Donald Trump’s Crab Bucket Moral Universe
Malignant narcissist says what?
“John McCain, for some reason, couldn’t get his arm up that day.” —Donald J. Trump
Could I have your attention please? Just for a moment?
Thanks, because I want to spend a few moments on a single item that, in the course of things, is likely to get swept into our collective memory hole.
The peculiar genius of Trump is his ability to wash out his awfulness by a torrent of even more awfulness; the firehose is the point. So, after every enormity we move on, and we forget.
You can be forgiven if you’ve forgotten the story about how Trump’s White House tried to hide U.S.S. John S. McCain during Trump’s visit to Japan. The senator had died months earlier, but Trump’s animus toward the decorated war hero was so great that he couldn’t bear to see the ship named in his honor.
The request was both bizarre and stunning, but the story was not fake news, as emails obtained by Bloomberg News reporter Jason Leopold and by the Wall Street Journal showed. “At one point, a military official was apparently so taken aback by the request that the person asked that it be confirmed. ‘I could see that becoming a Tweet,’ the official added.
“Another military official responded the next morning by saying, ‘This just makes me sad.’”
The whole incident is now merely a footnote to the Trump era, but it revealed so much about the character of the man who would be president again — and a perfect embodiment of Trump’s Crab Bucket Moral Universe (about which more in a moment).1
Some of us still remember that moment in 2015 when Trump — who avoided the draft and never served in uniform — was asked about McCain’s record, and replied, “He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Naïvely, some of us thought that would be the end of his candidacy; but it was just the beginning of the GOP’s rolling transvaluation of values, as Republican voters accepted and then enthusiastically embraced Trump’s inverted ethical universe.
Over the next few years, he repeatedly mocked McCain’s disabilities, which were caused by injuries he sustained as a POW. At rallies Trump goaded the crowd into booing McCain’s name. His refusal to recognize McCain’s heroism was thoroughly diffused to his followers, both in the White House and in the toxic swamps of Trumpist social media.
In 2018, McCain, who was battling brain cancer, exited the stage as A Man in Full, his integrity intact, and intent on having the last word. In his final book, he wrote of Trump that “flattery secures his friendship, criticism his enmity.”
Taking their cue from the top, Trump World sneered. “It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway,” White House aide Kelly Sadler reportedly quipped dismissively. Sadler’s crass comment drew angry and well-deserved rebukes. "People have wondered when decency would hit rock bottom with this administration,” then-former Vice President Joe Biden said in a pointed statement. “It happened yesterday."
But Trump was not done.
After McCain’s death, it took Trump two days to order the flags to fly at half-staff at the White House. He did not attend the funeral. The incident with the ship took place nine months later.
Which brings us to this weekend’s throwaway line. During a rambling rant about his failure to repeal Obamacare, Trump returned to his obsession with McCain, whose thumbs-down vote sunk what was then known as a “skinny-repeal” of the health care law.
“John McCain, for some reason, couldn’t get his arm up that day.”
For some reason.
Since history is self-evidently not Trump’s strong suit, here’s a quick reminder: When McCain was shot down on October 26, 1967, the force of his ejection from the cockpit broke both his arms and his right leg.
As his captors tore at his clothes in the wake of the crash, McCain recalls realizing the extent of his injuries. When he noticed the injuries to his right leg –- which he says had fractured at the knee –- one of his captors slammed a rifle butt into his right shoulder, shattering it, the account said. He was then bayoneted in the abdomen and foot.
He would be a prisoner of war for the next five and a half years, held in solitary confinement for much of the time, and tortured.
McCain says his torture began in August of 1968. “For the next four days, I was beaten every two or three hours by different guards. My left arm was broken again and my ribs were cracked,” he said according to U.S. News.
He walked with a limp and his injuries left him unable to raise his arms above his shoulders for the rest of his life.
Trump and his vast army of turd-polishers will undoubtedly claim that his latest comment was merely a reference to McCain’s decision to vote against the Obamacare repeal. But the reference to his arms was unmistakable, and so very much on brand for Donald Trump (who has mocked the disabilities of others, as well).
The late senator’s daughter, Meghan McCain, fired back:
GOP guru Mike Murphy pointed out the obvious irony of the mockery by a man who was a “gutless, draft dodging coward.”
“Trump wouldn’t understand, but having both arms broken in an ejector seat, then being beaten and bayoneted by a crowd when he landed in Hanoi, and then tortured in prison with iron bars, yes, John McCain had f****** trouble raising his arms.”
Why do I spend so much time on this? Because 2024 needs to be a Year of Remembering — remembering who Trump is and what we may have forgotten.
Despite his claims to support the military, Trump seems oddly embarrassed by actual heroism. But as appalling as the open mockery of an American hero has been, it also opens a window into Trump’s crab bucket moral universe.
As the parable goes:
A man was walking along the beach and noticed another man casting his fishing line over the end of a pier. As the first man drew closer to the fisherman, he saw that the bait bucket had no lid, and to his surprise, it was full of sea crabs crawling on top of each other. Knowing the crabs could certainly escape, the man wondered why there was no lid. He asked the fisherman, “Why isn’t your bait bucket covered so the crabs won’t escape?”
The fisherman explained, “You need to understand that if there’s a single crab in that bucket, yes, it could certainly escape. However, since there are so many if one tries to crawl out, the others grab onto it, making sure it can’t escape so it will meet the same fate as the rest of them.”
Wikipedia defines the crab mentality as “a way of thinking best described by the phrase ‘if I can’t have it, neither can you.’”
We all live in Trump’s crab bucket now.
If you can’t win respect, then try to destroy the basis by which respect is granted by flattening the moral landscape. Because Trump is incapable of appreciating or emulating the senator’s sense of duty and honor, Trump resorts to the petulance of the bitter and the envious. “You’re no better than me,” is the timeworn playground taunt of the bully, the cretin, and the coward.
Although the term is overused, it is inescapably ironic that Trump’s most ardent supporters admire him because, they say, “he fights.” But he didn’t.
While McCain fought, Trump sat it out, the pampered rich boy with bone spurs who partied so hard that he bragged that his own Vietnam was avoiding venereal disease. Meanwhile, John McCain endured the unendurable with grace and courage. As an admiral’s son, McCain was offered an early release by the prison camp’s commander, “The Cat.”
McCain realized that the Code of Conduct gave him no choice. [Everett] Alvarez, who was being held elsewhere, was supposed to be the first man released.
“I just knew it wasn’t the right thing to do,” he said. “I knew that they wouldn’t have offered it to me if I hadn’t been the son of an admiral.
“I just didn’t think it was the honorable thing to do.” . . .
McCain calmly told The Cat that the prisoners must be released in the order they were captured.
As an inveterate narcissist, Trump is incapable of understanding this sort of selfless heroism or the sense of honor it represents. But it seems to haunt him anyway.
In far too short a time, McCain will be laid to rest, honored, respected, and remembered by a grateful country.
Donald Trump will not be on hand and he will be acutely aware of the contrast the rest of the country will be watching.
Perhaps it is too much to hope that this man without shame will feel a little ashamed.
Exit take: In fact, it was too much to hope, as Trump’s shamelessness is still very much on display all these years later.
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On Monday’s podcast, Will Saletan and I discuss Trump’s alternative history in which the January 6th insurrectionists are innocent patriots being held “hostage” by a malignant rogue state; and the Art of the Deal guy could have taught Lincoln how to “negotiate” an end to the Civil War.
You can listen to the whole thing here. Or watch us on YouTube.
1. Trump threatens.
ICYMI, the former president threatens to come after Biden if he is elected.
2. Republican Former Members of Congress: Courts Should Move ‘As Quickly As Possible’ to Resolve Trump Cases
“EQUAL JUSTICE BEFORE THE LAW” IS A BEDROCK PRINCIPLE of our legal system and our democracy. It is rooted in a fundamental proposition of this country’s founding: That we are a nation of laws, not of men, and accordingly no man is above the law.
As former members of Congress, all of us Republicans, we dedicated ourselves to upholding this principle. And we are now deeply concerned that former President Donald Trump’s response to the ongoing criminal prosecutions against him are testing it—requiring the U.S. Supreme Court to act swiftly to meet the moment. In no case is this more true than in Special Counsel Jack Smith’s prosecution of Trump for his attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election. In this case, the federal courts are confronted with Trump’s gambit to escape accountability altogether: assert an unprecedented claim of absolute presidential immunity from criminal prosecution and use the appellate process to delay the trial until after the November election.
3. Don’t Let Trump Dictate the Conversation
We have yet to learn not to let him dictate the national conversation. It was a neat trick in 2015 and 2016 to spew so many outrageous statements that the rest of us couldn’t 1) keep track of the lies and calumnies, 2) fact-check them, 3) express dismay, or 4) talk about anything but the latest outrage.
Let’s focus on the last of those, because it’s time we recognize his technique and decline to play along. In his memoir, John Bolton offered an example. News had leaked that Ivanka Trump used a personal email account for official business while serving in the White House (exactly what Trump had skewered Hillary Clinton for). Explaining that “this will divert from Ivanka,” Trump put out a statement about the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi. Proclaiming “America First!!” Trump said we would “never know” if the Saudi crown prince was involved in the murder (actually we do), and “in any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally. . . The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia.” Turning to Bolton, he added, “If I read the statement in person, that will take over the Ivanka thing.”
4. The Danger of Trump’s Bogus “Summary of Election Fraud”
Trump’s decision to release this report in the thick of his multiple legal battles reminds me in its recklessness of the apocryphal conundrum of the Manhattan Project scientists in the film Oppenheimer: They acknowledged the theoretical possibility that an atomic bomb test might set off a chain reaction that would destroy the entire planet and then did it anyway.
“Summary of Election Fraud” is, in Trump’s hands, a tactical nuclear weapon meant to destroy one true statement—that Trump lost the 2020 election. But its detonation could create a chain reaction that also destroys whatever remains of his most devoted followers’ ability to perceive reality.
5. Putin’s 2024 Fears: Ukrainian Arms, Russian People, and Pretty Women
These insecurities are likely the reason Putin has been giving conflicting signals on peace talks with Ukraine, one moment suggesting that Russia is open to a ceasefire agreement, the next moment insisting that there will be no peace until Russia achieves its goals.
Any Western pressure on Ukraine to negotiate will help solidify Putin’s façade of strength, hurting not only Ukraine and Ukrainians but the opportunities for positive change within Russia and for Russians. Right now, those opportunities are vanishingly small. Any weakening of Putin will expand them.
I wrote about this in The Weekly Standard back in 2018. Today’s newsletter draws heavily on that piece. Because we need to be reminded.