The Symbolic Death of John McCain

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Historians telling the story of the Trump era will undoubtedly remark on the death of John McCain as a moment of immense significance.

The corrosive effects of Trump, including the sowing of discord, division and the abandonment of truth are now all too apparent. Both symptom and cause of the decline in decency and civic discourse, they have bled into every layer of American society. From the West Wing, the President’s character and conduct degrades and delegitimises democratic institutions and processes at the national level.  Concurrently, in an unplanned national experiment, the broader population has entered a state of near-constant toxic engagement with an array of digital media platforms. Through Facebook, Twitter and network news, the president distorts our perception of reality, creating a state of perpetual instability. The impacts of these forces on the psyche of millions of individuals are unclear, but the broader effects are that public decency and truthful speech have suffered a sustained assault and that hyper-partisanship runs amok on both left and right. The decent common man is being drowned out by ideologues and bad-faith actors with bullhorns.

John McCain’s funeral was a clear rejection of everything that characterises American public life today. Such was his esteem that his passing had all the character of the death of a national leader. In Washington, D.C’s national cathedral, figures of honour and partisanship alike sat solemnly to dwell, for a time, on questions that go beyond political game playing. Alongside three past presidents were former Secretaries of State, the leaders of both parties, former adversaries and friends. For many watching the heart-wrenching service, came that unmistakeable feeling of witnessing the great drama of American history in the making.

Former President Barack Obama delivers remarks during Sen. John McCain’s memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 1, 2018. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE)

The impacts of this moment remain to be seen, but the country stands at a crossroads, perhaps even a precipice. In one possible future, ever growing division and decay continue, further subsuming every aspect of American life with the political. The death of McCain tolls the bell for the end of the era of civic dialogue, and honest and sincere discussion of public issues becomes impossible. As the ethos which underpins all of the nation’s democratic institutions disappears, they are cast into question with all that follows from that. In another future, McCain’s death marks a spiritual rebirth of the nation’s sense of civic pride. The late elder statesman stands as a beacon of light, guiding the way back to decency and sanity. The spirit of the country is again proven resurgent and meaningful.

Once more, in a moment of national tumult, the actions of forthright men and women can determine the direction of a country’s history. John McCain knew this to be true in his life. In recognising it in his death, Americans could honour the man and in turn, begin restoring the honour of the country and the values on which it is founded.

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