Middle Israel: McCain, Trump, and the crisis of patriotism

From his coffin, the war hero dealt the draft dodger a blow he will not forget, but it will not undo the culture of self-worship that Western civilization has come to salute, and Trump represents.

Mccain 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Mccain 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
We are living in an era of political plague.
If anyone needed proof of this, Sen. John McCain provided it on his deathbed, when he disinvited from his funeral Donald Trump – the leader of his political party, and the sitting president of the country McCain served with his soul and defended with his guts.
McCain, needless to say, was not this plague’s cause; nor did the man who will be conspicuously absent from this weekend’s memorial events in Phoenix, Washington and Annapolis cause this plague; he is merely a carrier of its virus.
The virus itself is self-worship, the inversion of the patriotism that McCain upheld and embodied, and Trump caricatures and defiles.
Yes, this contrast’s personal dimension cannot be ignored. McCain would not be human if Trump’s appalling disparagement of his war record had not gotten on his nerves.
Trump’s quip three years ago – “he’s not a war hero; he’s a war hero because he was captured; I like people that weren’t captured” – mocked a fighter pilot who, besides winning the Navy Commendation Medal and the Bronze Star Medal for missions flown over North Vietnam, endured captivity, torture, and severe wounds sustained while ejecting from his burning Skyhawk after it was hit by a missile.
"Maverick" Senator John McCain dies, August 26, 2018 (Reuters)
Trump, of course, has nothing to do with McCain’s illness and death, but in terms of the hypocrisy, for McCain to let him attend his funeral would be like asking Caesar to invite Brutus to his.
Still, such unsettled accounts between the living and the dead are not unique, and are besides the epochal dimension that the McCain-Trump clash now assumes. David Ben-Gurion refused to attend his successor Levi Eshkol’s funeral, but that remained a personal affair, the swan song of an aging and quarrelsome man’s inability to let bygones be bygones.
The McCain-Trump clash, by contrast, transcends the personalities at play because it is about the degeneration of Western civilization.
IT’S BEEN 244 years since British writer Samuel Johnson wrote “The Patriot,” but some of that essay’s distinctions between true and false patriots are valid now more than ever.
“A patriot,” he wrote, “is he whose public conduct is regulated by one single motive – the love of his country,” and if in government he “refers everything to the common interest.”
Conversely, “a man may have the external appearance of a patriot without the constituent qualities – as false coins have often luster, though they want weight.” Such a fake patriot “raises false hopes to serve a present purpose” and “means only to delude his followers by an empty clamor of ineffectual zeal.”
On a separate occasion, Johnson further developed this idea with his memorable quip about fake patriotism being the scoundrel’s last resort. George Orwell, in his “Notes on Nationalism” (1945), added that patriotism, unlike raw nationalism, is “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life” and is by nature defensive, “both militarily and culturally.”
Middle Israelis concur, and add: Patriotism is about sacrifice; the individual’s sacrifice; the individual’s voluntary sacrifice; the individual’s voluntary sacrifice for the public good. McCain hailed from an era and a family where such sacrifice went without saying.
Trump hails from a different place, one where “we” is a technicality and “me” is an absolute value, a milieu that followed its nation’s wars from an armchair, with the attitude of a reality-show viewer who does not “like” the sight of a captured pilot, because it’s not as entertaining as the sight of a pilot emerging from the cockpit smiling and unhurt.
Similarly, if you are the anti-patriot, the last thing you appreciate is McCain’s rejection of his captors’ offer to release him once they realized his father was the Pacific Fleet’s commanding admiral. “Sucker,” the anti-patriot would say from the depth of the armchair, when learning that the patriot replied he would remain a prisoner until all others are released.
Just what the patriot and his family went through is not worth the anti-patriot’s appreciation, not to mention the humility he anyhow does not possess, but it is also not worth the anti-patriot’s imagination, which must be fully dedicated to the next business venture, which in turn must aggrandize the anti-patriot himself by, say, shooting skyward a phallic tower bearing the anti-patriot’s name.
The anti-patriot’s disparagement of anything and anyone that stand in his way was therefore sweeping.
What began with mocking McCain’s heroism soon proceeded to insults against blacks, women and Mexicans; what began with the pseudo-patriotic yelp “America First” soon agitated a culture of hatred and even produced cockfights with Britain, Australia and Canada; and what began with paying hush money to whores proceeded to saber rattling at judges and prosecutors and character assassination of all journalists, all for being, in the spirit of Orwell’s insight, the patriots out to defend their civilization’s way of life, by exposing the anti-patriot’s way of lie.
You want to believe that this nightmare is an accident, one person’s meteoric emergence that will vanish the way it flickered. It won’t.
In today’s West, teenagers are not educated to sacrifice, as most governments have discontinued the draft and none replaced it with a mandatory national service, say in slums, hospitals or fire stations. Young adults see social decay as the government’s problem, not something they should personally help fight. Western parents are so self-absorbed they have hardly two children, and often – like the leaders of Germany, Britain, France, the Netherlands and Sweden – none at all. And millions across the West, like the biblical Sodom, see in any immigrant an enemy of the public good.
Self-worship, then, the diametric opposite of McCain’s patriotism, is much larger than the personal clash that animates his departure. Trump, though certainly the era’s most bombastic emblem, is neither its inventor nor its inspiration. He is its result.