Commentary: Why John McCain is wrong

"To abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history." -- Sen. John McCain, Oct. 16

Actually, Senator McCain, I prefer my nationalists "half-baked." Because the alternative could be the whole loaf.

If Sen. McCain's speech is aligned with the thinking of the GOP establishment, Republicans may need to take a look at their party and step back. Attacking nationalism and populism as illegitimate, insulting its advocates ("people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems") and calling them "unpatriotic?" This feeds right into the message of the Talk-Right and Steve Bannon to disaffected voters: Establishment Republicans don't like you, don't understand you, and they don't want to.

A reminder, Senator McCain: The last time GOP voters felt this way, they nominated Donald Trump.

No matter how much John McCain or Hillary Clinton hate it, there's a populist movement in American politics on both the right and left, evident in both Bernie Sanders' and Donald Trump's candidacies.

And is it a coincidence that the party that chose the populist is the one that elected a president?

Global politics is experiencing a populist moment. Austria just elected Europe's youngest leader, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, head of the "People's Party" (hint, hint). Populist and nationalist parties have made gains from the Netherlands to Italy. And in perhaps the most "nationalist" moment of all, the people of Catalonia just voted to break away from Spain to make their own nation.

Ross Douthat of the New York Times made an interesting observation in a recent Ricochet.com podcast:  In Europe, populism is part of virtually every center-Right coalition. For years they've been smaller and subsumed into broader-based parties, but that strain of politics—"[insert nation name here] First!"—has always been part of the mix.  And now it's on the rise.

The vision that McCain and others establishment members espouse of a center-right American movement that rejects populism would be a radical exception. In fact, when candidates like pro-Trump right-winger Luther Strange are "too establishment" to win a GOP primary in Alabama, a populist-free GOP seems unimaginable.

And if Republicans want to actually win elections, it may be downright undesirable.

This is why Sen. McCain's rejection of "half-baked" populism is so ironic. The lesson of the past 18 months is that, if the GOP establishment had bothered to take some half-measures to address the anger of the populist right, they might have been able to pull them into the party rather than watch helplessly as Trump took over.

There is a smarter strategy: If you can't beat 'em, get them to join you. Find those issues and policies where nationalism and traditional conservatism overlap, like border security or fighting the threat of jihadist terrorism. Or even make concessions. There's a real divide over free trade.  Many traditional conservatives and economists believe it's a big win for the U.S. But populists see the impact it has in specific sectors -- like manufacturing -- and they want limits.

President Reagan confronted this conflict over steel production. And though he was a free trader, he pushed through quotas in imported steel. Was Reagan violating his own principles? Absolutely. But that's what members of governing coalitions do. Nationalists who didn't particularly care for Reagan's aggressive foreign policy stuck with him in part because he stood by them.

Instead of speeches attacking half-baked, spurious nationalism, how about one by a major establishment figure (Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan) that lays out elements of common agenda and makes the case that the smart way for populists to see progress on their issues is to team up with the broader GOP coalition, rather than fighting against it.

Or the traditional Republican can keep attacking the "half-baked" Trumpers, Steve Bannon can target the traditionalists, and both groups can start shopping now for the housewarming gift they'll give Speaker Pelosi when she takes the gavel in 2019.

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.