Alan Zendell, September 1, 2018
When I started this blog the first thing I wrote was its dedication “to preserving what has made America great.” That wasn’t intended to be overly subtle. Donald Trump, with a matchless talent for unearthing and energizing everything negative about America, had convinced enough of us that America needed to be great again to win the election. Great again?
I’ve deliberately avoided all the eulogies to John McCain until now, but I was struck by the words of his daughter, Meghan: “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again, because America was always great.” And therein may have lain the root of her father’s long-standing bitter feud with the president. He understood the dangerous hypocrisy of Doublespeak, the technique which Trump uses so effectively to twist and distort the meanings of words.
No one I know ever thought America was perfect. God knows we’ve been guilty of some awful things like genocide against all the nations of native American peoples and the defense of slavery, whose abolition nearly destroyed our country. But being great doesn’t require perfection. Rather it’s about growing more enlightened over time and educating each generation of Americans to be better than the one that preceded it.
That’s the America I grew up in. When I was a kid schools and neighborhoods were segregated, we were insensitive to the needs of people in poverty, there was no general acceptance that all people have a right to good nutrition and health care, and our economy was based on old money and corporate elitism. In the last six decades we made huge improvements in all those areas – we haven’t exactly fixed all our problems, but relative to other nations we’ve done extremely well.
I don’t regret not voting for John McCain in 2008. I liked and respected him, but I had two powerful reasons not to. One was Sarah Palin, whose rhetoric was so outrageously abhorrent. The other was the great pride I felt because my country had matured to the point where a man like Barrack Obama could be a serious contender for the presidency, but not everyone felt that way. Ms. Palin had already begun to rip off the scabs of our shameful past with her divisive, insensitive rants. And when one particular individual took it upon himself to lead the phony birther movement we were shocked that he could sustain it even after it was thoroughly debunked. What was going on in our country?
What we didn’t yet realize was that two ominous things were happening beneath the surface of Obama’s presidency. The racial wounds that we thought had been at least partially healed turned out to be merely submerged. Though we’d known they were still there, we were shocked by the magnitude of the hate that still existed in this country. But the real horror was how effectively Donald Trump activated and enabled all that hate and resentment into a revolution that took over one of our major political parties and swept him into the White House. The fact that more than a third of our country bought into Trump’s hate-mongering was a wake-up call that we can ill afford to ignore.
There’s a widely celebrated video from the 2008 election campaign, in which supporters of John McCain kept trying to get him to buy into the birther controversy. McCain wouldn’t take the bait. He kept assuring people that Obama was a very decent man, a proud American and family man. It was impressive then, and McCain’s decency, even in the midst of a bitter election fight which he was losing, stands as a shining monument to what really made us great. Compare that to the divisive, vicious tactics of candidate Trump eight years later. Both men’s characters were clearly defined by their campaigns, and the differences continued to be starkly apparent through the first eighteen months of Trump’s presidency, even beyond the moment of McCain’s death, when President Trump had to be shamed into lowering the flag in his honor.
In celebrating John McCain’s legacy, most honest Americans must confront the reality of what will surely be Trump’s. Nothing defines Trump’s immoral nature, his inability to tell the truth, and his hateful willingness to widen differences between people to achieve his own ends more than John McCain’s decency. Was McCain perfect? Of course not, but like the country he loved and defended, he was splendidly heroic. His life and values defined greatness. They are exactly what I meant when I wrote “dedicated to preserving what has made America great,” which is simply another way of saying “protecting America from Donald Trump.”