“Study the late Joseph McCarthy,” President Donald Trump said Sunday on Twitter. And he’s right. It’s important.
But casting special counsel Robert Mueller as McCarthy, the red-baiting United States senator from Wisconsin who in the 1950s earned lasting disgrace for his public shaming of supposed Communists, made for the latest and maybe the most outrageous example of Trump’s frequent tactic of attempting to use a weakness of his own as a weapon against an opponent. And given Trump’s tenuous grip on history, not to mention his close, critical connection with McCarthy’s foremost henchman, this instance of his transparent table-turning amounted to an awkward, unwitting exercise in self-portraiture. The tweet was far more a mirror on Trump than an indictment of Mueller.
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McCarthy, after all, was “an essentially destructive force,” according to biographer Richard H. Rovere. He was “a chronic opportunist.” He was “a political speculator.” He was “a Republican who had started as a Democrat.” He was “a fertile innovator, a first-rate organizer and galvanizer of mobs, a skilled manipulator of public opinion, and something like a genius at that essential American strategy: publicity.” He was “a vulgarian.” He was “a man with an almost aesthetic preference for untruth.” He “faked it all and could not understand anyone who didn’t.” He “made sages of screwballs and accused wise men of being fools.” He was “the first American ever to be actively hated and feared by foreigners in large numbers.” He “favored the third person.”
He was “a great sophisticate in human relationships, as every demagogue must be. He knew a good deal about people’s fears and anxieties, and he was a superb juggler of them. But he was himself numb to the sensation he produced in others. He could not comprehend true outrage, true indignation, true anything,” Rovere wrote.
“If he was anything at all in the realm of ideas, principles, doctrines, he was a species of nihilist,” he said.
“The haters rallied around him.”
He was reelected in 1952, and even toward the end, at the start of 1954, “when the record was pretty well all in and the worst as well as the best was known,” Gallup polling showed that half of Americans had a “favorable opinion.”
“Looking at you, Senator McCarthy,” said Joseph L. Welch, the Army’s counsel in the Army-McCarthy hearings that summer, tasked in part with defending that branch of the military in the wake of McCarthy’s efforts to out alleged Communists, “you have, I think, sir, something of a genius for creating confusion—creating a turmoil in the hearts and minds of the country.”
But he had shown, Rovere wrote, “that there could be a national demagogue.” And he failed “not because he had suffered wounds of a kind no demagogue could survive, but because he had suffered wounds that a particular demagogue named Joseph R. McCarthy could not survive.”
He died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1957, at 48, and his name already had become a byword, “McCarthyism,” for smear campaigns, malicious and unfounded.
McCarthy, James Wechsler wrote that year in the New York Post, was a “creature of a time of national frenzy and frustration.”
He “came at a time when the society faced new and terrible inner fears,” David Halberstam echoed in The Powers That Be, “and those fears were no longer dormant.” And McCarthy, he pointed out in The Fifties, did not do what he did on his own. “The Republican reactionaries had been arriving in Washington for some time …” Of McCarthy, Halberstam concluded: “If nothing else, he had illuminated the timidity of his fellow man.”
McCarthy, though, never would have become McCarthy, never could have become McCarthy, many who have studied him have suggested, without one man in particular, the one seated by his side, whispering in his ear. Roy Cohn, the chief counsel for the McCarthy-chaired Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, was smart and cynical and self-centered and self-hating and self-serving. He was “intense” and “abrasive,” wrote David M. Oshinsky in A Conspiracy So Immense. He was “short-tempered” and “sullen” and “brutal in speech,” in the words of Rovere. He was barely 25, “a waxen beardless prodigy,” said author Burton Hersh, “with slicked-back onyx hair, sleepy eyes, a deep, intimidating longitudinal scar on his formidable nose, and virtually no chin.” He was McCarthy’s “youthful Svengali,” said Fred J. Cook in his book called The Nightmare Decade, the “subcommittee’s real brain,” in the assessment of TIME, “the precocious, brilliant, arrogant young man …”
Cohn was a pallbearer for McCarthy. And he wrote a book about him. It came out in 1968. He acknowledged McCarthy had had his faults. He was “impatient, overly aggressive, overly dramatic,” Cohn described. “He acted on impulse. He tended to sensationalize the evidence he had …” He “would neglect to do important homework.” He had an “inattention to detail.” Even so, Cohn said, he was “gifted with a sense of political timing.” And “on balance,” Cohn noted, “his sense of what made drama and headlines was uncommonly good.” He was, he thought, “the first important public figure to touch an exquisitely sensitive nerve in the thought leaders of our society. This small but immensely powerful group of intellectuals …”
Cohn recounted toward the end of the book something McCarthy had told him toward the end of his life. “I felt like a coward at the censure hearings,” the senator had said. “I had to sit there and take it. They back you into a corner and you have to do one of two things. You jump off a roof or you try to stand up like a man to fight your way out. I lost without fighting.” And Cohn, judging by the way he lived the rest of his life, decided he would never let that happen to him. He would not give in. He would not back down. He would not admit wrongs or regrets. He would attack when attacked, and he would never, ever stop.
Some of McCarthy’s closest friends, according to Arthur Herman in his book on McCarthy, came to believe “that Cohn had been Iago to McCarthy’s Othello.” And Cohn was, in the end, as attorney Arthur Liman put it in his memoirs, “shrewder and considerably meaner than his boss. McCarthy may have had a bully’s instinct for weakness and fear in others, and a con man’s instincts for improvisation and publicity, but he was a lazy demagogue. Cohn did the work. Both of them loved publicity, but Cohn loved the hunt for its own sake.”
Cohn met Trump in the early ‘70s—and quickly became the most important person in his life. There are other pivotal, enduring influences, of course. His father. His mother. Mischievous political strategist and Richard Nixon devotee Roger Stone. But there is only one Roy Cohn. From Cohn’s combative representation of Trump and his father when the Department of Justice sued them in 1973 for racial bias in the rentals of their outer-borough apartments … to Trump’s tax-abatement-abetted, career-launching conversion of the Commodore Hotel into the Grand Hyatt by Grand Central Station … to the name-making project of Trump Tower and the additional public subsidies it got through appeals … to the countless introductions to New York City’s somebodies … Trump simply could not have done what he did without the connections and machinations of Cohn. He was a peerless fixer who had plucked from the playbook of McCarthy to add to his own talents and vacuities to create a unique dark-arts persona, the single degree of separation, the sole, taut line, between one of America’s most reprehensible politicians and its 45th president.
Cohn never stopped talking about McCarthy.
He never stopped touting him.
“He knew he had power, because he could engender fear in his opponents,” Cohn said in an interview with Penthouse in 1981.
“I think up and down Middle America, when you get away from the hotbeds of liberalism like New York and Washington, I find Senator McCarthy is held in very high esteem,” he said to a reporter from the Associated Press in 1983.
“I never worked for a better man or a greater cause. … he sizzled up the American landscape like nobody before and nobody since,” Cohn said in his autobiography, which came out in 1988, two years after he died from AIDS, the result of the decadent homosexual lifestyle he denied to the end, and a year after his avid protégé gave his first political speech and released The Art of the Deal, and nearly three decades before 62,984,825 people in this country voted the way that they did, putting into the Oval Office a president who on Sunday on Twitter railed yet again about a “Rigged Witch Hunt” and said Mueller “and his gang” “make Joseph McCarthy look like a baby,” trying to tar the special counsel with the disrepute of a man his most trusted advisor learned from and admired.