McCain, Bannon, and the struggle for the GOP’s soul

It isn’t hard to guess who John McCain had in mind when, in a speech on Monday at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia – the finest speech of his storied political career – he denounced the “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.”

It’s easy to guess, too, the names of the Senate and House Republicans Stephen Bannon had in mind when, at a Values Voter Summit in Washington over the weekend, he declared “a season of war against the GOP establishment.”

McCain and Bannon are the antipodes of the Republican Party. The institutionalist versus the insurgent. The internationalist versus the America Firster. The maverick versus the ideologue.

Above all, the hedgehog versus the honey badger.

The hedgehog, said the Greek poet Archilochus, knows one big thing. McCain knows honor. He refused early release from prison camp in Hanoi to save his honor. He reproved Republican voters for calling Barack Obama an Arab in 2008 to save his party’s honor. He championed the surge in Iraq when it was least popular, to save the country’s honor.

He paid for all of it and will be remembered as a giant among dwarves because of it.

Right now, McCain, his allies and their ideas appear to be a waning force in the Republican Party. Many of them, like Tennessee’s Bob Corker, will retire rather than face bruising primary challenges from the ever-farther right. On Monday McCain called America “the land of the immigrant’s dream,” and said: “We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil.” To a large and growing segment of the GOP, which thinks magnanimity is for losers, these statements amount to a form of treason.

The honey badger, by contrast, will do anything to get what it wants. It is wily, nasty and has as much use for honor as a pornographer has for dress. In the 2016 presidential campaign, according to biographer Joshua Green, Bannon treated white supremacists as useful fellow travelers and urged Donald Trump to persist in what seemed to many to be his use of anti-Jewish tropes. Later he waged a smear campaign against H.R. McMaster on the grounds that the national security adviser was anti-Israel.

For the honey badger, it’s whatever works: anti-Semite one day; Israel’s make-believe champion the next. Bannon is the most revolting operator in American political life since Roy Cohn. He is also the most consequential one.

The goal isn’t to win elections but to purge the party and remake it in Bannon’s image.

It also helps Bannon that the Roll-Over Republicans who might oppose him lack the political courage to do so. Winston Churchill said of the neutral countries in World War II, “each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.” Think of Paul Ryan as the moral equivalent of Norway.

What might stop Bannon? Nobody should expect GOP invertebrates to ever gain a spine. But Moore is in a dead heat with Doug Jones, his Democratic opponent, in what should be the easiest Republican cakewalk of the season. Even the stupid party might remember its Senate nominations of Delaware’s Christine “I’m not a witch” O'Donnell and Missouri’s Todd “legitimate rape” Akin.

But parties need more than just the spur of defeat to give voters a sense of moral belonging and political purpose, and in his speech Monday McCain did that:

“We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.”

This is the finest expression of the American cause uttered by any major political figure in a generation. It could yet serve as a rallying point for a Republican Party that can save itself from dishonor, win its share of elections, and stand up to the honey badgers who mean to pillage it.