Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) died Saturday evening of brain cancer at the age of 81. He was best known for resisting the Republican Party’s naked partisanship and working alongside Democrats for campaign finance reform. He also resisted his party’s recent descent into cult-like behavior.
It’s undeniable that Sen. McCain played a leading role in beating the drums of war that led up to the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq during the George W. Bush presidency. That war led to the deaths of not only more than 5,000 American military members, but well over 100,000 Iraqi civilians between 2003 and 2018, according to numbers compiled by Statista. A separate analysis by The Washington Post put the death toll at approximately 600,000, when accounting for all the deaths that came about as a result of the instability the war created and ISIS seizing power in various regions of the country.
John McCain doubled down on his support of the Iraq War even when most of the country had given up on the effort. He did so even after it was revealed that the alleged weapons of mass destruction the Bush administration accused deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein of having did not exist — despite those weapons being the entire basis for committing troops to the Iraq War in the first place.
But McCain did something earlier this year that most Republicans never do: He admitted he was wrong. And he took responsibility for his actions.
In his memoir, John McCain wrote that his support for the Iraq War “can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it.”
No one can dispute that Sen. McCain was a conservative Republican, who supported policies championed by conservative Republicans. This includes his vote for Neil Gorsuch — President Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment. McCain also voted for almost all of Trump’s controversial cabinet appointments, like Jeff Sessions for Attorney General and Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. And as FiveThirtyEight has pointed out, McCain voted in line with Trump’s policies 83 percent of the time.
But even though John McCain was a Republican senator from a Republican state with an almost completely Republican Congressional delegation, he fought the Republican Party’s embrace of cult-like behavior, even at the onset of the GOP’s fearmongering about then-Senator Barack Obama in 2008. McCain famously denounced Republican hatred of Obama at a town hall.
When McCain’s supporters told him they were “scared” of Obama because he was “an Arab,” Sen. McCain took a stand for true civility, insisting that the man who would eventually become the first African American President of the United States was simply “a decent, family man, citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
John McCain’s fight against cultism within his own party continued (likely due to then-candidate Donald Trump’s attack on McCain for being a POW in the Vietnam War). Following President Trump’s joint summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki earlier this year, John McCain issued a pull-no-punches statement accusing his party’s president of making “a conscious choice to defend a tyrant.”
“No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant. Not only did President Trump fail to speak the truth about an adversary; but speaking for America to the world, our president failed to defend all that makes us who we are—a republic of free people dedicated to the cause of liberty at home and abroad,” McCain stated at the time. “American presidents must be the champions of that cause if it is to succeed. Americans are waiting and hoping for President Trump to embrace that sacred responsibility. One can only hope they are not waiting totally in vain.”
Descriptions of the Republican Party’s descent into cultism have been articulated in the recent past by a leading member of that party. Outgoing Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) openly stated his party’s insistence on defending Trump at all costs was “cultish.” In an interview with The Pacific Standard earlier this year, Janja Lalich, a sociology professor emerita at California State University-Chico, said the GOP shared key traits with typical cults. Namely, that they share an all-encompassing belief system, that they have absolute devotion to a charismatic leader, that they avoid any and all criticism of their leader, and that they shun and attack all non-members.
“I think you have to look at the effect of Trump’s behavior and language on his base. He readily ridicules and chastises people. He readily pushes people aside if they’re not worshipping him,” Lalich said. “We’ve all seen the videos of his aides praising him to high heaven. That’s the kind of adulation cult leaders expect and demand.”
It’s fair to remember that as a conservative Republican, John McCain supported many policies that made life worse for millions of working-class Americans, and was the leading champion of a war that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in the Middle East. But as an American, Sen. McCain served his country with honor, both as a member of the military and as an elected official.
It’s possible to disagree with a man’s politics while still respecting him as a human being. Republicans who truly care about the future of their country should look to him for inspiration.