Insulting the parents of a soldier killed in action because they are Muslim is unacceptable, Republicans are forced to concede.
“I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or candidates,” said Senator John McCain, in response to views expressed by Donald Trump, his party’s candidate for president. “While our party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.”
Never forget that McCain, a purported font of maverick sincerity and bipartisan morality, chose Sarah Palin to be his running mate eight years ago. McCain is not a force for moderation. Rather, he is part of the modern conservative movement, which leverages white supremacy to protect the financial prerogatives of the wealthy, and in doing so helped create Donald Trump. The notion that Trump is an unacceptable deviation from acceptable conservatism is useful fodder for mainstream Democrats, too: recall that at the convention, President Obama held up Reagan as an honorable conservative whose legacy Trump has debased. But attacking Trump as an aberration absolves the very conservative movement (and the liberal establishment it helped mold in feeble opposition) that systematically created his base of support.
Meanwhile, leftist analyses of Trump veer between emphasizing that he’s new and scary on the one hand, and that he is a continuation of horrible business as usual on the other. In fairness, it’s a tough balance to strike. Trump’s surprise political career has been built upon violent xenophobic rants, sexist insults and the public stroking of his all-consuming ego. Much of what’s new (aside from the clinical narcissism) is that sentiments once articulated alongside barely plausible deniability are now blasted out unapologetically from a megaphone. This is precisely what years of Fox News, birtherism and culture war hysterics explaining what's wrong with the world have primed a large chunk of Americans to want.
“They won't like me for saying that,” said Trump, after saying something horrible. “I like the fact that he is not afraid to say what we’re all thinking,” said a fan.
Both Trump’s claimed rebel identity and the Republican establishment’s response to it exceptionalizes what has long been standard practice on the American right. Basic decency has never been highly valued by conservatives, and even the particulars of Trump’s attack on the parents of Captain Humayun Khan are familiar. In 2004, George W. Bush’s campaign benefited from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s smears that John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran turned protester, had lied about his service. Karl Rove, the brain behind Bush’s rise to power, called Gold Star mom Cindy Sheehan, a protester against the Iraq War that killed her son, “a clown.”
For the right, hypocrisy is more a feature than a bug, less a moral failing than a political tool. Bill Clinton's avoiding service in Vietnam mattered, and Trump and George W. Bush doing the same does not. Bill Clinton's sexual history matters, and that of Trump—and Newt Gingrich, and for a while at least, David Vitter—have not. Obama's religion is a matter of debate. Trump gets away with insisting that he likes the Bible even more than "The Art of the Deal."
Though Trump is not much of a Christian — and is on his third marriage to an immigrant model who has posed nude and may have committed visa fraud—he is beloved by much of the Christian and anti-immigrant right. The right’s professed fetishes for country, family and God have been exposed to be proxies for the fundamentals of conservative politics: order, security, white supremacy, patriarchy. Perpetual war, economic crisis and mass incarceration have showcased the limits of American power rather than its exceptional quality. In 2016, the right’s various pieties have melted away, revealing the naked pathos and violent nostalgia at their core.
It is tempting to think that Trump finally went too far with his attack on the Khans, pushing his campaign perilously close to the edge of a narcissism-driven death spiral that will swallow his authoritarian ambitions in a purifying conflagration. But all the pundits who wrote him off so many times during the primary should refrain, promising new polls notwithstanding, from doing so now. Last July, when Trump insulted John McCain for having been captured in Vietnam, all conventional political norms should have been considered shattered. After all, it was when Joe McCarthy went after members of his own party and the national security establishment, Corey Robin writes, that he met his downfall. With his attack on McCain, it seemed that Trump had likewise turned on the wrong person, and most of the smart people bet against him en masse. A year later, he is the nominee. And feuding with Paul Ryan.
Trump's rebellion, of course, isn’t about a revolutionary change in relations of power but about putting a more competent person in power. Establishment elites, Trump says, have failed at their job; only an outsider candidate can bolster the status quo of ethno-racial hierarchy and national preeminence. It's brash, fresh violence intended to resurrect an immiserating status quo that was for decades maintained by the violence of war-making and prison-building. It looks like Trump will lose but it's as unclear as ever what that means. He has said the election might be rigged, and advisor Roger Stone foresees a Clinton victory unleashing a “bloodbath.” Trump is the apotheosis and unraveling of an American political tradition that has always been indecent.