit in a less deranged way, was able to exploit a sense of resentment at unmistakable failure in Vietnam to promise to confront Communism with a renewed vigour, promising to revive the war's dead with victory.

Republican voters resented being hurled into the slaughterhouse of Iraq

Trump's necromancy is far more dangerous than Reagan's, since it means taking out America's frustrations not on an international economic ideology, but on an entire religion.

Trump is still fighting McCain's war, but has left behind the rhetorical pretences of justice, democracy and freedom, in favour of the rank racism of kleptocratic crusade.

Both politicians display a warlike hostility to Iran, but Trump does it without the codewords McCain could eloquently marshal.

But neither Trump's deranged bluster about restoring American greatness nor McCain's pious sermonizing about spreading American values matter. No words can bring back the dead.

Wilson Dizard is a reporter and photojournalist covering politics, media and culture. He enjoys bicycling. 

Follow him on Twitter: @willdizard

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.