This is one of the great political mysteries of the 21st Century.
We all know of McCain’s war service, his heroic turn in the Hanoi Hilton, the terrible scars of his captivity.
We also know of McCain’s dedication to a strong America, his status as a defense hawk, his views on American exceptionalism.
McCain was the standard bearer for the party in 2008 only ten years ago.
So why does the GOP base (but not official Washington, of course) secretly cheer on Trump when he continues his feud with the Arizona Senator even after he died?
What was it about John McCain that so turned off conservative voters (not all of them, of course, but a sizable majority)?
And what does Donald Trump do to keep those same conservatives on his side?
First of all, Trump is the outsider’s outsider while McCain, despite his status as a maverick, was an insider’s insider. The Republican Party has morphed from a party that respects the establishment to one that despises it.
McCain, an Admiral’s son and another Admirals grandson, was the kind of anti-establishment figure that the establishment truly loved. He was the bete noire, the merry prankster, the guy who graduated at the bottom of his class but was smart enough to be one of the most impressive political figures of our time.
He could be a jerk, but he was h the kind of jerk who knew the limits that nobody respectable would ever cross. He was well-bred with the right instincts for the political game.
McCain was educated in all the right places (Episcopal High School, the Naval Academy), paid his dues in many horrific spaces (the Hanoi Hilton), and learned the legislative game from start to finish (first as a lobbyist for the Defense Department, then as a Member of the lower chamber and then as a replacement to Barry Goldwater in the Upper Chamber).
Donald Trump came from the wrong side of the river in New York, was sent to a military academy by his father so he could straighten up and fly right, did what many of the elite and upper middle class did back then (avoid military service in Vietnam), partied like a Playboy at Studio 54 during the disco era, made and lost billions in a volatile real estate market, became a reality television star and had ongoing banter with the likes of Howard Stern.
One was made for political greatness; the other was made for whatever the opposite of political greatness is.
And yet the politician lost his party while the party animal became President.
Donald Trump promised to make America great again. John McCain included a shot at the new leader of his party in his farewell letter: “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”
Trump, of course, promised in his campaign to build a great, big, beautiful Wall on our Southern border with Mexico, a promise not too dissimilar to McCain’s promise to build the dang fence when he ran for reelection in 2010.
As outlandish as Trump’s promise might have been -- to build a wall and to have Mexico pay for it -- at least he has continued to insist upon it. McCain, on the other hand, once he safely won his primary and reelection, turned his attention to other pressing issues, like getting comprehensive immigration reform past the finish line.
Turns out that the GOP base would rather have a fence/wall built without all the rest of the so-called amnesty parts included.
Immigration, of course, is one of those issues that drove McCain and the base apart while driving Trump and conservatives closer together.
National security is another one.
This might seem surprising given that both McCain and Trump are/were defense hawks.
Trump, in fact, took great pleasure in signing the John McCain DoD authorization bill that included the largest increase in defense spending in history.
But where McCain was an ardent internationalist who believed in multi-lateral organizations with America playing a leading role, Trump is, at his core, an isolationist who would prefer that we not get in any wars.
One of the most interesting moments in the 2016 campaign came in South Carolina, a big state for the Defense establishment, when Donald Trump said that he opposed the Iraq War.
Whether he actually at the time opposed it or not was not nearly as important as the fact that a Republican would say anything negative about our Iraq adventure. Outside of Rand Paul, no other GOP Presidential candidate would go there.
But it resonated with a war-weary and war-wary Republican base, who had grown tired of losing friends and relatives in distant lands and had grown even more tired of the mounting costs of such incursions.
Internationalism plays well in the nation’s Capitol and McCain’s embrace of it is thoroughly consistent with his upbringing, experience and education. But isolationism runs deep in the conservative movement and Trump’s embrace of it, especially in the aftermath of the Iraq war, turned out to be more consistent with the values of base voters in the Republican Party.
Barack Obama posed another crucial test for both Trump and McCain. McCain passed the test when it came to Washington’s rules, but Trump passed the conservative movement’s rules.
McCain went out of his way to clarify that no, Mr. Obama was not a Muslim and no, he was not born in another country when questioned by a potential conservative voter. Trump became a conservative in the eyes of many when he held on to the birther conspiracy far longer than was responsible or reasonable in the opinion of the establishment and the media.
But to Trump, standing up to Obama served a very valuable service. It made base voters love him despite the fact that he was only a recent convert to conservatism. He was willing to channel their fears and to give voice to their concerns. And for a lot of base voters, that was enough to earn their trust and their vote.
That John McCain is the darling of the national media while Donald Trump is its Lex Luther is so obvious it probably doesn’t need to be mentioned. But their relationship with the media says much about the state of the conservative movement.
Trump wears the derision of the elite media proudly. The fact that it despises him is a feature of his campaign and his Presidency.
About the only time the media treated McCain poorly was when he had the temerity to run against Barack Obama. His Straight Talk Express served him well when he was the underdog, running against George W. Bush, and again as the underdog running against and beating Mitt Romney in the 2008 primary.
But straight talk only gets you so far in politics. And it got McCain to a not very close second place in the Presidential race against Mr. Obama.
That the national media continues to do everything they can to stop Trump makes him only stronger with the Republican base. The media’s deification of Senator McCain, while sincere and heartfelt, probably has little to no impact on that same group of voters.
And so, here we are.
The Republican Party is now the party of Donald Trump. He is the singularly most important figure in the conservative movement, his endorsement is the most impactful and the most sought after.
Sure, Right to Life is still important as is the NRA, but if Trump is with you, that’s usually enough to carry a decent candidate over the primary finish line.
Indeed, John McCain sought and received candidate Trump’s endorsement right before his primary victory over Kelli Ward, who received 40% of the vote despite being an extraordinarily flawed candidate.
John McCain has left us as a beloved war hero, founder of the Straight Talk Express, fighter for increased military spending and a strong international presence and a proud American.
But while the conservative base will always give the proper respect to Senator McCain’s service to the country, it won’t ever love him like it loves Donald Trump right now.
That might not make those who live in Washington, especially those who are refugees of Republican establishment, very happy, but that’s the reality.
And if those same folks want to regain control of their party, they probably need to spend more time listening to the concerns of the voters and less time listening to the chatter emanating from whatever cable show might be on television.