FOR BOTH GOOD and ill, Sen. John McCain of Arizona is the closest the Republican Party has to the opposite of Donald Trump. He is the moral conscience that promises to check the president's excesses, and he is the hypocritical Washington lifer whose cynical rhetoric and interventionist passions helped create the Trumpian backlash in the first place.
McCain, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in July, famously spent five-plus years imprisoned in Vietnam; Trump meanwhile received five deferments exempting him from the conflict. Trump believes that torture "absolutely works," and on the campaign trail advocated violating Geneva Convention prohibitions and overruling his own military brass if need be. (He later backtracked on the latter threat.) McCain, an actual victim of torture, is the leading Republican opponent of the practice, arguing that it "doesn't work" as an intelligence-gathering tool.
Trump almost never apologizes for his inflammatory statements, including his notorious crack about McCain's heroism: "I like people that weren't captured, OK?" McCain's extravagant apologies are almost as well-known on Capitol Hill as the temper that makes them necessary. When he still had a fighter's chance against Barack Obama for the presidency, McCain publicly rejected attempts by the GOP base to portray the then-senator as an "Arab" or even a "socialist." Trump, on the other hand, refused to fully disavow the birther conspiracy theory until September 2016.
Trump is widely loathed by the press; he gleefully adds fuel to the fire by threatening lawsuits, railing against "fake news," and calling journalists "the enemy of the people." McCain, with the exception of when he was running against a Democrat for president, has been so cozy with the national media that for years he referred to them as his "base."
But neither the Fourth Estate nor its favorite anti-Trump conservatives have grappled with how their mutually reinforcing behavior helped drive voters into the populist's arms.
The political class exacts little or no penalty on politicians, commentators, and activists who back a government intervention, particularly in the foreign policy realm, that goes disastrously wrong. McCain not only championed the war in Iraq but called Obama's 2011 foray into Libya "both right and necessary." He is forever advocating further troop surges in Afghanistan, the arming of various rebels in Syria and elsewhere, sketchy new additions...