Some people are living symbols, sheer embodiments of a concept that fits their persona as snugly as their skin: e.g. the Dalai Lama personifies Contemplative Piety, Harvey Weinstein is the incarnation of Brazen Vulgarity, and John McCain’s very person exudes the sweaty blustery spirit of Empire. His entire history – born in the Panama Canal zone, son of an admiral, third-generation centurion, the War Party’s senatorial spokesman – made it nearly impossible for him to be other than what he is: the country’s most outspoken warmonger and dedicated internationalist.
As George Orwell remarked, “After forty, everyone has the face they deserve,” and in McCain’s case this is doubly true. That Roman head, fit for a coin of high denomination, looks as if it might sprout a crown of laurel leaves at any moment: Grizzled brow, wrinkled with the tension of an inborn belligerence, eyes alight with a perpetual flame of self-righteous anger, McCain is Teddy Roosevelt impersonating Cato the Elder. In the extreme predictability of his warlike effusions, he’s become a bit of a cartoon character. Who can forget his enthusiastic rendition of “Bomb bomb bomb Iran!” to the tune of “Barbara Ann”?
The Senator from Arizona represents something relatively new on the American scene: the emerging class of colonial administrators, Pentagon contractors, and high-ranking military personnel, and their families, many of them stationed overseas. These people have a material interest in the expansion of our role as global cop, they number in the tens of thousands, and they are strategically placed in the social order, with enough social power to constitute an influential lobby.
As the prototype of this mutant species of Homo Americanus, McCain is the perfect enemy of the new nationalism that handed the White House to Donald Trump and sundered the Brits from the EU. It’s no surprise he’s become the antipode of the Trumpian “America First” foreign policy doctrine – a doctrine that is almost never implemented, but that’s another column. His latest philippic perfectly summarizes the spirit and content of the brazen imperialism that is his credo and the credo of his class, We get the whole grand tour of McCainism as a worldview, from the rather odd idea that “America is an idea” and not an actual place to the glories of the “international order.” There is much shedding of blood “to make a better world” – a cause we are told has “made our own civilization more just, freer, more accomplished and prosperous than the America that existed when I watched my father go off to war on December 7, 1941.” Now here is crackpot Keynesianism with a vengeance: the destruction of World War II was good for the economy!
Having “liberated” the world from itself, the United States, as the champion of World Order, is in danger of turning away from its sacred duty to always be shedding lots and lots of blood on behalf of Others. And we know just who McCain is talking about:
“To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”
The idea that we led and organized the world for the entire postwar era erases the cold war from history, a neat trick given McCain’s record. And as for our “ideals” and this “last best hope” business, none of that is worth a single American soldier – nor does it have anything to do with a soldier’s proper job, which is protecting this country. Yet what is one to expect from someone who actually believes “we live in a land of ideals, not blood and soil.” Blood never comes into it for McCain unless it’s being shed in some ill-conceived totally unnecessary war. And as for soil – there is none. There’s just “ideals,” floating in a void.
While admitting that the Trumpian version of American nationalism is somewhat undercooked – and, perhaps, not all that digestible – one has to wonder: where does a supporter of the Iraq war, who assured us it would be a glorious victory, get off calling anybody or anything half-baked?
McCain doesn’t even try making a coherent argument: instead, he simply lies by claiming that, having taken the road to Empire, “we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did.” It’s utter nonsense, of course: empires are an expansive luxury. We spend more on the military than the top ten powers combined, and the national debt is at historic heights. We’re effectively bankrupt thanks to out-of-control military spending and McCain’s favored wars of choice.
The idea that we have a “moral obligation” to enforce McCain’s beloved “international order” is rooted in the crazed post-millennial pietism that has motivated so much that is mischievous in American history. The old religious impulse that motivated Prohibition and the “anti-vice” campaigns of the nineteenth century has, today, been secularized and internationalized. The old fundamentalists sought to remake the country, their secular successors seek to remake the world. This accounts for the quasi-religious tone of McCain’s remarks, this talk of “moral obligation” and “shame” if we fail to take up the burden of Empire, manfully and willfully, because “We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.”
In other words: Americans have no right to live their lives in peace, and to leave others in the same condition: they must perpetually be sticking their noses in other peoples’ business, sniffing out “injustice” and making sure the trains run on time. McCain hails the crusade to “help make another, better world” – yet the American people don’t want another world, they want to live in this world in peace and security, rather than sacrificing themselves to some imaginary “duty” to uplift the world on Uncle Sam’s shoulders. That’s one reason why Trump is in the White House and McCain is on the outside looking in.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.