By Gary B. Ostrower
Sometimes funerals are not just funerals.
The funeral of Queen Victoria in 1901 was not only a farewell to a British queen who had reigned for 64 years. It became a symbol for the end of an era. The German Kaiser traveled to London for the funeral. So too the Austro-Hungarian archduke and kings and queens from almost every other European monarchy. The funeral became a celebration of royalty.
And yet, although few understood this, the age of monarchy was about to end. Never again would we see such an assembly of kings and queens. In 1901, only three European countries were not monarchies. Today, few are, and the handful of monarchs who retain their thrones are merely figureheads.
Historians should be careful about predicting the future, but I venture that the funeral of John McCain may — and I write "may" — also come to symbolize a fading epoch. The eulogies for McCain by his daughter and two former presidents reminded us again and again that he stood for the values of Thomas Jefferson and Lincoln, of Teddy Roosevelt and John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. He believed in loyalty, integrity, independence and tolerance. He was fiercely devoted to the idea that, as Jefferson wrote into our Declaration of Independence and as Lincoln repeated in his Gettysburg Address, all men are created equal.
But there is not a shred of evidence that our current president holds these values. He’s a man without an understanding of history, and even his claim to respect the Constitution is belied by his statement that his favorite part of the document is Article 12 (there is, of course, no Article 12).
Most importantly, his attacks on Muslims specifically and immigrants generally provide compelling evidence that he has no sympathy — indeed no appreciation — of Jefferson's maxim about human equality or the centrality of immigration in U.S. history.
In itself, this might be disturbing but not historically significant. Presidents, after all, come and go. However, what is more unsettling is a recognition that millions of Americans, and the Republicans in both houses of Congress, seem untroubled by the president's repudiation of our historic principles.
Nor is this just an American issue. We see the decline of democracy and the resurgence of authoritarian government in many corners of the globe: in Putin's Russia, Erdogan's Turkey, Duterte's Philippines, Orban's Hungary, and even in Italy and Poland.
Does the senator's funeral signal the last gasp of those universal principles that gave birth to this nation? For those of us glued to our TVs on Saturday, we hope not. Others, however, were less concerned. Some even spent last Saturday playing golf.
Gary B. Ostrower is a historian at Alfred University, specializing in 20th century diplomacy and politics.