Apparently people don’t. Nor do they remember that his actual response was half hearted, strangely worded, and McCain and his campaign immediately backtracked to excuse McCain’s supporters for their flagrant bigotry.
So let’s back up a bit to give some context.
The news cycle in recent days has been dominated by stories over the fallout from Trump’s North Carolina rally on Wednesday when the crowd broke into a racist chant of “send her back” directed at Congresswoman Illhan Omar. The event was widely seen as representing a new level of racist, and quite frankly fascist, demagoguery by Trump, even as he tries to distance himself from it.
In response to this many people are sharing a notorious clip from the the 2008 election where one of McCain’s supporters complained that Obama was an “arab.” Supposedly, McCain “shut down” and “strongly supported Obama,” at least according to Business Insider. This isn’t the first time people have shared this clip either. It went viral shortly after McCain’s death, again with people trying to cast McCain as some brave defender against racism in contrast to Trump.
This is all baffling to me because I remember that episode very clearly and it was nothing like they’re describing. As I recall, most people didn’t see it as some edifying moment where McCain bravely confronted racism. Mostly people saw it as McCain losing control after his campaign recklessly whipped up his supporters with racist dog whistles, at best. People weren’t impressed by McCain’s response, it came across as embarrassed and half hearted. A lot of people picked apart his weird choice of words, apparently treating “arab” and “family man” as mutually exclusive. Obama slammed McCain for being reckless, and McCain’s campaign responded by saying Obama had “insulted” his supporters. It was a disastrous clusterfuck. Hardly anybody thought otherwise.
To make sure I wasn’t misremembering this, I went back to discussions I was having with people at the time to see how they reacted. Here’s some fairly typical comments from the time:
“notice how the woman say ‘he’s an Arab,’ Which McCain responds to ‘no ma’am, he’s a decent, family man citizen’ … I don’t understand. Is he saying Arabs aren’t decent family people? Because that’s what I’m understanding through this.”
“He doesn’t attempt to talk the racism out of the heads of those people, not because he shares it (I hope he doesn’t), but because he knows you just can’t do it. He doesn’t have much time, so he responds to what the people imply, not just to what they say. He clearly doesn’t want an Republican to stand up and shoot Obama.”
” Republicans are desperate to cling to the power they had for more than a decade. With desperation, comes these fanatic behaviours. They are the true fundamentalists in these elections, and the GOP campaign won’t hessitate to use them and play with fire to achieve their victory, not matter the cost. I would dare to say that Obama’s life can be (and probably is) threatened by this. Last time I have seen such behaviour, PM Itzhak Rabin was assasinated in Israel.”
“Obama’s response to the charges of traitor and other bigotry displayed at McCain rallies was basically “Riling up crowds is easy, but this is something that is not needed in the US now.” McCain campaign’s response? Read for yourself [Link to a statement by the McCain campaign accusing Obama of ‘insulting’ and ‘assaulting’ McCain’s supporters]. Unbelievable.”
“McCain is being forced to defend Obama to his own supporters. For example, he had to tell a woman that Obama wasn’t an arab. (The headline on MSNBC was Breaking News: McCain: Obama Not An Arab! Is it just me, or is it truly pathetic that that was a headline on a major news network?)”
These comments aren’t coming from some left wing twitter group or something, these are from an apolitical Age of Empires fansite.
This was a common response from both political figures and the media. Somesaw McCain as drawing a line, but most were quick to point out how irresponsible and two faced McCain was being. To cite a few examples:
“McCain Booed For Telling Audience To Be Respectful of Obama – But McCain didn’t completely stay away from personal attacks, bringing up Obama’s connection with William Ayres, who was a member of the 1960s radical group the Weather Underground.”
“More Racism Please – The racist incidents are by now familiar: the Bill Ayers ads; Sarah Palin’s accusations that Obama pals around with terrorists; the cries of “terrorist,” “treason,” and “kill him” that Obama’s name elicits at McCain-Palin events; the racial epithet deployed against a black cameraman; the pointed inclusion of Obama’s middle name in introductions; and the old lady in Wisconsin who asked McCain to protect her from Obama the Arab.”
“Rep. Lewis: McCain Sowing Seeds Of Hatred … ‘George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights,” said Lewis, who is black. “Because of this atmosphere of hate, four little girls were killed on Sunday morning when a church was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama.'”
“McCain to supporters: ‘You’re angry, and I’m angry too’ – After days of headlines over the emotion at his campaign events, John McCain acknowledged at a rally in Davenport, Iowa Saturday that he and his supporters are angry – but insisted the anger wasn’t directed at opponent Barack Obama.”
Again, these are fairly mainstream sources that are readily available (I didn’t even need to go to the way back machine).
And people were reading the situation at the time that way because that’s how it was. McCain’s 2008 campaign was full of recklessness, impulsive decision making and incompetence. The racism was one aspect of it, but there was more to it than that, like McCain’s decision to “suspend” his campaign during the financial meltdown only to nearly blow up legislation meant to keep the economy from collapsing when he threw an egotistical tantrum. His campaign almost collapsed before it even started due to its ineptitude and McCain’s explosive temper, he only got the campaign because there were pretty much no other viable candidates.
The contrast between how all this actually happened and how the political press is choosing to remember it is jarring, but hardly surprising. We know why they’re doing it. They want to present McCain as some venerable elder statesmen, in stark contrast to the dangerous newer breed of racist demagogues represented by Trump. If only we could go back to that.
They don’t want to deal with the more disturbing reality: the difference between Trump and someone like McCain is, and always has been, purely aesthetic. McCain was fine with all the racist shit that Trump is associated with, in fact his campaign was a catalyst that revitalized it. He just didn’t want to get caught on stage with it.
Same for the supposedly venerable “old guard.” They were quick to jump on McCain at the time, but they did nothing in the following years as the xenophobia he fostered continued to fester. Even Obama and Democrats largely acquiesced to it, mostly because they were afraid of being seen as “insulting” people who were hurling outright racist epithets at them.
They did this because they were cowards, or they didn’t really care.