A funeral for a world that never was
Funeral services are not for the benefit of the defunct, who is beyond our praise or condemnation, but for the living, who know before long that they will follow the honored dead into a cold grave.
Senator John McCain’s funeral was the most ostentatious that Washington has accorded except for a president, and much grander than the 2006 funeral of Gerald Ford, for example. The American Establishment took the opportunity to mourn a world that it imagined but never inhabited.
The eulogies for the Arizona senator, to be sure, were a convenient occasion for the Establishment to show its dudgeon at “the pointedly un-invited President Trump,” as the New Yorker noted, calling the event “the biggest resistance meeting yet.”
McCain’s daughter Meghan contrasted what she called her father’s “real greatness” with the “cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice,” a reference to Trump. Politics, though, were less important than the American elite’s collective exercise in self-consolation after the catastrophic failure of its policies and its repudiation by the voters in the 2016 election.
Senator McCain served his country and suffered on its behalf as a prisoner of war, and deserves respect on the occasion of his passing. But the unctuous sea of self-congratulatory declarations of virtue embedded in his obsequies was enough to make the portraits in the Capitol rotunda puke.
Here, for example, is the Chicago Tribune: “Ringing through Washington National Cathedral on a dreary morning were paeans to bipartisanship, compromise and civility of the sort that seem to be under daily assault from all corners of the country, especially from the White House … A common decency. A shared identity and values that transcend ideology, class or race. A toughness that shows itself in battle and service to nation rather than on Twitter. Each of these was touted as a key element of McCain’s epic life.”
The un-invited president recalls the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty, to whose christening were invited 12 of the kingdom’s 13 wise women – the palace had only 12 golden plates. Humiliated, the 13th wise woman gave the new born a curse rather than a blessing, declaring that it would prick its thumb and die.
In its narcissism and self-adulation, the Establishment will not die of pricking of the thumb, but the other way around.
By civility and bipartisanship, the Establishment refers to the policy consensus that squandered America’s dominant position in the world after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. America had no military competitors of importance when George W. Bush took office in 2001, and an edge in high technology that made the American economy seem insuperable. Since then:
- China has taken America’s place as the leading exporter of high-tech equipment;
- America faces credible military competition from China;
- Real median household income hasn’t grown since 2000;
- The civilian labor force participation rate has fallen from 67% in 2000 to 63% today;
- Productivity growth has languished at 1% a year since the global financial crisis;
- US federal debt has between 2000 and 2018 has doubled as a share of GDP;
- The American economy became “cartelized, corrupt and anti-competitive,” dominated by a handful of tech monopolies who combined to crush competition.
Bush, supported by Senator McCain and the Republican mainstream, spent $5.6 trillion chasing the phantom of democracy in the Middle East, not to mention more than 6,700 American dead, more than 50,000 wounded and millions of lives disrupted.
That is why American voters elected Donald Trump in 2016. The bipartisan Establishment had circled the wagons to protect itself from accountability for its blunders. The same pool of public officials managed a failed foreign policy, and the same revolving door of bankers and regulators bailed out the banks.
Not a single banker of stature was prosecuted, let alone served jail time, for the biggest financial fraud in history. So effectively had the Establishment suppressed dissent and policed its own ranks that any criticism of the Bush Administration’s “freedom agenda” meant instant ostracism.
In 2012, Senator McCain backed the installation of a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt.
In July 2013, more than 30 million Egyptians – a majority of the adult population – demonstrated against the country’s Muslim Brotherhood government. Under General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s military took control of the country, which was nearly out of food. Al-Sisi saved Egypt from starvation and chaos.
Senator McCain sadly denounced the military takeover as a violation of the democratic process. Technically speaking it was a coup against an elected government, although under emergency conditions and with massive and visible popular support. So beguiled was McCain with the prospect of a democratic Islamic regime that he never accepted that his illusion had vanished.
Sometime later I spoke with George W. Bush’s Director of Central Intelligence, General Michael Hayden. “We were sorry that [Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed] Morsi was overthrown” in July 2013, Hayden explained. “We wanted to see what would happen when the Muslim Brotherhood had to take responsibility for picking up the garbage.”
“General,” I remonstrated, “when Morsi was overthrown, Egypt had three weeks of wheat supplies on hand. The country was on the brink of starvation!” “I guess that experiment would have been tough on the ordinary Egyptian,” Hayden replied.
He wasn’t joking. The ideological commitment of the Establishment to a new global order made facts irrelevant. If things weren’t that way, they should have been that way.
Being an Establishment means never having to say you’re sorry. The first task of an Establishment is to insulate its inmates from the consequences of their errors. Never mind that America’s adventures in Iraq threw the Middle East into a new Thirty Years War, as I warned 10 years ago it would.
The only senior US official to warn of the consequences of the Establishment’s blunders was General Michael Flynn, whose career has been ruined by Establishment holdouts in the intelligence community. The opportunists, careerists, ideologues and fools who ruined America’s strategic position in the world should be the continuing object of public ridicule, but they have safety in numbers.
Because the whole of the Establishment signed on to a failed policy, the whole of it will band together to protect its right to rule.
Twenty years ago, a reporter asked McCain if there was anyone in the Vietnam War whom he couldn’t forgive. The senator answered: “McNamara. That’s the worst to me – to know you’ve made a mistake and to do nothing to correct it while, year after year, people are dying and to do nothing to stop it, to know what your public duty is and to ignore it. I don’t think any conversation we could have would be helpful now.”
Unlike McNamara, McCain never thought that he had made a mistake. He clung to a failed policy out of conviction. During his last years he erupted with anger at old friends who questioned his judgment on matters such as the Muslim Brotherhood. His unswerving belief in the inherent virtue of the Establishment agenda has made him the saint and martyr of the moment.
The bright line in American policy divides the utopians who believe that America’s mission is to bring free markets and liberal democracies to the benighted, backward nations of the world, and realists like Trump.
Senator McCain threw his support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the expectation that it would become a vehicle for Muslim democracy; Donald Trump proposed to insulate America from the problems of the Muslim world.
McCain and Bush are Mainline Protestants, which is to say Wilsonian missionaries. Mitt Romney is the Mormon variety of the same thing. The Never-Trump neoconservatives, like Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz and the late Charles Krauthammer, played Sancho Panza to Bush’s Don Quixote.
Trump rose to the top in the Republican primaries when he proposed to freeze immigration from some Muslim-majority countries, a stark declaration that America’s safety is what matters, not the fate of nations on the other side of the world.
More than anything else that Trump did, the travel ban horrified the Establishment, but it won the support of 60% of American voters. Trump declared in effect that the United States would rather insulate itself from problems in Muslim-majority nations than fix them. American interests would come first.
Trump inherited a host of problems from the failed Establishment consensus. The greatest of these was the rise of China, which invested in advanced weaponry while the United States spent nearly $6 trillion on its end-of-history illusion.
If the United States had devoted a small fraction of that $6 trillion to frontier research in military technologies, America still would be the unchallenged hyperpower. Dr Henry Kressel and this writer advocated a crash program to restore American technological dominance in a 2013 essay for The American Interest, in a 2016 op-ed for The Wall Street Journal and other venues.
Trump’s style has been obstreperous and sometimes rowdy, and he eschews the air of regal noblesse oblige that some of his predecessors brought to the Oval Office. But the hatred he elicits from the Establishment has nothing to do with style, or indeed, with any of his shortcomings: Trump is hated because the American people elected him to bury the Establishment. Last weekend the Establishment obliged by conducting burial services for itself.