John McCain Understood That Confronting Our Sins Is Deeply American

In remarks at the National Constitution Center, the late senator offered up a patriotism that strongly rejects Trumpism.

John McCain stands at a teleprompter on stage in front of an image of the Bill of Rights reading “We the People.”
John McCain makes remarks after receiving the the 2017 Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Ten months ago, facing terminal cancer, John McCain delivered what was, in effect, his farewell address. While accepting the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal, McCain diagnosed a sickness sweeping the West: a “spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.” Everyone understood that McCain was talking about Donald Trump. But he was also talking about something larger: McCain was telling us what real patriotism is.

Patriotism starts with humility. You can’t be a narcissist like Trump. You have to understand that you’re part of something bigger. In his remarks, McCain poked fun at himself and his vices. He thanked the United States and its military for helping him “escape the consequences of a self-centered youth” and learn to serve “something more important than myself.”

Second, patriotism requires good will. You can’t love your country if you don’t love your neighbors. Part of that is learning to accept their patriotism even when you disagree. When McCain ran for president in 2008, he refused to question Barack Obama’s loyalty, and he rejected attempts by other Republicans to do so. In his speech last fall, McCain recalled that he and Vice President Joe Biden had “often argued, sometimes passionately. But we believed in each other’s patriotism and the sincerity of each other’s convictions.”

Third, you have to support institutions. You can’t go around attacking the Justice Department or reducing it to a personal tool. You have to work with other citizens to build national and local organizations that address people’s needs. Looking back on his career in Congress, McCain said of himself and Biden: “We believed in the institution we were privileged to serve in. We believed in our mutual responsibility to help make the place work and to cooperate in finding solutions to our country’s problems.”

Fourth, you must be willing to sacrifice for the common good. You can’t just talk about the flag and the national anthem, as Trump does. McCain suffered as a prisoner of war, but he didn’t talk about that in his speech. He talked about the greater sacrifices of others, recalling how the Pacific Ocean in World War II, in the words of President George H. W. Bush, “wrapped its arms around the finest sons any nation could ever have, and it carried them to a better world.”

Fifth, you have to recognize your fallibility. In trying to serve your country, sometimes you make mistakes. McCain’s critics fault him for advocating the Iraq war and choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. McCain didn’t address those complaints in his speech, but he acknowledged that he sometimes got things wrong. “There were probably times when the country might have benefited from a little less of my help,” he said, adding, “I haven’t always served it well.”

Sixth, you have to recognize that your country makes mistakes too. McCain often supported military interventions overseas. Some of them failed or backfired. In his speech, he didn’t name the failures, but he did speak of America’s sins at home. He counted the nation’s blessings despite “all our flaws, all our mistakes.” He noted that America today is “freer” and “more just” than it was in 1941.

Trump thinks it’s unpatriotic to speak of America’s sins. But McCain understood that confronting our sins is deeply American, because principles define our country. “We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil,” said McCain. We define ourselves not by walls but by welcoming people of many languages and faiths. In McCain’s words, we’re “the land of the immigrant’s dream.”

We’re also a nation of self-correction. Trump’s motto “Make America Great Again” imagines an ideal past. But America has always been a work in progress. We’re “the land that repairs and reinvents itself,” said McCain. Sometimes the destination is clear only in retrospect. “Among the few compensations of old age is the acuity of hindsight,” said McCain. “I was, knowingly or not, along for the ride as America made the future better than the past.”

Trump, never having served his country, thinks of America as a corporation. His foreign policy focuses on trade, seeking profits while ignoring human rights. McCain saw that as a betrayal of our vocation. “We are the custodians of [our] ideals at home, and their champion abroad,” said McCain. That means pursuing “peace and stability” but also confronting “tyranny and injustice.”

That mission, in turn, sometimes requires that we sacrifice for strangers. Trump looks at NATO and sees ingrates. He looks at the Middle East and sees oil we could take. McCain looked at these places and saw people in need. The United States “has shared its treasures and ideals and shed the blood of its finest patriots to help make another better world,” he said. “I’ve seen Americans make sacrifices … for people who were strangers to them but for our common humanity.”

You can quarrel with McCain’s voting record or his judgment about wars. In some cases, those judgments cost many people their lives. But what he got right—his understanding of patriotism—was bigger than any of his mistakes. It encompassed and welcomed vigorous debate. McCain listened, and in some cases, he changed his mind. For years, he fought to maintain the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which kept gay service members in the closet. But in his final term, he endorsed an openly gay nominee for secretary of the army, opposed Trump’s transgender military ban, and voted for federal legislation to ban job discrimination based on sexual orientation.

What McCain understood above all was that American patriotism is different from the patriotism of other countries. It’s not about loving your country because you were born here. It’s about loving what this country, in particular, stands for. That’s what McCain meant by “spurious nationalism.” Reducing love of America to tribalism is, in McCain’s words, “as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”

That’s an epitaph worthy of McCain’s life. It honors the history of the United States by embracing the radical idea this nation always was. If we betray that idea—if we abandon liberty, openness, or human rights in the name of “America First”—we’ll lose America. McCain, who nearly gave his life in war, wasn’t afraid to call that a deal breaker. “We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent,” he said as he accepted the Liberty Medal. “We wouldn’t deserve to.”

Read more from Slate on John McCain.