Outrageous statements came naturally to Trump—as they did to Nixon, McCarthy and the hyper-connected lawyer Roy Cohn. As the threat of impeachment looms, will America begin to reject their paranoid style?by James Zirin / December 6, 2019 / Leave a comment
For the third time in American history, a President of the United States faces impeachment and possible removal from office—the victim of his own paranoia. Paranoid style politics did not start with Donald Trump, and sadly, it will not end with him either. In a seminal piece on political paranoia, published in the November 1964 issue of Harper’s, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter noted that the paranoid style has been around long before the alt-right discovered it—its targets have classically included immigrants, Catholics, Jews, international bankers, Masons, abortionists, the press, munitions makers, and most anyone else worthy of scapegoating. The term is intentionally pejorative as paranoia has “a greater affinity,” Hofstadter argued, “for bad causes than for good.”
Trump’s political approach of demonizing his enemies; suggesting a “lynching” and a “coup;” his hints that he is surrounded by “spies” who should be “executed;” his rumours of a “deep-state” conspiracy;” his habit of fabricating claims out of whole cloth or pure fantasy; his threatening to sue Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Adam Schiff for conspiring to overthrow the government; his threatening to sue his enemies or anyone else who “pisses me off”—all of these resonate with a paranoid style seen throughout American history.
In modern times, the leading exponents of the paranoid model have been Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. All three have a history of doing political battle in a paranoid style. And circling the tents around these complicated men was a corrupt lawyer named Roy Marcus Cohn. The latter never held elective office, but was close to the former three.
Neither Trump nor Cohn nor Nixon had hard and fast policy objectives. Nixon and Trump offended Republicans with doctrinaire Keynesian economic policies of deficit spending, and unprecedented debt levels. Both Cohn and Trump expressed fringe right-wing views, which they readily exploited to achieve political power. Fear of progress, climate change denial, anti-intellectualism, racism, sexism and xenophobia went down well in the populist “alt-right” culture. Yet both Cohn and Trump were registered Democrats.
Cohn was quick to see how the anti-communist hysteria in the country might serve his personal ambition. In 1950, a gem of a case came his way that would garner headlines throughout the world. In 1950, the grand jury charged Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, husband and wife. Throughout the trial, says Cohn, he and the trial Judge Irving Kaufman were in secret ex parte contact. Kaufman, he says, would go out on the street and use a telephone booth next to the Park Avenue Synagogue. Cohn would make the call from a booth behind the judge’s bench in the courtroom. As Cohn later wrote, the judge wanted “to ask my advice on whether he ought to give the death penalty to Ethel Rosenberg.” “The way I see it is that she’s worse than Julius,” Cohn told the judge.
The Rosenbergs died in the electric chair in New York’s Sing Sing prison on June 19, 1953, some two years after the trial. Cohn later bragged to his pal Roger Stone, a master of political dirty tricks just convicted of multiple felonies, that if he had been there, he would have pulled the switch. The death penalty was illegal in the view of many legal scholars. In 1962, Judge Henry Friendly, hailed as the greatest judge of his era, after a thorough review of the record, stated in a voting memorandum, “[W]e must admit that on direct appeal today we would reverse not only as to Ethel but almost certainly as to Julius.”
On the backs of the Rosenbergs, Cohn catapulted himself into an appointment as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy. In early 1950, McCarthy had soared to national prominence with a Lincoln Day speech in which he said: “I have here in my hand a list of 205 names made known to the Secretary of State as Communists, but who are still on the payroll.” In fact, there were only 65. The Secretary ordered further security tests. All passed.
A lesser-known feature of the McCarthy inquiry was the so-called “Lavender Scare,” a crusade against homosexuals in government. Cohn, in an act of incredible hypocrisy, joined with McCarthy to oust 425 men said to gay from the State Department. Vilifying his critics, McCarthy said to reporters: “If you want to be against McCarthy, boys, you’ve got to be either a Communist or a cocksucker.”
Cohn, a “boy wonder” of 26, became McCarthy’s chief counsel in January 1953, and was gone by the fall of 1954. He managed to shoehorn a national reputation into a time span short of two years. As McCarthy’s consigliore, Cohn mastered the art of the smear, and the value of counterattack. He used television to steal the limelight just as Trump would later do with his TV show The Apprentice. As Cohn later wrote, “people are bored; they want entertainment.” An amazing insight! Entertainment would prove to be of enormous political value, as it was for the emperor in the Roman Coliseum.
Alluding to rising crime rates in the cities, Nixon ran in 1968 on a platform that stressed “law and order,” a dog whistle promise to crack down on African–Americans convicted of crimes: “Let’s incarcerate them, put them behind a wall.”
Almost forty years later, echoes of this statement could be heard in Trump’s attempt to stoke the flames of a smouldering hatred in the populace. Calling Mexicans murderers and rapists, he fruitlessly sought to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border—even though Mexican illegal immigration is not a significant problem anymore, the refugees and asylum-seekers Trump would exclude come through Mexico from Central America, and a wall wouldn’t stop them anyway; most illegal immigrants to the United States come in on planes with false documentation or tourist visas that they overstay. Nevertheless, he wants to build a wall, and make Mexico pay for it, even advocating a moat surrounding the wall inhabited by dangerous animals.
False and outrageous statements came naturally to Trump’s paranoid style. He has uttered, according to the Washington Post, more than 13,000 lies since taking office. And his base continues to love it.
After McCarthy, Cohn returned to New York where he opened a law office in the townhouse where he lived. The townhouse was central to Cohn’s operations and, for a certain kind of New Yorker, Cohn was the man to see. Litigation or the threat of litigation was an important weapon in his arsenal. He cynically said of the legal system, “it is more important to know the judge than it is to know the law.” And, somehow, he knew, or could get to, most of the judges.
His clientele ranged from mobsters to political operator Jerry Finkelstein, to the Archdiocese of New York. He landed liquor baron Lewis Rosenstiel. He represented media baron Si Newhouse. Each year he threw himself an over-the-top birthday party, where politicians, prelates, public officials, mobsters and business people flocked to the townhouse, where the staircase was festooned with autographed photos of princes, sports stars and national figures. Comic Joey Adams, a frequent guest at the birthday party, remarked, “if you’re indicted, you’re invited.”
Years later, in 1973, Cohn became Trump’s lawyer after he met him at Le Club, a trendy New York café society hangout. Le Club was a darkened disco where elderly married men on the dance floor nuzzled young blonde women, bedizened in jewellery. The two quickly forged a strong relationship, and Cohn became Trump’s lawyer, fixer and political mentor.
Trump first hired Cohn when the federal government investigated claims of racial bias at a number of New York City apartments owned by Trump and his father. At one of Trump’s apartments, the superintendent told a white woman she could have her pick of two units shortly after a black woman had been told there were no vacancies. The Justice Department then accused Trump of violations of the Fair Housing in that Trump quoted different rental terms and conditions to blacks, and made false “no vacancy” statements to blacks for apartments. Other lawyers said, ‘You have a good case, but it’s a sticky thing,'” remembers Trump. Then he explained his predicament to Cohn, and was thrilled when Roy instantly declared, “Oh, you’ll win hands down!”
Representing Trump, Cohn was quick to counter. He launched a suit against the government lawyers for $100 million, asserting that the charges were irresponsible and baseless. The court swiftly dismissed the counterclaim. This marked a key moment in Trump’s career, as he adopted the tactic that would be a core feature of his paranoid style: counter-punching his critics when he feels attacked. As he put it: “I’d rather fight than fold, because as soon as you fold once, you get the reputation.”
Cohn represented infamous mob figures, whom he introduced to Trump. They proved useful to him with the trade unions and suppliers that constructed Trump buildings and casinos. “Fat Tony” Salerno and Paul Castellano controlled the ready-mix concrete business in New York. Trump Tower was constructed using ready-mix concrete—a costlier construction material than the steel girder construction used in most New York skyscrapers. Trump paid what a federal indictment of Salerno later concluded were inflated prices for it to S & A Concrete, a firm Salerno and Castellano owned through fronts, and possibly to other mob-controlled firms. He also bought union peace from the head of the Teamsters Union official, John Cody, said to be an associate of the Gambino family. Suffice it to say, Trump completed the project without any union problems.
Cohn was disbarred on June 24, 1986. He had been a lawyer for 40 years. The court found Cohn to have engaged in “professional misconduct”—“conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice”—in four matters over a 16-year period, which he had handled for clients. He had cheated a matrimonial client out of $100,000, convinced another client to sign a codicil on his deathbed making Cohn his executor, and engaged in other acts of skullduggery. Cohn contemptuously dismissed the Bar grievance committee as “a bunch of yoyos.” Trump testified as one of his character witnesses.
Roy Cohn died of AIDS in 1986 at age 59 a month or so after his disbarment. He had contracted the illness two years earlier. To the bitter tormented end, he denied his homosexuality and the nature of his affliction, describing it as a “liver ailment.” Trump attended the funeral, standing in the back. Cohn said he wanted to be remembered as a “patriot,” and the word became his epitaph.
Hofstadter concluded that “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.” Like McCarthy and Nixon, Cohn flew too close to the sun, and went down in flames. The jury is out on Donald Trump as his impeachment and possible removal near reality.
Will Trump become a President without a country, as Americans increasingly reject his paranoid style of politics? Roy Cohn was prescient when he said, “no public man can remain indefinitely at the centre of controversy.”