August 28, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
In Death, John McCain Becomes a Potential Wedge Issue
Dishonoring his memory threatens to split Trump's support among veterans.
I get a sense from some that attention yesterday to the height on the flag atop the White House was much ado about nothing. There are real policy issues demanding our focus. Leave it to the news media to obsess over empty gestures and symbols.
While the press does make a fetish of trivialities, this wasn’t trivial. How the president honors John McCain, who died Saturday, matters. It matters in more ways than one.First, symbols and gestures are clear and coherent. They are typically not debatable. You honor someone like McCain by ordering flagpoles to half mast, or you don’t.
Trump did, briefly, before having the White House flag raised Monday to full mast. That choice sent a clear message: honor for dedicating one’s life to the service of one’s country is conditional. It depends on whether the sitting president likes you. (Trump relented, ordering the flag back to half mast, after overwhelming public outcry.)
Second, as Bloomberg Opinion’s Jonathan Bernstein notes frequently, Trump fails to do the most basic requirement of any president: acting as the head of state.
In that capacity, it doesn’t matter that McCain feuded with Trump until the day he died. As Bernstein said: “Trump thinks he was elected ruler, but in reality he was hired to do a job. And one of the requirements is keeping his mouth shut when he might want to spout off his opinions; another is pretending to respect someone he detests.”
This failure to do what’s expected of presidents—indeed, Trump’s failure to act presidential in any way—is putting appreciable distance between things that normally have no daylight between them: the presidency and public ceremony. Past presidents were welcome to attend royal weddings, give eulogies to great leaders, celebrate Super Bowl winners, and participate in other displays of state, religious and cultural ritual.
Not Trump. He’s president non grata.
“We’re not talking about a president going and having a rally in a state that voted against him,” Tim Naftali, a presidential historian and former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum told the Post’s Ashley Parker. He added:
“We’re talking about a president who can’t even go and participate in a ritual where presidents are usually welcomed, and that is one of the consequences of his having defined the presidency in a sectarian way.”
While McCain’s death has exposed a gap between the presidency and public ceremony, his death is exposing another kind of gap: between Trump and American veterans. According to CNBC’s Christina Wilkie, the president’s treatment of McCain, especially with respect to the flag, has aroused something in the veteran community.We shouldn’t overstate this.
Veterans as a whole tend to be whiter than the US population, older, rural, male, more religious and more conservative (i.e., bigoted). They also consume a lot of Fox News. Trump lost some veterans after attacking Ghazala and Khizr Khan, the mother and father of a serviceman killed in combat, but he kept most. Any suggestion that veterans are turning on a “law and order” president should taken with salt.
But “turning” on him might not be the salient factor. A lot has to happen before partisans rethink, much less reverse, political loyalties. First, they must doubt.
In disrespecting McCain, and then backpedaling that disrespect, Trump has given veteran supporters reason to doubt. More importantly, he’s given veterans who had private doubts but were afraid to express them freely a platform for expressing those doubts publicly. Once that toothpaste is out of the tube, there’s no going back.
This has potential to wedge veterans who support Trump. Yesterday’s fiasco forced them to take sides: his or a GOP embodied by the man he refused to honor as a hero, thus satisfying the most basic obligations and duties expected of every president.
This split, moreover, has the potential to widen as Special Counsel Robert Mueller, another celebrated combat veteran, continues to reveal criminality and corruption in the president’s inner circle as well as possible ties between Trump and an enemy nation aiming to do us harm. Indeed, it’s conceivable that with every Mueller revelation, the president’s base of power will grow smaller and weaker.
Yes, the news media can obsess over nothing-burgers. It happens. But despite appearances, what unfolded yesterday, with political reporters feverishly tweeting updates on the height of the White House flag, was far from trivial. It mattered.
Perhaps more than we realize.
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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.