John McCain deserves severe criticism more than he deserves sympathy or admiration.
Yesterday, John McCain, despite his announced diagnosis of brain cancer and resulting hospitalization, returned from his home state of Arizona to cast his vote in the U.S. Senate to go forward with the legislative process of repealing Obamacare. Or, as CNN’s Stephen Collinson wrote in a piece surreptitiously not labelled an op-ed,
“In a Washington moment for the ages, Sen. John McCain claimed the role of an aging lion to try to save the Senate, composing a moving political aria for the chamber and the country that he loves. With a deep-red scar etched from his eyebrow to his temple, the legacy of brain surgery less than two weeks ago, McCain beseeched his colleagues to forsake political tribalism and restore the chamber to a spirit of compromise that had helped forge national greatness.”
Meanwhile, NPR, in a piece titled “John McCain Makes Dramatic Return Amid Political Storm” described a scene in the Senate chamber no less in service to the narrative of a triumphant return for McCain:
“It was a remarkable moment, to see McCain, whose daughter described him poetically as a ‘warrior at dusk,’ take his place again in the ‘world’s greatest deliberative body,’ where he has represented his southwestern state for 30 years. McCain, with surgical stitches clearly visible above his left eye, admonished both Republicans and Democrats to work together in the old way and to stop trying to make laws ‘behind closed doors.’ ”
Both of these pieces, alongside almost all mainstream political discourse regarding John McCain’s vote in the Senate yesterday, are blatant propaganda. Moreover, it is propaganda in service of a narrative of McCain’s own devising, that he is at once both a political maverick and reasonable, center-right Republican, fearlessly determined to combat partisanship in the Senate, to fight his own party when necessary, and to compromise with the Democrats on real solutions to the problems facing the American people.
In truth, John McCain is neither a maverick nor reasonably center-right. He is merely more charismatic, mostly from his past as a war veteran and as the Republican candidate back in 2008, than the typical member of the Republican Party today.
McCain said of Trump in his speech before the Senate yesterday, “We are not the President’s subordinates. We are his equals.” However, for the past several months, McCain has unwaveringly served the agenda of President Donald Trump, voting in line with Trump’s position 90% of the time. During the primary election, McCain and Trump engaged in a minor political feud that became sensationalized in the mainstream media when Trump said of McCain, “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” McCain, true to his maverick form, has responded by voting to confirm all but two of now-President Trump’s nominees and enact the president’s agenda.
The typical defense of McCain’s voting record — and of his record as a maverick — would be that he and Trump simply share a common position on a number of issues, as they both are conservative Republicans. If this is true, then it directly refutes the notion of John McCain as a center-right figure, let alone a reasonable one. Donald Trump’s presidential administration has proven to be as reactionary in its realized policies as was the surreal rhetoric of its figurehead during the 2016 presidential election.
Throughout U.S. history, the only president more fascist than Trump has been Andrew Jackson, and the only president elected with further advanced dementia has been Ronald Raegan. If McCain earnestly does agree with Trump on 90% of issues, then his centrist rhetoric is sorely hypocritical. Conversely, if McCain is less reactionary in his beliefs than Trump, then his voting record represents a lack of conviction in those beliefs and willingness to fall in line behind Trump’s extremism.
Furthermore, while John McCain’s votes in the Senate are ideologically consistent with the Trump administration’s agenda, he has also quietly voted alongside his Republican colleagues in the Senate on parliamentary motions that have fallen on partisan lines. During the nomination process of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court in April 2017, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell sought a vote to overturn the former requirement of 60 votes for nominees to the Supreme Court, which had been in effect throughout Barack Obama’s presidency. McCain voted against the requirement and, subsequently, for the nomination of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, both times siding with his fellow Republicans on partisan lines. Ironically, McCain said in his speech yesterday before the Senate, “We’ve been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle.”
At the bare minimum, pieces such as the aforementioned should be labelled what they are — opinions and editorials. Beyond that, however, it is worth investigating this attitude toward politics. Why are news outlets with the purported reputability of CNN and NPR publishing articles that serve as obvious propaganda that glorifies a political figure, John McCain, for, in this case, simply doing his job?
The dominant attitude toward politics expressed in the mainstream media is one that proselytizes centrism a virtue; it exalts our governmental institutions as inherently good, the result of an ingenious design by the founders and a noble tradition of dignified political figures, all preserved in grand monuments; and above all, it essentializes the ideal state of politics as being a government of intelligent, patriotic individuals, willing to compromise with each other toward common goals shared by all Americans. It is by maintaining this fantastical conception of politics that people who call themselves journalists can write such glowing propaganda in service to politicians, such as John McCain, who are preparing legislation to take health insurance from over thirty million people over the next decade. This conception of politics, beyond fantastical, is fundamentally delusional.
Politics is not a game of chess played by decisive political strategists, nor is it a grand battle of political wills in a legislative colosseum. Elected officials are not individuals who engage in deep meditation on topics in political philosophy, ethics, and jurisprudence. Politics, within the context of capitalism, is a competition between the disparate classes of people within that society to have their material interests represented in the formation of government and the policies enacted by the state. This competition becomes no less real and no less visceral in the context of democracy, or at least the semblance of a democratic process, such as the process by which the U.S. government is formed and operates. Government policy which serves the material interests of the ruling class will invariably be enacted at the expense of the working class — and this nowhere in the current landscape of U.S. politics is this axiom more glaring and revolting than the GOP effort to repeal Obamacare and replace it with their alternative.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
Trump has employed rhetoric against figues in the media which echoes fascism in the nascence of Nazi Germany — for example, this tweet from February in which he said of the mainstream press, “The FAKE NEWS media is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Dangerous though it is, this rhetoric is successful, especially with Republican voters, because most people in the United States either dislike or don’t trust the mass media. It is noteworthy that trust in the media has declined as a trend since the middle years of the presidency of George W. Bush, during a time in U.S. politics when the mainstream media had been vigorously cheering on the Iraq War for years, having credulously sold the war to the U.S. public on the same false pretenses offered by the Bush administration. The public’s distrust of the mass media is far from unfounded, even if the form that distrust takes is often irrational, as with Trump’s disaffected supporters.
Moments in U.S. politics of pure, unadulterated irony such as this one, when a politician, recently diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, gives a speech calling for increased bipartisanship as he votes along partisan lines to begin the legislative process of eliminating the healthcare of millions of people, thereby committing millions of people to certain yet totally preventable deaths, are opportunities for journalists to fulfill their primary obligation: to expose the truth. In no uncertain terms, John McCain’s vote yesterday in the Senate, should the Republicans succeed in their efforts to repeal Obamacare, will lead to the entirely preventable deaths of millions of people whose right to healthcare, unlike McCain’s, is not recognized by the U.S. government.
John McCain is a monstrous, corrupt politician whose career in politics has contributed to the deaths of millions of people already, and will contribute to millions more before it finally ends. Let it be clear that cancer is a horrendous thing. Former President Jimmy Carter had cancer not too long ago; and he faced the odds and won. Cancer is no laughing matter, but neither is any of the horrendous acts that have pushed through McCain’s outlandish policies on the far right.
McCain’s support for the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia will contribute to the deaths of millions of people in Yemen, his support of interventionist policies has already contributed to hundreds of thousands in Syria, and his support of the Iraq War contributed to over a million. He opposed divestment from the apartheid government of South Africa in the 1980s, and has received donations from the Israeli lobby in the U.S. throughout his career, supporting the apartheid state of Israel in turn. Despite his reputation as a defender of U.S. veterans, during his 2008 presidential bid, McCain proposed a quasi-privatization plan for the Department of Veterans Affairs; now, with Trump proposing that the VA should be completely privatized, McCain’s voting record suggests he would be unlikely to resist such legislation. And now, in what is likely the final year of his political career, McCain has cleared the way for the GOP to dismantle what little progress Obamacare made as the deciding vote. For the millions of victims of his political career, John McCain could not possibly die soon enough.
You won’t hear any voice in the mainstream media say anything remotely to that effect. If any media figure dares to criticize McCain, whether for his awful record or his vote in the Senate yesterday, they will immediately be censured for the offense of “putting politics before decency” or “making political” the actions of a politician who, because he was recently revealed to have a terminal illness, has somehow transcended beyond the acceptable field of political criticism. Discourse surrounding the healthcare debate is already being reframed around McCain’s triumphant return.
But that begs the question: triumph over what?
Yesterday, a millionaire U.S. Senator took a private jet from his home state to the capital in D.C. to cast the deciding vote in the Senate that would begin the legislative process to deprive more than thirty million people of healthcare over the next decade. No one but a hopelessly depraved person would read that sentence and imagine triumph. Any ethical person would read that sentence and be horrified at the sheer inhumanity of such an act — that any human being would go to such lengths for the sole purpose of ensuring that so many other people will suffer and die, all to further enrich the wealthiest people in our society. You don’t need to relish in such an individual’s suffering and death to acknowledge the simple truth that the sooner he dies, the fewer people will needlessly suffer and die.
But for what it’s worth, everyone who has suffered as a result of McCain’s career has the right to despise him and, yes, has the right to wish him suffering and death. I personally take no joy from death, not even the deaths of people, like McCain, who are intent on harming me. But if, because of his death, my family and I still have healthcare, I will be relieved.
Everyone dies someday. John McCain’s someday just happens to be, probabilistically speaking, within the next eighteen months. Unfortunately, that eighteen months will give him plenty of time to contribute to the needless suffering and deaths of millions more people before it finally ends him, and his terrible Senate career along with him. Until then, let’s not pretend that millions of people aren’t holding their breath, waiting to see whether one elderly U.S. Senator with terminal brain cancer lives long enough to be the deciding vote that dismantles their healthcare step by step, or dies before he can. The man with brain cancer came back from a health emergency to vote to let a bill that takes away everyone else’s healthcare progress in an “open debate” on the Senate floor.
Elijah Williams is a libertarian socialist and internationalist who occasionally writes on politics, and a university student studying biochemistry, neuroscience, anthropology, and philosophy. Find him on Twitter @neuroliberalism. Minor edits (punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, minor citations) were done by Joseph Kaminski before publication.
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