by Roger Kimball
The big news last week revolved around the funerals of a 1960s pop singer and an unreliable Republican senator with a cult following among masochistic conservatives and cynical leftists eager to capitalize on his capacity to spread dissension among his nominal allies.
I suppose the exploitation of funerals for grubby political ends is nothing new. Mark Antony did it with notable success when he eulogized Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. But there was something especially stomach-churning about the injection of partisan animus into the obsequies of Aretha Franklin and John McCain.
Both were reminders—as if we needed any—of how these jangled, hyperpartisan times have the capacity to infect even the most solemn ceremonies of life with bile-filled histrionics, our latter-day version of the theater of the absurd.
The race hustling reverends Al Sharpton and Michael Eric Dyson led the bandwagon at Franklin’s funeral, loading their praise of the soul singer with vicious anti-Trump rhetoric. Dyson described the president of the United States as an “orange apparition,” a “lugubrious leech,” a “dictator” and “fascist.” Nicely done, Reverend!
The tone at John McCain’s spectacle was more restrained but the message of hatred and contempt for the president was just as patent.
The professional NeverTrumper and Twitter activist Bill Kristol sniffed that “I don’t believe the name of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was mentioned during the service for John McCain, and I’ll continue that practice, in McCain’s honor, for the rest of the day. Today was a moment to celebrate, appreciate and reflect on what is admirable.”
I’ll come back the question of “what is admirable” in a moment. But first, I think it worth pointing out how disingenuous Kristol’s tweet was. The name “Trump” may not have been publicly uttered at that orgy of self-congratulatory vituperation, but the reality of the man was palpable everywhere. Curiously, he was the star of the show in which John McCain had the title role.
The president had been asked pointedly not to attend the event. He respected the wishes of the family and stayed away. Then the media went wild reporting that he had taken himself off to the links to play golf. Instead of what, exactly? Sitting at home and watching himself be not-so-subtly abused first by Meghan McCain, then Barack Obama and George W. Bush?
“The America of John McCain,” said the senator’s daughter, “has no need to be made great again because America was always great.” Get it? Get it?
Barack Obama, in a tribute that instantiated to the letter what it pretended to abhor, lamented how “So much of our politics can seem small and mean and petty. Trafficking in bombast and insult, phony controversies and manufactured outrage. [You get a gold star for brazenness for that one, Mr. President!] It’s a politics that pretends to be brave and tough, but is instead born of fear [Oh, dear]. John called on us to be bigger than that, to be better than that.” Right.
For his part, President Bush instructed the assembled mourners that McCain “detested the abuse of power and could not abide bigots and swaggering despots.” Anyone particular in mind, sir?
One and all, they came not to praise McCain but to bury Trump.
But let us return to Bill Kristol’s invocation of “what is admirable,” that call-of-the-wild to be “bigger” and “better” that Barack Obama claims to have discerned in John McCain’s example.
Joseph Duggan, a former State Department and White House staffer in the Reagan and first Bush Administrations, offers an instructive comparison between McCain and Jeremiah Denton, the first Republican to win a direct popular election to the Senate in Alabama.
Like McCain, Denton was a war hero. He, too, had been shot down over Vietnam and endured years of torture. (It was Denton who, when paraded in front of television cameras by his captors, famously spelled out T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse code by blinking his eyes.)
But the contrasts between the two men were even more notable. Denton was a consistent conservative. McCain prided himself on being “bipartisan” and “a maverick.” In reality, he was an erratic and self-aggrandizing party of one. As Duggan observes, “What McCain actually did, again and again, was to sabotage consensus within his own party out of an impulse for gaining attention and increasing his negotiating position in regard to other interests.”
Is that admirable?
President Trump has made good on an astonishing number of his campaign promises, from moving our Israeli embassy to Jerusalem to enacting across-the-board tax cuts, resuscitating the American military, enforcing our immigration laws, and rolling back the smothering, counterproductive regulatory environment excreted like a sticky jelly by the administrative state.
One promise he nearly fulfilled early on was scrapping the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. I say “nearly” because the president came up one vote short in his effort to rescue the American people from that ruinously expensive, state-run bureaucratic nightmare. Who was it who withheld the vote? Why, Senator Maverick McCain, of course. As Duggan put it, “With no discernible principle or regard for the public interest on his side, McCain single-handedly sabotaged the repeal of Obamacare. No one can say honestly that his motivation was anything other than spite for President Trump.”
Was that action “bigger” and “better” than those of the Voldemort that President Obama invoked without quite naming? Was it “admirable”?
There were other things that distinguished Jeremiah Denton from John McCain. When Denton died in 2014 at 89, he, like McCain, received full military honors. But as Duggan notes, “His funeral did not preempt television coverage of soap-operas, sitcoms, or sporting events. His pallbearers did not include Warren Beatty, [and] no one, obscure or famous, was told not to attend the ceremony.”
There are a few morals to be absorbed by the sorry spectacles that the funerals of Aretha Franklin and John McCain afforded.
One is the old familiar that Leftists will praise Republicans as “bipartisan” and public spirited just so long as they act and vote like leftists. At the same time, they will instantly punish any dissension in their own ranks with ostracism. Many commentators (including your humble correspondent) have indulged in the sport of contrasting the hosannahs of praise slathered on John McCain by leftists in recent months with the blistering attacks made upon him during those intermittent episodes when he supported conservative causes. At the end of his life, McCain was the enemy of their enemy, Donald Trump. Therefore, on this battlefield, he was their friend.
Another moral concerns the cacophonous tintinnabulations of the echo-chamber that has installed itself in the center of our public life. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that politics is the “master art,” the ultimate good at which virtuous human action aims because politics is that which orders all the subordinate activities that nurture the “good for man.” It is interesting to speculate about what Aristotle would have to say about the practice—not to say “the perversion”—of politics today. Wither phronesis (practical judgment)? What price sophrosune (moderation)?
“But, but, surely you are not suggesting that Donald Trump somehow epitomizes the political virtues Aristotle extols?”
No, I am not. At least, not exactly.
Trump is a loud and brazen personality. He has faults and flaws (unlike the rest of us, of course). Above all, he is a disruptive force. He has, in the most thoroughgoing way in my lifetime, challenged the status quo in American politics.
If you believed that the status quo was a good thing, that, fundamentally, the ship of state was sailing on in the right direction, sails trimmed correctly for the prevailing weather, with the right amount of ballast appropriately distributed—if you thought that then not only are you right to be alarmed by Donald Trump but also I have a large bridge that I would like to sell you.
Of course, many if not most political actors regularly said that the ship of state was in danger of foundering, but that was only when on the hustings. Once safely ensconced in office, they acted in ways that kept the ship lumbering along its perilous course, gunwales nearly submerged. Donald Trump, “standing athwart history, yelling Stop, when no one else is inclined to do so,” has produced a powerful counter current that may yet, might just, alter the course of the vessel in which America finds itself proceeding. It is a gigantic, lumbering barge of a ship, slow to turn, difficult to maneuver, and inertia is a such powerful thing.
Notwithstanding the president’s many successes, it is too early to say how fundamental or lasting his reforms will be.
But almost everyone by now would agree that Trump has precipitated a sharp change in the climate, the emotional and rhetorical weather, of our culture. Many commentators focus on the president’s tweets and his sometimes Tabasco obiter dicta. Doubtless those interventions can be eyebrow-raising.
What strikes me as more noteworthy, however, is the incontinent fury with which the president’s rhetoric has been met. This is where that cacophonous echo-chamber I mentioned makes its debut. One of the many ironies attending the operation of the Trump Administration is the extent to which his opponents, in their loud and adamantine opposition to the president, are guilty of the very things of which they accuse him. I know it seems odd to say, but their behavior has had the effect of making Donald Trump appear as a calming, a moderating force. Who would have thought it possible?
The anti-Trump hysteria has had a much longer run than I would have thought possible. Partly, that’s because it has been assiduously fed by a corrupt and partisan media. Partly, it is because of the self-engorging denizens of the Washington swamp—the cadres of bureaucrats, scribblers, and talking heads who have a vested interest in perpetuating and extending the swamp.
If they have been more persistent than I would have predicted, I nevertheless see them as the grasshoppers in this little fable from Edmund Burke: “Because half-a-dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field, that of course they are many in number, or that after all they are other than the little, shriveled, meager, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.”
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Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion and President and Publisher of Encounter Books. Mr. Kimball lectures widely and has appeared on national radio and television programs as well as the BBC. He is represented by Writers’ Representatives, who can provide details about booking him. Mr. Kimball’s latest book is The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine’s Press, 2012). Read his full bio at American Greatness.