“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 Jones would 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.
For a vivid illustration of persistent McCain/Graham influence as it relates to current events, take a look at this video that recently resurfaced from December 2016, featuring the esteemed Senatorial pals on a trip to Ukraine. Joined in wonderfully “bipartisan” fashion by Amy Klobuchar, the trio delivered a searing address to a unit of Ukrainian soldiers. If you haven’t seen the video, please do watch, because it confirms the extent to which a vocal faction of the US establishment — with McCain and Graham at the forefront — had invested ideologically and militarily in the cause of Ukraine, and by extension the cause of defeating Russia. Graham proclaims to the assembled soldiers: “Your fight is our fight. 2017 will be the year of offense. All of us will go back to Washington, and we will push the case against Russia.” McCain similarly declared, “I am convinced you will win. And we will do everything we can to provide you with what you need to win.”
While in 2016 the cause of arming Ukraine to defeat Russia on the battlefield was a somewhat more marginal preoccupation, today it’s been sanctified as virtually unshakable consensus in both parties. Funneling weapons to Ukraine was once seen as cranky McCain’s pet cause, a fixation that stemmed from his peculiarly hyper-interventionist worldview. Now, whether the US should be waging a proxy war against Russia in Ukraine is barely even considered a debatable proposition: just another McCain priority eventually consecrated as mainstream orthodoxy. “It’s bringing Congress together in a way, frankly, I haven’t seen in my 12 years,” Chris Coons, the Democratic senator from Delaware and Biden advisor, reverentially told the New York Times. “You’d have to go back to 9/11 to see such a unified commitment.” McCain is no doubt smiling down from the heavens at this great outbreak of “unification.” Because it’s proof of his enduring legacy; with his worldview and geopolitical objectives having arguably become more widely adopted than ever before.
But the coalescence of McCain-like consensus didn’t start with Russia’s invasion in February 2022. For one thing, Graham was proven right when he prophesied that 2017 would be the “year of offense” — because that was the year he, McCain, and other hawks successfully lobbied Trump to sign off on transfers of lethal weapons to Ukraine. Whatever personality conflict existed between McCain and Trump, the actual policy portfolio enacted by Trump vis-a-vis Russia wasn’t all that different from what McCain’s might’ve been. Indeed, when Trump announced the weapons transfers, McCain showered him with praise. And when Trump abrogated the INF Treaty, he was fulfilling another longtime McCain goal.
Listening to Republican politicians comment on Ukraine policy today, you can almost close your eyes and hear McCain’s irascible voice. For an example of how the McCain worldview is far from limited to so-called “neocons,” but instead a feature of entirely mainstream GOP thinking, consider the recent activities of Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL). If there’s any apt descriptor for Scott, it’s that he’s basically a conventional Republican. Not some kind of overly-ideological “neocon,” but rather a business guy who made a huge fortune defrauding Medicare, somehow leveraged that into becoming Governor of Florida, and is now in the US Senate. He also appears to have higher ambitions, as evidenced by his position running the National Republican Senatorial Committee — the campaign wing of the Senate GOP caucus. Scott isn’t especially bright, but he’s more or less able to articulate the standard bromides aimed squarely at the median Republican, and is thus capable of formulating strategy on behalf of the party for the upcoming midterm elections. He also released a manifesto outlining his bold vision for conservatism, which among other things includes that all Americans be made to pay income tax regardless of their income bracket.
The point is, Scott is situating himself at the center of the party in service of some future gambit, maybe to challenge Mitch McConnell for GOP Leader (which Trump has encouraged) or maybe even to launch his own presidential campaign at some point, which I’m sure would be a barrel of laughs.
So what is Rick Scott’s big proposal on the Ukraine issue? You guessed it: demanding a No Fly Zone, or short of that, demanding the US send fighter jets into Ukraine. This is apparently the position that Scott calculates will resonate most potently with the prototypical GOP donor and voter. Again, Scott isn’t intrinsically some sort of deeply ideological McCain-Graham foreign policy fanatic. Yet, he’s espousing views that could have been directly pilfered from the McCain-Graham school of thought — just because that school of thought is so thoroughly mainstream within the GOP, whatever superficial animosities some party members may still harbor against McCain.
Part of this owes to standard partisan reflex. Desperately seeking some angle of attack against Biden in relation to Ukraine, Republicans have settled on denouncing him for not escalating the US proxy war aggressively enough. It’s incredibly easy to imagine the ghost of McCain making the exact same criticisms as, say, Ted Cruz is making at the moment. Days after Biden committed the threshold-crossing act of calling for regime change in Russia — thereby announcing that the policy of the US is to depose Putin — Cruz went on Newsmax and complained that Biden’s “approach to every enemy of America is weakness and appeasement.” Only in a McCain-inflected universe does it make even the faintest sense for a president orchestrating a giant weapons-funneling operation, and waging a proxy war of unprecedented scale — which continues intensifying by the day — to be accused of “appeasement.” But it’s clearly still McCain’s world that the GOP is living in. That was always McCain’s tack: his problem with any given US intervention was of course never the intervention itself, but rather that it wasn’t going far enough, and if you weren’t willing to go as far as he wanted, you were some sort of abject appeaser.
On the subject of Ukraine, this pattern gets repeated over and over by GOP chieftains. Biden proposes the biggest Pentagon budget in US history, and right on cue, Mitch McConnell denounces it as somehow “soft” on Russia and “far-left.” Biden announces yet another massive tranche of missiles, grenades, and heavy artillery being dispatched to Ukraine, and Kevin McCarthy, the House Minority Leader, immediately ridicules him for not giving Ukraine fighter jets. “Provide them the planes where they can create a No Fly Zone,” McCarthy demanded in a March 16 press conference. (It’s unclear whether McCarthy is satisfied with Biden’s latest decision to send tanks.)
Though it is now common to characterize Russia as committing “genocide” since footage emerged in the past several days purporting to show Russian attacks on Ukrainian civilians, Steve Scalise, the House Republican Whip, led the charge in making that designation weeks ago. “There’s nothing less than genocide going on in Ukraine,” he alleged during that same March 16 press conference, alongside McCarthy. Scalise had been so profoundly moved by Zelensky’s expertly-crafted Zoom address to Congress earlier in the day that he was compelled to issue the “genocide” allegation immediately thereafter. (No word on what independent investigative mission Scalise carried out in order to ascertain the relevant facts.)
Biden may have caused a stir when he condemned Putin as a “war criminal” — thus confirming a complete lack of interest in facilitating any kind of negotiated settlement to the conflict — but first out of the gate in making this accusation was Elise Stefanik, the New York GOP Congresswoman who serves as the chair of the House Republican Conference. Initially viewed as a “moderate,” Stefanik gamely generated big attention in recent years as a bombastic defender of Trump, raising a ton of money in the process. “As a new mom, it is heart-wrenching to watch the video that President Zelensky just played in terms of the bombing of maternity wards,” Stefanik weepily inveighed, also during the March 16 press conference with McCarthy and Scalise. “Make no mistake, there will be consequences on the global stage for Vladimir Putin, who is a war criminal and a thug,” she cried. The pattern is clear: all throughout the run-up to the invasion and ever since, it’s generally been the GOP which employs the most extreme rhetoric and makes the most extreme policy demands, with Biden eventually coming around not long afterwards. In taking this tack, Republicans could hardly pay a more fitting tribute to McCain.
Joni Ernst, the GOP Senator from Iowa, recently debuted a new criticism: apparently, the Biden Administration hasn’t been forthcoming enough about the weapons it’s transferring to Ukraine. But don’t be silly: seeking actual transparency on behalf of the American public is the farthest thing from Ernst’s mind. She totally supports the Biden Administration’s secrecy — she just wants to make sure that the US is dumping what she regards as a sufficient quantity of weapons. “Certainly, we do need to keep it secret, what is being transferred,” Ernst clarified during an appearance on Fox. “And that’s why we’ve asked to have those numbers provided to us in a classified setting.” Explaining the ultimate objective for these efforts, Ernst might as well have been paying direct homage to McCain: “We want to make sure that [Ukrainians] win this war, and they can win this war,” she roared.
But the biggest blow dealt to those conservative opinion elites — the guys who cling to the conceit that the GOP has really and truly changed its foreign policy orientation — comes in the form of Josh Hawley, one of their great hopes for a supposed convention-defying thinker willing to buck party consensus. Because when push comes to shove, it turns out Hawley is just another McCain mini-me.
A central venue for the recurring attempt to “re-imagine conservatism,” or something to that effect, is currently this outfit called “National Conservatism” (NatCon for short) which hosts occasional conferences. I actually attended one in Orlando last October out of morbid curiosity, and the big tell that maybe soaring intellectual heights would not be achieved there was the organizers’ decision to anoint Dave Rubin as a featured speaker. In all honesty, I have never once heard Dave Rubin utter anything resembling an original thought — but there he was, at the podium, sharing his keen insights on behalf of this exciting new GOP faction.
The three GOP elected officials chosen by NatCon to exemplify a re-invigorated “national conservatism” — presumably one which departed from the legacy of old fogies like McCain — were Hawley, Cruz, and Marco Rubio. Few would be surprised that Rubio soon thereafter turned around and started beating the standard war drums. And Cruz will just do whatever best positions him to win the GOP presidential nomination at some point. But Hawley in particular is often touted as a sort of tribune for the emerging “heterodox” wing of the GOP, alienated from the tired ideological construct that weds together military intervention and free markets. Yet, all three NatCon speakers joined the majority of their Senate GOP colleagues in signing a letter last month to demand that Joe Biden send fighter jets into Ukraine — exactly the kind of escalation you’d think these enlightened “NatCons” would be eager to reject. (Surprise! The letter was organized by Lindsey Graham.)
While there are some NatCon types who really do go against the grain, ultimately the larger enterprise functions as an attempt by the same old GOP establishment forces to perpetually re-brand themselves. Kind of like the Tea Party in the early 2010s, which was initially painted as some sort of revolutionary force, but immediately got subsumed into the Republican National Committee and conservative infotainment complex. The NatCon movement’s three elected standard-bearers behaving exactly as McCain would have wanted them to is good evidence that there really has not been any profound break from the past.
Just look at the latest super-serious “Policy Brief” issued by the Heritage Foundation — still the in-house “Think Tank” of official Washington, DC movement conservatism. It’s basically a litany of generic interventionist prescriptions for how the US can “do much more” to ensure Ukraine’s battlefield victory. Suggestions include facilitating “the free and unrestricted transfer of weapons, munitions, and other supplies to the Ukrainians, including a continuous flow of intelligence” — which just translates to an endorsement of the Biden Administration’s status quo, except a degree or two more aggressive. If there really is this wave of insidious anti-interventionism that we’re always being warned is on the brink of taking over the GOP, nowhere is it evident at the GOP’s most influential Think Tank, the place dopey members of Congress — most of whom barely ever thought about the concept of Ukraine before February 2022 — go to receive their talking points.
Then there’s conservative media, which has returned triumphantly to its 2003 heyday as a reliable organ for pro-war agitprop. Republican “id” Sean Hannity is predictably leading the charge. One day he’s calling on NATO to bomb a Russian convoy in Ukraine; the next he’s having a friendly on-air chat with Sean Penn of all people, discussing their mutual support for sending in fighter jets. Meanwhile, in order to keep up the facade that the GOP is somehow nefariously pro-Putin, the non-conservative media continuously seeks out the handful of marginal exceptions who ultimately have no real influence at all on the priorities of the party. (Yes, I’m aware that Tucker Carlson exists, as I appear on his show occasionally. But to whatever extent he’s skeptical of US intervention in Ukraine, this is not reflected in the behavior of the mainline GOP.)
Which brings us to Donald Trump himself. To the degree that Trump appears to have any criticisms of Biden Administration policy in relation to Ukraine, it consists of the retrospective counter-factual whereby Trump claims Putin never would’ve invaded on his watch. Which is possible, but unprovable. With the invasion having happened, though, Trump now assails Biden for “allowing” Putin “to get away with this travesty and assault on humanity.” In a speech shortly after the invasion, Trump insinuated that the US should be threatening to “blow him to pieces” — i.e., threatening nuclear retaliation.
“No president was ever as tough on Russia as I was,” Trump declared on February 28. Those convinced he was compromised by Putin in some sort of extravagant collusion plot never seem to have noticed, but many of the key US actions which precipitated the invasion were committed under Trump: the most obvious being the successful McCain-Graham lobbying effort to get him to start sending Ukraine lethal weaponry. Trump still brags about the decision to this day, stating, “We also gave a lot of the javelins that you’re hearing so much about, we gave those javelins when President Obama was giving sheets and pillows and I guess blankets. That didn’t help too much. But we gave javelins, and a lot of them too, and I guess that’s helping a lot.”
Well, maybe it would’ve been a smarter idea to stick with the blankets. At least if the goal was to avert war. Because for years, Putin warned that these kinds of US weapons shipments were going to drastically heighten tensions. In his speech announcing the invasion, Putin couldn’t have been more explicit about one of his primary motivations to launch the war: “Any further expansion of the North Atlantic alliance’s infrastructure or the ongoing efforts to gain a military foothold of the Ukrainian territory are unacceptable for us.”
It was under Trump that Ukraine was elevated to “Enhanced Opportunities Partner” status within NATO — exactly the sort of military-infrastructural encroachment that Putin denounced. Trump also happens to be the one who formally effectuated the accession of Montenegro into NATO, which McCain had fulminated against Rand Paul for temporarily impeding, as well as the subsequent accession of North Macedonia — thereby continuing the process of NATO expansion which Putin also angrily cites as a central reason for the invasion. When Putin reproaches the US/NATO “military machine” for expanding so much that it is now “approaching our very border” — that’s a process which culminated under Trump!
Even as Democrats screamed that Trump was somehow surreptitiously governing on Putin’s behalf, what he was really doing was enacting a McCain-like policy agenda that cratered US-Russia relations — a trend which proceeded apace under Biden. While the media obsessed over their delusional theory that Trump was collusively enabling Putin, the real issue was always that his Administration did everything in its policy capacity to fray the US-Russia relationship. Hence the diplomatic impasse on bitter display right now.
Oh and by the way, half of the hawks that are constantly on TV demanding more confrontational action against Russia — including Mike Pompeo, H.R. McMaster, Fiona Hill, Kurt Volker, and of course uber-hawk John Bolton — were all hired by Trump.
Unsurprisingly, this McCain-inspired frenzy engulfing Republican elected officials and conservative media is also reflected in the sentiments of rank-and-file GOP voters. During the Trump years, it was Democrats who led the way in declaring Russia a top “enemy,” convinced as they were that Putin had “interfered” in the 2016 election to malevolently install Trump in power. Today, according to recent polling, Republicans now match or surpass Democrats in their antipathy for Russia.
“Crises” such as the one currently underway are always clarifying. One thing they can do is peel back a veneer. And in the case of the GOP, when that veneer is peeled back — beneath all the bogus rhetorical conceits and phony re-branding exercises — what’s revealed is the smiling, satisfied visage of John McCain. Still getting his way in the afterlife.
Peace is never on the ballot.
There is an Afghan proverb that says: Donkey is the same donkey but with a different packsaddle.