“He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured,” then long-shot candidate Donald Trump said in 2015 of Sen. John McCain’s service and time as a prisoner after his plane was shot down by North Vietnamese troops in 1967. It was a quote that many thought would end Trump’s White House dreams.
That it did not slow the Trump train was a clear sign that something fundamental was broken in America’s definition of what it means to be a patriot.
Proving the tactic was no mistake, Trump returned to it when he descended into a fight with the parents of Capt. Humayun Khan, killed while serving in Iraq. Khizr Khan, who challenged Trump’s understanding of the Constitution while holding his own copy at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in front of a silent, stunned crowd, said he and Ghazala Khan, the wife who stood silently beside him, were “patriotic American Muslims.”
Trump, seeing only an attack instead of grieving parents who had lost a son, pushed back.
Since then, the now-president, who was excused from Vietnam-era military service but later told radio host Howard Stern that surviving the promiscuity of the era without contracting sexually transmitted diseases was a war story in its own right, has become the arbiter of patriotism. He lectures veterans, athletes, and yes, John McCain about honor and duty.
America went from a president whose eloquence was unquestioned, if sometimes derided as slick subterfuge, to one whose vulgar rants and name-calling have parents sending kids out of the room.
Donald Trump seems intent on erasing the legacy of Barack Obama, not just in policy but also in style. Voters who approved of bullying bluster have had to reconcile themselves to a leader whose last thought is bringing people together, one whose tweets, words and sneers reveal the new American character — absent moral authority, dependent on division and endlessly searching for someone else to blame.
Words matter, as does knowing when to keep your mouth shut.
Trump always knows the tension points and drives the wedge in deep, whether he’s hurling fighting words at the erratic leadership in North Korea or incendiary, profane challenges at mostly black athletes protesting for equality and demanding police accountability by kneeling before the flag African Americans have fought for in every war — the flag that has not always protected their sacrifice abroad or on the home front.
Trump is less forthcoming on neo-Nazis. And when his thoughts finally turn to the beleaguered and distraught U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico, his first words focus on the island’s debt and how great a job his administration is doing there.
This is not a revelation. It was always clear that Trump had an emptiness at the core, ready to be filled by grievance and the folks who still cheer his every word, though his words can lack logic or consistency — just look at how quickly poor Sen. Luther Strange of Alabama found himself ditched in the cold by his erstwhile friend and supporter after becoming the one thing Trump hates, a “loser,” in his Republican primary race against Roy Moore. And remember how he warmed up to “Chuck” and “Nancy” when a maybe DACA deal earned boffo headlines.
Trump “swaddles” himself in the language of democracy, even when calling for people to be fired or roughed up, to use the words of Carol Anderson, the Emory University professor whose award-winning book, “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide,” explores the historical precedents for that often successful strategy. In a talk in Charlotte, North Carolina, this week, she said the zero-sum game of seeing anyone else’s gain as your loss is not the way toward a “vibrant, educated, healthy, working America across races and classes.”
So where are the patriotic adults?
My Roll Call colleague Walter Shapiro says now would be the perfect time for Congress to step up. He writes that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — with an eye on the president’s still-strong support from GOP voters — need not be bold in opposing the president and taking the lead on getting things done for the American people. “But that does not mean you should automatically defer to Trump because he is nominally a Republican.”
Instead, it is those athletes whose class and calm explanations should forever retire the slur “dumb jock.” It is why you saw many teammates and coaches who may not agree with their cause or way of expressing it supporting them nevertheless.
While some measure patriotism by how straight you can stand while the anthem is played before a sporting event at which thousands cheer hard hits, these men and women are placing their livelihoods on the line and imploring all Americans to at least listen.
The revered baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, who like Muhammad Ali and others before and since, was not always praised when taking his stands, wrote in his 1972 autobiography: “As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.” And who would question that veteran’s resolve, patriotism or work toward a better America?
Well, maybe Trump, which brings us back to McCain, someone I doubt he will ever figure out. Perhaps if Trump watched “The Vietnam War,” he might have a clue. The PBS documentary from Ken Burns and Lynn Novick takes viewers through a divided America of another time — a time of turmoil, when Americans distrusted their leaders and each other — and includes scenes of a seriously wounded McCain, with bones, but not spirit, broken.
When McCain said last week he would vote against the Graham-Cassidy proposal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and endorsed a future bipartisan solution instead, he helped deprive Trump of what he craves most — a “win.”
Trump responded by tweeting a video montage of McCain’s longtime opposition to the ACA, earning a response of his own from McCain’s good friend and fellow veteran, Sen. Lindsey Graham, whose name was on the bill McCain helped doom. “John McCain was willing to die for this country,” Graham said during a debate on CNN. “So I would say to any American who has a problem with John McCain’s vote that John McCain can do whatever damn he wants to. He’s earned that right.”
Somehow, Graham found the words.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.