Ukraine War Frenzy Proves: It’s Still John McCain’s GOP

by | Apr 8, 2022


“The senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin,” fumed John McCain back in March 2017. His target: Rand Paul, who had committed the unforgivable offense of momentarily delaying the latest round of NATO expansion. Montenegro, a tiny country in southeastern Europe that most Americans have never heard of, was about to join the sprawling military alliance — and McCain was determined to see the final ratification ritual proceed with as little debate as possible. So he hurled the time-honored “working for Putin” accusation, and sure enough, Paul quickly withdrew his minor procedural objection. The glorious ascension of Montenegro to NATO membership status was thereby assured.

Since that episode, a lot has transpired regarding the public perception of McCain. He delighted liberals by feuding regularly with Donald Trump — even going so far as to denounce Trump for engaging in “disgraceful” and “pathetic” flattery of Putin. “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” McCain raged. He undermined Congressional Republicans’ legislative agenda during the brief window in Trump’s presidency when the party had unified control of government — famously delivering a dramatic thumbs-down gesture to derail GOP hopes of repealing Obamacare, as a chagrined Mitch McConnell watched powerlessly on.

McCain had returned to his most natural state. After annoying Democrats by running against Barack Obama in the 2008 election, and being surly about his defeat for some time afterwards, he had once again resumed playing the “maverick” role he so relished — reviled by “his own side,” and loved by the “other side.” His death in 2018 brought forth the most effusive display of state-sanctioned grief that any US political figure had received since Ronald Reagan died in 2004, with all the universal media adulation that entails. Trump’s exclusion from the funeral proceedings, at McCain’s posthumous direction, was just the icing on the cake.

But nowadays, if you bring up McCain in certain GOP circles, it will often be claimed that his influence has mercifully dissipated. The Republican Party experienced a bonafide ideological upheaval under Trump, they’ll say, and the McCain worldview — defined mainly by his unwavering commitment to a hyper-interventionist US foreign policy — has since fallen starkly out of favor. (Back when opposing interventionist foreign policy was still considered something of a “progressive” virtue, Mother Joneswould routinely mock McCain by merely counting up the comically large number of countries he’d expressed a desire to attack. Did you know McCain once wanted to impose a No Fly Zone in Sudan?)

By “conservative opinion elites,” I refer roughly to the kind of people who write for obscure magazines with obscure funding sources, earnestly enjoy Think Tank social hours, and incessantly convene panels to discuss “the future of conservatism.” These types have a particular incentive to believe that McCain’s foreign policy paradigm has really been purged from the party. They’re deeply invested in the idea that the GOP underwent a genuine transformation in the past decade or so — discarding the outmoded “neocon” dogmas associated with the reign of George W. Bush, and embracing the hardened, nationalist realism associated with Donald Trump.

For a particular kind of ambitious professional conservative, this is a very flattering theory. Because if true, it means the GOP old guard is being slowly but surely displaced, and all kinds of new, innovative ideas are in the offing. Ideally with lots of ambiguous sinecures, TV gigs, and consultant opportunities attached. There’s just one problem though: when it comes to the issue area that always animated McCain the most — which was without a doubt foreign policy — recent events demonstrate that his influence is far from buried. On the contrary, it couldn’t be more alive and well. The year might be 2022, and he might have been physically dead for a while. But it’s still John McCain’s GOP.

A common fallacy heard among conservative opinion-makers who might wish to disassociate from McCain goes something like this: yes, there’s a contingent of the Republican Party that stubbornly hews to McCain-like foreign policy dogma, but it’s really only a limited handful of wackadoodles like Lindsey Graham. In other words, “the neocons” are a small, dwindling faction of the party, and aren’t representative of the typical Republican elected official or rank-and-file voter, who tend to be increasingly skeptical of US interventionism.

That’s a clever little exercise in self-rationalization, but also a bunch of baloney. On the one hand, it’s true that Graham is a… unique figure in various respects. He’s the person currently in elected office who had the closest political and personal association with McCain. Alongside their former cherished colleague, Joe Lieberman, these “three amigos” bonded over a shared, impassioned commitment to omni-directional foreign policy belligerence. (Right on cue, Lieberman was rolled out of semi-retirement last month to demand a “No Fly Zone.”)

But while Graham occasionally blurts out something uniquely insane, such as his tweeted call for the assassination of Putin — he’s far from some kind of wild outlier. In fact, his foreign policy views are comfortably ensconced in the mainstream of the GOP, notwithstanding the popular conceit that “MAGA” has supplanted “neocon” as the party’s dominant sensibility. Because if Graham is the closest living incarnation of the traditional McCain worldview, then perhaps that worldview isn’t nearly as incompatible with “MAGA” as some may want to think.

Recall: even as McCain and Trump brawled over what was essentially a clash of personalities, Graham successfully insinuated himself as one of Trump’s most trusted confidants — regularly hitting the golf links with him, and advising him on key policy matters. This has continued even into Trump’s post-presidency, with Graham operating as one of the most ardent advocates of another Trump run in 2024. “I think he’s the best person in the Republican Party to take up the cause in 2024,” Graham exuberantly told Fox News in January. “I expect him to run… I’ll take bets if anybody wants to bet. I’ll give odds.”

Do you really think Graham would be staking out this position if he viewed Trump’s foreign policy outlook as antithetical to his own?

If there’s some kind of enormous ideological conflict between Trump and Graham — who, remember, proudly carries on the McCain mantle — it has not been at all evident for a long time. It would also be weird to characterize Graham as some kind of aberrational nuisance within the GOP, considering that Graham raked in a record-shattering amount of donations for a GOP Senate candidate during his 2020 re-election campaign in South Carolina. And he accomplished this mostly by utilizing conservative media and direct-mailing lists to hammer home the pledge that he would serve in office as an unflinchingly loyal backer of Trump.

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