How John McCain’s 2008 defeat paved the way for Trump

27 Aug 2018

The 2008 presidential contest between Barack Obama and John McCain was just ten years ago, but it feels like forty. Back then, many naively believed Obama’s victory had healed the divisions of race which had scarred America for so long. Obama himself said that his nomination would be remembered as the time when ‘the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.’ Of course, it didn’t turn out quite like that.


The election of a decade ago is rightly remembered as Obama’s moment, but the defeat of the Republican candidate John McCain, who died at the weekend, arguably set in motion events that would lead to Donald Trump. An experienced Senator, McCain had previously made a bid for the Republican nomination in 2000 but lost in the early stages to George W. Bush. His chances of winning the presidency in 2008 were slim, despite having lived a life every bit as remarkable as Obama’s.


America treats its veterans in a peculiar way. They are lauded by the public for their service in the many bloody wars in which the country has been engaged, but haven’t always been rewarded when they reached for the White House. John F. Kennedy was one of the last American politicians to win the presidency on the back of an impressive war record. Like John McCain, candidates such as Bob Dole, injured during the Second World War, and John Kerry, who served in Vietnam like McCain, lost their bids for the White House. Years of torture and life-changing injuries didn’t seem to matter all that much, when it came to the crunch.


In fairness to McCain, the circumstances in 2008 were very unpropitious for him and the Republicans. The disastrous eight-year term of George W. Bush was coming to an end, a presidency summarised by David Frum as ‘beginning with Pearl Harbour and ending with the Wall Street Crash.’ McCain, rather than running against the incumbent’s record, argued for the continuation of the Iraq War while failing to provide the answers to the then-still erupting financial crisis.


Obama, by contrast, was one of the most charismatic and charming politicians since John F. Kennedy, and was treated as more of a celebrity than a politician. Few were sceptical that he would stop the rise of the oceans; his victory would make history in itself. Seemingly coming from nowhere to beat the favourite Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, by the autumn it was quite clear Obama was going to become the first African American President, with McCain left under the rubble.  


McCain was no flake – he had over twenty years’ experience as a senator at that point, a career which involved numerous high-profile achievements such as campaign finance reform. But by 2008 the prospect of an experienced leader at the helm was overshadowed by worries about McCain’s age. He was then in his early seventies and had survived skin cancer, and was more worryingly beginning to appear frail and sometimes confused at press conferences and rallies. It made his decision to pick Sarah Palin as his running mate all the more baffling.


In Palin we can now see a prefiguration of Trumpism. Picked for the traditional running-mate role of appealing to the party’s ‘base,’ Palin’s unhinged personality and hysterical lying made her a distraction, rather than an asset. A clip now being widely shared is of John McCain dismissing a Republican voter’s fear that Barack Obama was ‘an Arab,’ an encounter he dealt with very graciously. Yet it hardly seemed to matter seeing as his own running mate was being every bit as outrageous.


After McCain’s defeat, Palin and others coalesced around the newly-formed Tea Party, whose primary organising principle was a hatred of Barack Obama and a belief that he was not an American citizen. Donald Trump added his voice to their demands for him to release his birth certificate, and shared their view that a moderate Republican could not win the White House. When Obama walloped Mitt Romney four years later, the Tea Party Republicans felt vindicated. It has since become a source of great pride for Trump that he has succeeded in getting to the White House when his two Republican predecessors failed.


As with most of Trump’s relationships, there is real personal animosity. Trump has never forgiven McCain for his criticisms of him during the 2016 campaign, in which the Arizona senator said he had ‘fired up the crazies.’ Trump notoriously hit back by disputing McCain’s war record. ‘He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured,’ Trump said on a campaign stop in Iowa. He has never apologised for the comments.


McCain reluctantly endorsed Trump for President, but rescinded his support following the Access Hollywood tape. Some of his final acts in the Senate were to vote against Trump’s measures, such as a GOP attempt to repeal Obamacare. This made the President very reluctant to show sympathy when McCain fell ill with cancer once again, reportedly whining to aids that he was tired of being portrayed as the bad guy while McCain was the hero. Trump, incidentally, dodged the draft five times.


Although McCain's 2008 defeat had contributed to the rise of Trump, the Arizona senator continued to rally against the take-over of the Republican Party by its most extremist members. 'Stop listening to the bombastic loudmouths on the radio, television and internet,' he said in one of his last speeches. 'To hell with them. They don't want anything done for public good. Our incapacity is their livelihood.' Some of his final interventions as a politician were the most passionate of his career.


America is a nation of apparently unbridgeable gulfs. The gap between 2008 and today is just one of these divides. Another is the chasm John McCain’s defeat opened within the Republican Party, between traditional conservatives and the forces which eventually metamorphosed into Trumpism. These gulfs are much greater than politics. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that they mark the divide between humanity and barbarism. 


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