Monday, July 16, 2018

The Political Education Of Donald Trump

Joe McCarthy was a polarizing figure in the political life of the 1950s. A WW II veteran – nicknamed “Tail-Gunner Joe” for his service in the Army Air Corps – in 1946 he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Wisconsin. Ambitious, looking for a way to achieve political fame and power, he found his niche in the pervasive fear of mid-century America: Russian Communism.

America had just led its allies to victory in world history’s most destructive war, but this victory was followed with an insecure peace. Former ally Russia was now our biggest opponent in something called a “cold war.” Determined to “bury America,” Russia was attacking us through espionage, domination of Eastern Europe, support of “proxy wars,” and the development of nuclear arms on parity with America. China had been lost to the Chinese Communists; Communist-led revolutionaries in Viet Nam were fighting for “independence,” threatening all of Southeast Asia to turn Communist. Internally, dissenters against U.S. government policies were accused of being unpatriotic, if not treasonous. A new House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was investigating Communist infiltration of labor unions and government agencies. Spies potentially lived behind our neighbor’s door, ready to subvert the values and security of the country.

Americans’ fear of an unseen (and unproven) menace to their way of  life – a life markedly improving in the aftermath of WW II – was a crucible ripe for exploitation by demagogues and power-seekers. Enter Republican Senator Joe McCarthy. In the early spring of 1950, McCarthy made a statement to a group in Wheeling, West Virginia, that was carried into the news media: “While I cannot take the time to name all of the men in the State Department who have been named as active members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping the policy in the State Department.” (McCarthy never made his list of 205 available to the public. Most of the names were years-old accusations which had been largely disproved or settled. Over time, his list continued to shrink, ultimately down to just over 50 names.)

The statement made national headlines, and McCarthy was off and running, having found his new career as the “defender of America” against the Communist Conspiracy. What he had not found were any facts or proofs to substantiate his conspiracy claims – a lack which appears to have not troubled him in the least. Along the way, McCarthy proved to be a master of the “big lie” method of political propaganda: 1) identify a dominating fear in a specifically selected audience; 2) make some attention-getting and outrageous statement, without regard for factual accuracy, directed to that audience; 3) repeat that statement over and over until the extraordinary becomes the ordinary; and 4) promise to be the “savior” of the original base fear. Repeat the process as often as needed. The problem: how to keep it all going against the constant need to stack one big lie on top of another.

What followed was four years of “guilt by accusation,” by smear, by a complete disregard for due process, and unceasing attacks on government institutions – all packaged up in bags labeled “patriotism” and “conspiracies.” The list of McCarthy’s injustices is well known, and beyond the scope of this essay, but should be required reading for every current American. Finally, following a disastrous McCarthy-led Congressional Committee hearing investigating the U.S. Army in 1954, the once powerful McCarthy, who had held mesmerizing sway over public opinion, began his long fall. His Republican Senate colleagues, most of whom had been silent throughout his unprincipled conduct, now began to break ranks with him. In spite of McCarthy’s continuing approval by 1/3rd of the country, on December 2, 1954, the Senate voted to censure him by a vote of 67 to 22 (including 22 Republicans). No longer the center of public attention, McCarthy died from hepatitis and liver failure on May 2, 1957. Thusly, Joe McCarthy’s spotlight finally went dark, even as its afterglow would continue to influence the country for years to come.

Roy Cohn, a young attorney from New York City, served as McCarthy’s chief of staff (and “fixer”) throughout this reign of political assault. As such, Cohn had a first-hand view of McCarthy’s motives, strategies, tactics and outcomes. After McCarthy’s demise, Cohn observed about his boss: “He was selling the story of America’s peril. He knew that he could never hope to convince anybody by delivering a dry, general-accounting-office type of presentation.  In consequence, he stepped up circumstances a notch or two.” Cohn also said, “Undoubtedly, the [Army] hearings were a setback. But there were perhaps more fundamental reasons for his decline. By the time the hearings ended, McCarthy had been at the center of the national and world spotlight for three and a half years. He had an urgent universal message, and people, whether they idolized or hated him, listened. Almost everything he said or did was chronicled. Human nature being what it is, any outstanding actor on the stage of public affairs – and especially a holder of high office – cannot remain indefinitely at the center of controversy. The public must eventually lose interest in him and his cause. And Joe McCarthy had nothing to offer but more of the same. The public sought new thrills … the surprise, the drama, were gone.” Cohn concluded: “I was fully aware of McCarthy’s faults, which were neither few nor minor. He was impatient, overly aggressive, overly dramatic. He acted on impulse. He tended to sensationalize the evidence he had – in order to draw attention to the rock-bottom seriousness of the situation. He would neglect to do important homework and consequently would, on occasion, make challengeable statements.”

After McCarthy’s death, Roy Cohn returned to his law practice in New York City, fully versed in his mentor McCarthy’s tactics. Fifteen years later, Cohn took on a new client, a young real estate developer looking to start up business in Manhattan. The client’s name: Donald Trump.

Roy Cohn first met Donald Trump socially in the early 70s, and took an immediate shine to the young man. Roy Cohn offered to serve as Donald and his father Fred’s legal counsel when the Trumps were sued by federal prosecutors for refusing to rent apartments to African-American tenants. Cohn attacked, countersuing the government, ridiculing the government’s case, though eventually settling by agreeing to provide such rentals in the future. Thereafter, Donald Trump became a Cohn client in his own right, with Cohn serving as legal counsel (and intimidator) for most of Trump’s business deals. Along the way, they also created a deep personal relationship, spending much social time together. Cohn introduced Donald to the New York scene – the movers and shakers – and opened needed doors for his business deals. (In 1979, it was Cohn who introduced Trump to Roger Stone, a long-time Republican political operative.  Stone’s work with the Trump 2016 presidential campaign is now a focus of Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation.) In his legal work, Cohn used all the McCarthy techniques of intimidation he had learned so well at McCarthy’s side. Now, an eager Donald learned them as well from Cohn.

Cohn died from AIDS in 1986, shortly after being disbarred for “unethical, unprofessional, and particularly reprehensible” conduct. Trump subsequently remarked on his relationship with Cohn (and his expectations of the role of his lawyer), “Roy was an era. They either loved him or couldn’t stand him, which was fine ... he was a very good lawyer if he wanted to be. He’s been vicious to others in his protection of me ... If I summed it up in one word, I think the primary word I’d use is his loyalty.”

Cohn’s last lover and partner, Fred Fraser, observed of Cohn and Trump: “I hear Roy in the things [Trump] says quite clearly. That bravado, and if you say it aggressively and loudly enough, it’s the truth – that’s the way Roy used to operate to a degree, and Donald was certainly his apprentice ... having trained or mentored someone who became president, that would have been quite exciting for Roy.”

It has been said that a Joe McCarthy could not happen again in America. Yet political bloodlines can run deep. We look around at our political landscape today. Any Questions?

(With particular appreciation to Jon Meacham, “The Soul of America,” and Jonathan Mahler and Matt Flegenheimer, “McCarthy Aide Helped Shape Young Trump,” New York Times)

©   2018   Randy Bell

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Past Words For Current Times

The 1920’s. A time variously nicknamed “The Roaring Twenties” and “The Jazz Age.” Coming after the end of WW I – “The Great War to end all wars” – it was a time characterized by excess. The destructiveness of the War shocked many of the American doughboys who went to Europe to fight in the stalemate trenches. It was a Valley of Death that broke the “can do” spirit of many, and/or infused a “live for today” attitude in others. The experience made for a time ripe for unbridled responses to take hold in America, not all of them good ones.

During the Roaring Twenties, the corporate barons that emerged in the 1880s were still running the economy, if not government itself. Getting rich was the order of the day, pursued with gusto by financial barons, corporate giants, and, increasingly, everyday Joes alike. But it was not just economic excess. Women had finally won the right to vote, which stoked not only a new sense of legal freedoms but also social ones – it was the age of the independently-spirited “flapper girl.” Prohibition ended the people’s access to alcoholic drink – except that it didn’t. Booze flowed freely in speakeasies and private homes, supplied by organized crime and moonshiners. It was one big party time, danced appropriately to the frenzied moves of the Charleston.

But there was also a darker underside to this national party. The American borders had become porous with immigrants coming in. During 1900-1920, it was Southern and Eastern Europeans knocking on America’s door, most all passing through the processing station at Ellis Island. Many Americans felt vulnerable to all these “non-English” people who seemed to threaten the cultural and economic landscape – if not the very security – of the country. Calls for tighter immigration limits grew ever louder as many felt that their government was not doing enough to stem this flow. Growing numbers of people looked for an alternative force to speak for them and push back – forcibly if necessary – on these open doors. They found that alternative in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

The Klan had originally risen from the collapse of the South after the Civil War. In the 1870s and 1880s, it had terrorized the newly freed ex-slaves. It promoted the role of White Southerners by reinstalling de facto slavery through economic servitude, “legal” disenfranchisement, and systematic killings with impunity. By the end of the 19th century, the Klan’s influence had faded. But the replacement cultural and legal structures it had created endured, set firmly and inalterably in place. Its resurrection always stood ready to be recalled to active duty.

The 1920s was a time of fear of the immigrant, fear of the loss of one’s cultural identity, fear of an impotent government sworn to protect its citizens and keep them safe, and fear of attack on “America’s religion” (i.e. Christian Protestantism) by competing religions, scientific reasoning and discovery, and the forsaking of traditional infallible religious teachings. In such times, a substantial number of Americans turned to a reborn Ku Klux Klan. This time the Klan was not just contained within the South; it became a national organization. Guided by the tactics, hate literature and “social theories” of its predecessor, this new Klan offered itself as the balance against “these undesirables” who they characterized as dangerous enemies, criminals, lesser human beings, immoral people intent on subverting True Americans. To expand their message and recruitment, they combined this new hate with the Klan’s historical prejudices against African-Americans, Catholics and Jews. Great numbers of followers across the country, estimated at over four million, were drawn into this new KKK, including Congressional politicians seeking money and (re-)election. The strength of the Klan was graphically exemplified in August 1925 when a march on Washington down Pennsylvania Avenue attracted more than 35,000 thousands of white-robed but bare-faced Klansmen.

Yet many people chose to fight back by speaking up against this national travesty: principled politicians, journalists and writers, members of the judiciary, religious leaders. Congress investigated the Klan in 1921, producing no great conclusions or restraints; the ensuing publicity both advanced and hindered the Klan’s popularity. In these times, when American values, principles, and the traditions of our Founding documents seemed in danger of being lost, someone was clearly needed to remind us of who America – and Americans – truly are.

Republican Calvin Coolidge was born in the simple rural countryside of Vermont. He made a political name for himself as mayor in Northampton in western Massachusetts, subsequently as governor of Massachusetts. Vice President Coolidge became our 30th President upon the sudden death of Warren Harding. The thoughtful but taciturn Coolidge – nicknamed “Silent Cal” – was decidedly pro-business, most famously remembered as saying “the business of America is business.” He is less frequently quoted for his follow-on qualifying words: “The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction.”

As America’s national hate and fear of “others” grew during the 1920s, it was the quiet Coolidge who used his infrequent public words to remind the country of a most important lesson. As historian Jon Meacham relates in his excellent book “The Soul of America,” a man had written to Coolidge that, “It is of some concern whether a Negro is allowed to run for Congress anywhere, at any time, in any party, in this, a white man’s country.” Recalling that half a million black men had served in the recent War, Coolidge spoke in response:

“The suggestion of denying any measure of their full political rights to such a group of our population as the colored people is one which, however it might be received in some other quarters, could not possibly be permitted by one who feels a responsibility for living up to the traditions and maintaining the principles of the Republican Party. Our Constitution guarantees equal rights to all of our citizens, without discrimination on account of race or color. I have taken my oath to support the Constitution. It is the source of your rights and my rights. I propose to regard it, and administer it, as the source of the rights of all the people, whatever their belief or race.”

Subsequently, Coolidge told an American Legion convention in 1925:

“If we are to have … that union of spirit which is the foundation of real national genius and national progress, we must all realize that there are true Americans who did not happen to be born in our section of the country, who do not attend our place of religious worship, who are not of our racial stock, or who are not proficient in our language. If we are to create on this continent a free Republic and an enlightened civilization that will be capable of reflecting the true greatness and glory of mankind, it will be necessary to regard these differences as accidental and unessential. We shall have to look beyond the outward manifestations of race and creed. Divine Providence has not bestowed upon any race a monopoly of patriotism and character.”

Sometimes in the midst of hatred, prejudice or fear, it takes great courage to speak clearly against the popular tide. Calvin Coolidge was a President who knew the value of not speaking often, but making one’s words count for something worthwhile. It is leading not by the quantity of words issued daily, but by their quality and substance. These messages from almost 100 years ago, in times similar to our own, warrant being repeated today.

©   2018   Randy Bell