“We gather to mourn the passing of American greatness,” said Meghan McCain. And though she turned the phrase around a few minutes later — “the America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America was always great” — there was a clear sense of finality in her words, and in the words of so many others who read eulogies to McCain over the past four days. It’s true: One version of “American greatness” now belongs in the past tense.
Some have pushed back against this seemingly dark conclusion — Eliot Cohen has written that he felt an uplifting “drive to repair wrongs and build anew” after leaving the National Cathedral on Saturday, and Max Boot felt “a welcome moment of hope and grace.” But if you were watching, as I was, on a small screen in a distant corner of Europe, the sense of optimism was hard to feel. From afar, it looked like a funeral, not merely for McCain, but also for a particular vision of America, one in which many people around the world have long wanted to believe. And maybe it was.
Time and generational change explain, in part, why there is no one in the Senate who is quite qualified to replace McCain, no one who combines the same virtues: real military experience, expert knowledge of America's alliances, fierce faith in democracy and equally fierce disdain for dictatorships, a clear grasp of history, and an inclusive patriotism that opposes both racism and political corruption. Of course, there are some excellent senators, including many with a good feeling for foreign policy or sentiment for the military. There are lots of very good people in public life, more generally. It may even be that the generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans produces another war hero-politician. But, by definition, none of will have a memory stretching back to the Cold War and the civil rights movement, and few will have a family legacy of military service stretching back to World War I.
In part, the career of McCain itself explains why he has so few peers, at least in his own party. As his two runs for president well illustrate, the Republicans began eliminating or repelling people like him nearly two decades ago. Remember how McCain lost to George W. Bush in the 2000 primary: McCain's opponents spread a racist rumor about a McCain "black love child," and then McCain himself tripped up on the unexpected passion that white South Carolinians still felt for the Confederate battle flag. Remember how he lost in 2008: He appointed a running mate who voiced the aggressive, know-nothing, mean-spirited tribalism which has now taken over the party. He lost a lot of votes that way, I regret to say, including mine.
Both times, he tried to override or subsume the white supremacy and parochialism in his own party. Both times, it dragged him down. In subsequent years, the big-hearted, generous and instinctive patriotism that McCain preferred was quashed, replaced by the isolationism and polarization that has infected the entire political system. We have, as a result, a president who spent the weekend playing golf and tweeting nasty things about Canada.
This is not to say a new vision of genuine American greatness can't arise in place of the old to inspire the world. But it might have to take a new form. I am not sure, even, whether McCain's military virtues are even the qualities most necessary to this new project. The wars we are going to fight over the course of the 21st century will involve very different weapons from the wars of the 20th century. We might need, at the dawn of a new era in geopolitics, people who have earned their medals fighting international corruption and kleptocracy, or people who can understand cybersecurity and online manipulation.
America can still inspire, and America can still lead. But the people who can lead that kind of America haven’t yet stepped into the spotlight. Until they do, the world really will be mourning the passing of American greatness.
Anne Applebaum is a Washington Post columnist, covering national politics and foreign policy, with a special focus on Europe and Russia. She is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a professor of practice at the London School of Economics. She is a former member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.