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“He’s dying anyway”: the Trump right’s hate for John McCain, explained

Featuring memes, the Vietnam War, and the 2016 presidential election.

Sen. John McCain (L) is surrounded by reporters asking about the state of the Republican Healthcare Bill and revelations about Donald Trump Jr.'s interactions with Russian Officials during the 2016 Campaign as he gets on an elevator in the US Capitol in Washington, United States on July 11, 2017.
Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

On May 9th, Arizona Sen. John McCain announced his opposition to President Donald Trump’s nominee to run the CIA, Gina Haspel.

On May 10th, White House special assistant Kelly Sadler reportedly reacted by saying of McCain, who is fighting brain cancer, “It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway.”

She has since left the White House — not because of what she said about John McCain, but because she told Trump that communications staffer Mercedes Schlapp may have leaked her comments.

Sadler’s reaction is not unique among the Trumpian right, whose outright hatred of McCain has resurfaced as McCain’s illness has progressed. (The feeling is mutual. McCain reportedly told friends a week ago that he doesn’t want Trump at his funeral.)

It’s also not new. When Trump delivered the infamous line during the 2016 campaign, “I like people that weren’t captured” — a comment the mainstream press was sure would cross a line with his followers — they not only didn’t care but started a bizarre meme bashing McCain.

The hate dates back to John McCain’s own run for the White House in 2007 and 2008, and even to his service during the Vietnam War, during which he was held as a prisoner of war for more than five years and tortured for information.

And the vitriol has escalated so much in recent days, swerving into old conspiracy theories and jokes about torture, that Fox News banned a Trump supporter and longtime contributor from appearing on its networks again. When it’s too much for Fox, it’s really too much.

“I’ll celebrate from home then”

Within the circle of Trump-supporting conservatives, McCain is a traitor, and his illness has been greeted with near glee. When McCain reportedly decided that he didn’t want President Trump to attend his funeral (but wished for former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush to give eulogies), former Trump campaign staffer Sam Nunberg tweeted a meme implying that Trump would “celebrate from home then.”

And Charlie Kirk, founder of the right-wing nonprofit Turning Point USA (with the stated goal: “educate students about true free market values”), tweeted that the news “tells you everything you need to know about McCain.”

But it’s bigger than funerals. On Thursday, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney repeated an old and disproven conspiracy theory about McCain’s time as a POW, saying on Fox Business regarding the subject of torture’s effectiveness in interrogations:

The fact is, is John McCain — [torture] worked on John. That’s why they call him “Songbird John.” The fact is those methods can work, and they are effective, as former Vice President Cheney said. And if we have to use them to save a million American lives, we will do whatever we have to.

McInerney is perhaps best known for perpetuating the “birther” myth that Obama was not born in the United States. He wrote an affidavit in support of an Army lieutenant colonel who refused to go to Afghanistan because he did not believe Obama was a legitimate president. The document stated that there were “widespread and legitimate concerns” about Obama’s birth records. (There weren’t.)

Because life is rife with irony, President Trump had McInerney introduce him at the September 2016 event where Trump attempted to “walk back” his own claims regarding Obama’s birthplace. Fox has since banned McInerney from appearing on their networks.

And that conspiracy theory about McCain’s time as a POW? It’s not true. In 2008, when the myth first rose to mainstream attention, PolitiFact reported that no one ever called McCain “Songbird,” despite torture so brutal that McCain is permanently unable to lift his arms above his head:

George “Bud” Day and Orson Swindle, fellow POWs, told PolitiFact that POWs sometimes were forced to talk when they were tortured, but they tried to tell lies to mislead their captors. ”We were all tortured and we wrote confessions under the pressure of torture,” said Swindle, who was a cellmate with McCain and is active in his campaign. “John McCain never collaborated with the enemy. He, like every one of us, submitted to severe torture. John McCain did nothing dishonorable. He was heroic.”

At one point, McCain broke down and signed a confession. But [Robert] Timberg, [McCain’s] biographer, said McCain deliberately used misspellings, grammatical errors and Communist jargon to show he was writing under duress: “I am a black criminal and I have performed the deeds of an air pirate. I almost died, and the Vietnamese people saved my life. …” Day, a Medal of Honor winner who also is supporting McCain’s campaign, said the flyer [saying McCain is a traitor] is “the most outrageous f------ lie I’ve ever heard.”

It’s worth noting that the two men behind the myth, the founders of Vietnam Veterans Against John McCain, weren’t themselves rabidly political but were reportedly angry at McCain’s efforts to normalize relations between the United States and Vietnam.

One of them, Ted Sampley, who died in 2009, was convinced McCain was a “Manchurian candidate” who had been brainwashed by the KGB during his captivity. In 1993, Sampley got into a fistfight with a McCain staffer, and McCain himself called Sampley “one of the most despicable people I have ever had the misfortune to encounter.”

There’s one rule for the Trumpian right: protect Trump

All of this returned with a vengeance during the 2016 presidential campaign.

In July 2015, when McCain told Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker that a Trump speech given in Phoenix earlier that week was “very hurtful to me ... Because what he did was he fired up the crazies.” Trump responded by telling the audience at a Christian conservative forum that “[McCain’s] not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” Trump’s fan base responded, circulating meme after very weird meme about McCain’s military service and “warmongering.”

And after Trump’s victory in November 2016, and with McCain’s vote against the Senate’s “skinny repeal” of Obamacare and repeated criticisms of the Trump White House (an “administration in disarray”), the Arizona senator became persona non grata among the Trumpian right.

That’s not to say that McCain’s political history hasn’t been full criticizable decisions. This is the same McCain who cheerfully sang “bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” back in April 2007 and said that the United States should occupy Iraq for a century.

And yet notably, with some exceptions like Australian leftist writer Caitlin Johnstone, the antiwar far left hasn’t been the source of the most vitriol against McCain. The far right has. In fact, it was a member of the Republican National Committee who shared one of Johnstone’s articles about McCain on Facebook. The article is titled, “Please Just Fucking Die Already.”

In short, anti-McCain Trump supporters who share memes about McCain’s service in Vietnam and celebrate his declining health aren’t doing it in protest of McCain’s support for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or grandstanding against the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” (He said that allowing gay and lesbian Americans to serve openly in the military would perhaps prove a deadly distraction.) If it were about that, Trump’s recent military strikes in Syria and continued use of troops in the Middle East might have drawn more ire from his base. That didn’t happen.

Their ire at John McCain is based on McCain breaking the cardinal rule of the 2018 Republican Party: Don’t talk trash about Trump. And it’s rooted in something deeper.