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 www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com