If it hadn’t been for the Donald Trump presidency, John McCain, who died at 81 on Saturday, would perhaps have been best known around the world as the conservative Republican who lost to Barack Obama in 2008. But in the vitriol that has come to pass for public discourse in the US and beyond, a simple act of decency by the deceased senator during the 2008 US presidential campaign has come to stand for a lost time when ideological disagreements with political opponents did not take the form of denigrating them.
When a conservative Republican implied Obama was “a terrorist”, McCain stood up for his rival. “No ma’am”, he said, called Obama a decent man and insisted that people had “nothing to fear from an Obama presidency”. That he resisted scoring the cheap political point may seem out of a politician’s character when entire campaigns have come to be run on the idea of “crooked Hillary”. While he was certainly a conservative, both fiscally and socially, he also took unpopular positions within his party like opposing “enhanced interrogation techniques” of prisoners during the Iraq war.
In 2008, it had seemed that politicians like McCain were going to give way to a new kind of leader who represented the diversity of contemporary America. McCain’s type of Republican does indeed seem to be a thing of the past. Instead of opening up to difference, however, the Republican Party has gone the way of Trump — a post-truth, post-civility politician. Through his presidency, Trump attacked McCain, going so far as to question his credentials as a war hero. McCain, for his part, did what he did best: He stood up against a man he saw to be damaging the fabric of the US republic, no matter the political cost.