The feud between President Donald Trump and Senator John McCain is heating up. The protagonists on both sides of this fight are intense and determined, and yet if we dig beneath the personalities, we can see an even deeper conflict—an ultimate conflict of visions. And that clash of worldviews, in turn, is full of implications for the behavior of the Deep State in the months and years to come.
In the meantime, the headlines are startling: The Washington Post headlined its story on Saturday the 17th, “John McCain just systematically dismantled Donald Trump’s entire worldview.”
And there’s this from The Chicago Tribune: “McCain criticizes Trump for calling media ‘the enemy’: ‘That’s how dictators get started.’”
And Axios, a buzzy new Beltway publication founded by the original brains behind Politico, runs this headline, “McCain gets revenge on Trump.” (Interestingly, by coincidence, or perhaps not, the next headline in the Axios news feed was, “The 10 biggest leaks of the Trump presidency.”)
It’s commonly thought that the Trump-McCain confrontation began on July 18, 2015, when Trump said of McCain, in reference to his years as a POW in North Vietnam, “I like people who weren’t captured.” It’s possible to imagine that Trump meant that as something of a quip, and yet the breach was real. Moreover, we shall see, the two men have far more profound disagreements than that.
During most of 2016, McCain, facing a primary contest from a pro-Trump challenger, kept quiet about Trump. And yet after he had won his bid to be renominated, in October 2016, McCain announced that he would not be voting for Trump.
And then, of course, came the national election, which put Republicans in charge of both the White House and the Congress for the first time in a decade. So if there was ever a time to patch things up in the name of advancing a common Republican agenda, this was it. Indeed, Virgil, grizzled Beltway veteran that he is, has learned over the years that fights over personalities and politics usually can be patched up in the name of shared goals.
However, what’s harder to patch up are disputes among the strong-minded over matters of worldview. And both Trump and McCain are strong minded, with sharply divergent worldviews.
For example, McCain, closely identified with the neoconservative element within the GOP, was a strong supporter of George W. Bush’s Iraq war and seeks the return of American “boots on the ground” all over the Middle East and Central Asia. By contrast, Trump has said many times that the Iraq war was a mistake and is skeptical, albeit not totally opposed, to the use of force in the region.
More broadly, during his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump said, over and over again, “America First.” McCain, however, has a much different view. In his 2008 presidential campaign, for instance, McCain emphasized, in Bush 43-ish terms, the importance of advancing democracy around the world. The Republican Platform that year, for example, declared, “It is . . . a matter of national security . . . to promote democracy and civil society in developing nations.” And McCain has maintained those views to this day.
And the fight gets fightier from there. In one revealing back-and-forth last month, McCain and his close ally, Sen. Lindsey Graham, attacked Trump on his alleged Russia ties. In response, Trump tweeted:
The two senators should focus their energies on ISIS, illegal immigration and border security instead of always looking to start World War III.
“Looking to to start World War III.” Now that, we can agree, is a strong charge!
So yes, the Trump-McCain feud is about the essentials of worldview, and that’s a hard gap to heal. And the gap widened even further in the wake of McCain’s February 17 speech to the Munich Security Conference; that’s the annual conclave in the German metropolis, bringing together national security mavens from around the world. (We might note that McCain chose to make his Munich-speech rendezvous at the expense of Senate business, disregarding Senate Majority Leader’s Mitch McConnell’s request that he remain in Washington to help make sure that Scott Pruitt would be confirmed as EPA Administrator—Pruitt was confirmed, but without McCain’s vote.)
In that Munich speech, McCain offered a strong defense of the foreign-policy status quo—a status quo that Trump has threatened to overturn. During the campaign, for example, Trump referred to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, founded in 1949 during the Cold War, as “obsolete,” and he has repeated that assertion as recently as January 15. In addition, he has argued that “many NATO members . . . aren’t paying their bills,” suggesting that such non-payment would inevitably jeopardize the American commitment to the alliance.
We might pause to note that, undeniably, Trump has a point. Current NATO policy holds that all 20 member countries are pledged to spend two percent of their GDP on defense per annum, and yet in fact, only five of 20 countries meet that threshold. (The US spends the most of any NATO country, about 3.6 percent.)
Meanwhile, McCain, speaking in Munich, skipped past that free-rider reality to focus on his real target, Trump. Invoking the founders of the Munich conference from decades past, McCain said that if they were alive today:
They would be alarmed by an increasing turn away from universal values and toward old ties of blood, and race, and sectarianism.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that McCain is taking a shot, here, at the nationalism espoused by Trump, and also by White House aides such as Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller. Defenders of the Trumpian worldview say that their nationalism has nothing to do with blood, race, or sectarianism; instead, it’s about the American nationalist interest—what’s good for Americans of all ethnicities and creeds. Indeed, Bannon, long a target of the MSM—and in particular, McCain’s fans in the MSM—has specifically rejected the allegation that he is an “ethno-nationalist,” saying, instead, that he is an “economic nationalist.” There’s a big difference, we might note, between “ethnic” and “economic.”
And yet in the minds of globalists, economic nationalism is almost as bad as ethnic nationalism. And why is that? Because the whole theory of “universal values,” aka globalism, as embraced by McCain is, well, the opposite of nationalism and national sovereignty. That is, the goal of the globalists is one world of free trade and free immigration, backstopped, of course, by open-ended American military commitments.
Indeed, we might observe that what McCain calls “universal values” are really, in fact, “Western values.” That is, there’s precious little evidence that other countries—starting with China and Russia, and extending through most of the roster of the United Nations General Assembly—are the least bit interested in how Westerners think they ought to live. It’s in this context that Trump-style nationalism makes plenty of sense; as the 45th President said in his inaugural address, he seeks good relations with all countries—except, of course, the Islamic State—and yet, at the same time, “It is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.” That is, other countries, not in conflict with the US, have a right to be left alone, not told what to do by Uncle Sam.
For a better look at these important topics, we might turn to Samuel Huntington’s 1996 classic, The Clash of Civilizations. In that work, Huntington identified ten major civilizations around the world. Western civilization is one of those ten, and only one, representing about ten percent of the planetary population. And if there’s one lesson that Huntington wished to impart to his readers, it was the tenacity of each civilization; that is, for better or for worse, people everywhere stick with who they are and what they know. This stubborn reality helps explain the failures of most US nation-building efforts, from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Indeed, as we watch much of Europe filling up with Muslim and other Third World immigrants, one has to wonder how long that continent will hold on to McCain’s “universal values.” And so it’s all the more strange that McCain has been a consistent defender of open-borders arrangements and refugee flows.
More insight into McCain’s worldview comes from a long profile of him in the February 18 issue of New York magazine. The article features long quotes from the Arizonan, as well as from McCain advisers Mark Salter, Bill Kristol, and John Weaver; that trio, we might note, seems to have veered from “on the record” to “on background” many times during the course of the story. In background mode, we learn, for example, that “to an extent far greater than McCain himself will say, [aides] describe McCain as finding Trump to be a true threat to the republic.” [emphasis added]
And then, speaking for himself on the record, McCain compared the relationship between Trump and Vladimir Putin to the 1939 treaty between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. As McCain himself said, “Some have likened it to the Molotov-Ribbentrop spheres of influence.” So if we infer that Putin, in McCain’s mind, is reprising the role of Josef Stalin, then we can see who McCain thinks Trump is supposed to be reprising.
In the same article, McCain was asked about the so-called “dirty dossier,” the scurrilous and unproven document alleging Trump’s unsavory actions in Moscow. Trump and many others have denied it as “fake news,” and yet for his part, McCain, who actually personally conveyed the document to FBI director James Comey in October, now says coolly, “I didn’t know what to make of it.” And as for the possibility of Trump’s impeachment, McCain said, with even less warmth, “We’re clearly not there yet.” (We might take careful note of the “yet.”)
So there we have it: McCain and Trump might be in the same political party, but they are at polar opposites on a dozen profound questions.
And yet McCain isn’t just an anti-Trump talking head; he’s one of the most powerful men in the federal government. He has been in Congress for the past 34 years—30 of those years in the Senate—and he is now the chairman of the mighty Senate Armed Services Committee. That committee, of course, has jurisdiction over the Pentagon, which has a budget of nearly $600 billion a year, and its influence extends far beyond that.
So when McCain speaks, he is speaking for, at least in theory, the predominant chunk of the country’s national security establishment. So McCain, having worked in Washington most of his career, has enormous sway over much of the Deep State. Back in December, Virgil described the Deep State this way:
The complex of bureaucrats, technocrats, and plutocrats that likes things just the way they are and wants to keep them like that—elections be damned.
And while McCain, to Virgil’s knowledge, has never directly addressed the reality of the Deep State, he has heartily endorsed one of its preferred methods of subversion: the leak. In that same New York magazine article, McCain made an impassioned plea for more leaks—yes, more leaks:
In democracies, information should be provided to the American people. How else are the American people going to be informed?
If there’s such a thing as signal-sending to a bureaucracy—and there is—well, McCain just sent a phosphorescent flare.
In the meantime, it’s worth noting that two of Trump’s appointees to the Pentagon—who would have to have been confirmed by McCain’s Armed Services Committee—seem to have run afoul of . . . something.
On February 3, Trump’s pick to be Secretary of the Army, Vincent Viola, withdrew his name from consideration, citing Defense Department rules concerning his business holdings.
And on February 18, CBS News reported that Trump’s pick to be Secretary of the Navy, Philip Bilden, is “on the verge of withdrawing,” citing, again, DOD rules. We should note that within moments, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer strongly refuted the report, saying that Bilden is “100% committed” to the Navy post. So we can leave it at that, even as, of course, there’s now a cloud over Bilden, and scandal-hungry MSM will likely zero in on his case.
So the struggle between Trump and McCain seems destined to continue, with the Deep State as one of the battlefields.
And oh, look: Here’s another report from the front; on Saturday night, the Associated Press reported:
The Senate Intelligence Committee has sent formal requests to more than a dozen organizations, agencies and individuals, asking them to preserve all materials related to a probe the panel is conducting on Russian interference in the 2016 election and related issues, a congressional aide said Saturday.
In other words, the anti-Trump Congressional investigations are beginning—and the Deep State will be sure to help. Yes, the Senate Intelligence Committee is chaired by a Republican, Richard Burr of North Carolina, and yet the minority Democrats seem to be winning the internal struggle within the committee—and thus gaining the power to pursue Trump.
And look who’s an ex officio member of that committee. Why, it’s the same John Sidney McCain III.
The Trump-McCain feud may be big and wide-ranging, but inside the Deep State, it’s a small world.