John McCain was an extreme war hawk who represented the military-industrial complex on Capitol Hill. And while he sometimes clashed with Donald Trump, their politics were mostly similar, and the Republican senator opened the door by normalizing Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. Ben Norton reports
BEN NORTON: Longtime Republican Senator John McCain passed away on the 25th of August.
McCain was a vociferous representative of the military-industrial complex on Capitol Hill.
He will be remembered as one of the most hawkish politicians in Washington, one who publicly condemned peace activists as “low-life scum” and joked about bombing Iran.
PROTESTERS: Arrest Henry Kissinger for war crimes!
MEDEA BENJAMIN: In the name of the people of Chile. In the name of the people of Vietnam!
JOHN MCCAIN: I have never seen anything as disgraceful and outrageous and despicable as the last demonstration that just took place, about — You know, you’re going to have to shut up or I’m going to have you arrested. If we can’t get the capitol police in here, immediately. Get out of here, you low-life scum.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: When do we send an air-mail message to Tehran?
JOHN MCCAIN: You know that old Beach Boys song, “Bomb Iran”? “Bomb bomb bomb…”
BEN NORTON: McCain played a key role in numerous wars, and lobbied for US military intervention in dozens of countries, all across the planet.
From Ukraine to Syria to Central America, the neoconservative Arizona lawmaker at times stood in alliance with fascist extremists, such as Eastern European neo-Nazis, Salafi-jihadist rebels, and Contra death squads.
As chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain constantly lobbied for more and more military spending and more and more arms, including nuclear weapons.
In fact, McCain was so known for his militarism that the US Congress honored him just before his death in the name of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which apportioned a record-breaking $717 billion in military spending.
Appropriately then, the United States’ top weapons corporations returned the favor. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon publicly mourned McCain’s passing.
And yet, despite his leading role in the neoconservative right, McCain became something of a bipartisan hero in his final years, due largely to his critiques of and clashes with far-right President Donald Trump.
In the wake of his death, corporate media outlets — both conservative and liberal alike — almost uniformly praised McCain, depicting him as a supposed champion of human rights and democracy.
Many politicians and pundits lionized McCain as a supposed moderate who resisted the Trumpification of America.
And while it is true that McCain did have some real political differences with Trump, these contrasts have been exaggerated.
The reality is that McCain and Trump agreed on a lot. Economically, their politics were virtually identical; both worked to help large corporations and the billionaire capitalist class maintain their iron grip on government.
On social and cultural issues, they also had much in common. Both were very conservative. McCain supported the so-called war on drugs and mandatory prison time for people selling drugs. He opposed abortion and called for overturning Roe v. Wade. The Arizona senator also campaigned to end affirmative action, and even voted against making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday.
In fact, in many ways, it was McCain himself who helped pave the pathway to Donald Trump. By choosing Alaska’s ultra-right-wing Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate in his 2008 campaign for president, McCain opened the door to Trumpism, legitimizing Palin as a figure in national US politics and normalizing the Tea Party, which Trump rode to power.
McCain and Trump can best be understood as leaders of conflicting but allied factions within the Republican Party.
John McCain was a key figure in the GOP old guard, alongside the Bush family. This faction of more traditional conservatives supported immigration, unlike today’s Trumpists.
McCain backed legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But this was not an act of kindness. Rather, McCain supported immigration, like others on the more libertarian right, because it provided workers who would fill underpaid, labor-intensive jobs, in agriculture and other sectors.
JOHN MCCAIN: I’ll offer anybody here $50 an hour if you’ll go pick lettuce in Yuma this season, and pick for the whole season. So ok, sign up. Ok, now you sign up. You sign up, and you’ll be there for the whole season. The whole season, not just one day. Because you can’t do it, my friends.
BEN NORTON: These ideological differences are also reflective of who specifically funds the Republican Party’s different factions.
During their presidential campaigns, McCain and Trump did share a lot of common donors, those that form the traditional corporate base of the party: banks, real estate companies, conservative legal groups, and weapons contractors, among others. They also both enjoyed support from billionaire mega-donors like Sheldon Adelson.
But Donald Trump had specific far-right angel investors, primarily the billionaire Robert Mercer, who bankrolled the Trump campaign along with the alt-right website Breitbart.
And this is where Trump’s extreme-right-wing former strategist Steve Bannon comes in. Bannon was Mercer’s pet project, and the reclusive billionaire funded Bannon’s far-right insurgency against more traditional conservatives like McCain.
And while both the Trump-Bannon wing of the Republican Party and the McCain-Bush wing seek to preserve the US empire, where their politics most diverge is on the question of how to preserve the US empire.
McCain was a lifelong Cold Warrior, who effectively continued the Cold War for decades after it ended. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Russia’s right-wing government restored capitalism, McCain and the neoconservative wing of the Republicans continued to see Russia as an implacable enemy of the United States and a frustrating bulwark against NATO’s uncontested political and economic domination.
Trump’s faction, on the other hand, believes that Russia can become an ally of the US, in what Bannon and the far right characterize as a kind of global civilizational war, pitting Western so-called Judeo-Christian civilization against the amorphous East. Trump and Bannon, therefore, see China, not Russia, as the US empire’s primary enemy in the 21st century.
STEVE BANNON: I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis.
And we’re starting now in the 21st century, which I believe, strongly, is a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, and a crisis of capitalism.
And we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, the people in the Church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the Church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that we will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.
BEN NORTON: McCain continued to the end echoing the dogma of the Cold War, justifying US imperialism by arguing that global hegemony through constant military intervention was necessary to defend capitalism, democracy, and human rights.
Trump and Bannon, on the other hand, preach the fascistic claim that there is an ongoing global clash of civilization. They frame these political and economic conflicts in cultural and social terms.
How this manifests itself in US policy is indeed significant. And their disagreement over Russia underscores this.
But ultimately, the McCain and Trump factions still have maintained a similar foreign policy.
It is true that, during his presidential campaign, Trump criticized the neoconservative interventionism of Republicans like McCain. However, once he entered in office, Trump for the most part continued these policies, expanding the war in Afghanistan, selling huge quantities of weapons to Saudi Arabia, waging war throughout the Middle East, and pursuing regime change against leftist governments in Latin America.
Moreover, both McCain and Trump shared an obsessive fixation on Iran, and did both everything in their power to try to destabilize and ultimately topple the government in Tehran.
China and Iran are some of the shared links. And the figure who has tried to use these links to unite the two factions of the Republican Party is Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton.
Bolton is a notorious neoconservative, like McCain. But he also has the ear of the president.
Although Bolton had for years been an anti-Russia hawk, after he entered Trump’s administration, he toned down his criticism of Moscow and instead ramped up even further the US government’s aggression against China.
JOHN BOLTON: I think the issue for the United States in the 21st century is how to deal with rising China. And on the military side, I think it’s important as we look at this question that we send China a single short clear message: You will never prevail over the United States.
BEN NORTON: Bolton has emphasized points of commonality to try to bring together the Trump and McCain wings of the Republican Party. These include opposition to China and Iran, along with diehard support for Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Likewise, Bolton has emphasized their shared antipathy toward international institutions like the United Nations, which both McCain and Trump have actively sought to defund and undermine.
What this strategy underscores is that, while there are some important differences between these factions, they are not irreconcilable, and still share most of their politics in common.
Ultimately, McCain and Trump simply represent different factions of what is still the same political party. Most of their corporate funders who bankroll the party are the same, and they are operationally allied.
And while, after McCain’s death, many corporate media outlets and politicians tried to portray him as a foil to Trump, the increasingly far-right base of the Republican Party suggests otherwise.
With the Arizona senator’s passing and Trump’s growing influence, the Republican Party may soon see an even closer political and ideological unity. And it is not just Donald Trump, but also John McCain who bears the responsibility for this.
Reporting for The Real News, I’m Ben Norton.