Many, perhaps most, readers of this column will have no real recollection of the late Roy M. Cohn. Cohn was the disgraced and disbarred attack-dog-of-a-lawyer who served as the character-assassinator-in-chief for the infamous and disgraced Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. He also, much later, served as Donald Trump’s attorney and mentor.
The pejorative term, McCarthyism, could have just as easily been coined Cohnism or, now, Trumpism. The former President once bragged about Cohn many years ago, “I can tell you he’s been vicious to others in his protection of me.” Trump’s own derogatory references to those who oppose him are unprecedented in American presidential politics. Then again, he learned at the knee of Roy Cohn, a master of pejoratives.
Trump was among Roy Cohn’s greatest admirers, commenting that Cohn was a genius. “He’s a lousy lawyer, but he’s a genius.” Trump once said.
What made Cohn a genius in Trump’s eyes was his ability to strike dread and fear in those who dared to oppose him. “Where’s my Roy Cohn,” Trump is reported to lament when adversaries or underlings have irritated him.
Investigative reporter Wayne Barrett spent many hours over the years interviewing both Cohn and Trump. In “Trump: The Deals and the Downfall,” he wrote that Cohn began to “assume a role in Donald’s life far transcending that of a lawyer. He became Donald’s mentor, his constant adviser.”
Barrett observed, “Cohn’s stamp on Trump is obvious. I just look at him and see Roy. Both of them are attack dogs.” Roy Cohn, who publicly expressed contempt for homosexuals, died nearly 40 years ago of AIDS.
Cohn is quoted in a Vanity Fair Article in 2017 as having once claimed that Donald Trump called him 15 or 20 times a day to check on the status “of this or that.”
Cohnism is alive and well in the Trump-controlled Republican Party. Just as prospective litigants dreaded the firestorm of public abuse and spurious countersuits they would face when Roy Cohn was an opposing litigant, so have Republican politicians dreaded having to contend with an angry Donald Trump.
His invective or opposition makes a Republican office seeker like Sisyphus pushing a bolder up a steep hill. It’s just easier to agree that Trump won the last election and that Biden has become President through a rigged election.
Roy Cohn once bragged, “My scare value is high. My arena is controversy. My tough front is my biggest asset.” Sound familiar?
“You knew when you were in Cohn’s presence you were in the presence of pure evil,” said prominent first-amendment attorney Victor A. Kovner, who had known him for years. Cohn could wield power simply because he could intimidate potential adversaries with spurious threats and groundless lawsuits. His demand of those he represented or befriended was said to be, simply, ironclad loyalty.
Like Cohn, Donald Trump’s most potent weapon has been the fear he induces. That is, after all, the greatest lesson Trump gleaned from his years of fawning over Roy Cohn.
Trump learned from Cohn how to exploit power and instill fear. It was a simple strategy: attack, counterattack, and never apologize.
“The country has moved on from January 6th,” someone is sure to comment whenever I reference the failed coup engineered by the Trump-Bannon-Stone troika. That is precisely why it is so important to write about that dreadful day whenever new information comes to light regarding the failed coup. Often overlooked in all of the coverage of that day, and endless other days of Trumpian arrogance, is the outsized influence that Roy M. Cohn exerted on the life and behavior of Donald Trump.
Trump’s insistence that he won the election and that it had been stolen had nothing to do with the election results. However, it had everything to do with lessons learned from Roy Cohn, his mentor; attack, counterattack, and never apologize.
“Roy was a master of situational immorality. He worked with a three-dimensional strategy: 1. Never settle, never surrender. 2. Counterattack, counter-sue immediately. 3. No matter what happens or how deep into the muck you get, claim victory and never admit defeat.” As columnist Liz Smith once observed, “Donald lost his moral compass when he made an alliance with Roy Cohn.”
Fear of his wrath. Fear of his ridicule. Fear of Trump is why nearly 300 election deniers are on the ballot in the mid-term elections in less than a month. Most of them are election deniers because that was the price they had to pay to secure Donald Trump’s endorsement. That was the only price they had to pay. It is the tactic the former President has waged to keep a vast cadre of Republican officeholders and office seekers in line. Their dread of being consigned to electoral purgatory in any Republican primary by the former President has been palpable across the American political landscape.
Loyalty to Trump; that was the ticket to his endorsement. That was the total price of admission to Team Trump. Indeed, experience or qualifications didn’t matter. For that matter, being a resident of the state in which you were running didn’t really matter either. Just declare that Biden stole the 2020 election. That’s what matters. It is all that matters.
This is dangerous stuff. Clearly, the Trump plan to steal the election was concocted months before the election. Those most involved with the planned election theft stated to their followers months before the election that the grift would be for Trump to declare victory regardless of whether he was winning or losing. The objective? To create enough chaos to get congress to remand the election in several states back to Republican-controlled legislatures.
“Just declare (without a shred of evidence) that the election was corrupt, and leave the rest to me and the Republicans,” Trump demanded of Justice Department officials.
Chaos was the strategy. The appeals of Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, and Peter Navarro, three high-profile Trump acolytes, along with the breathtakingly overt and desperate behavior of the former President himself, demonstrate a crude, chaotic, violent, and clumsily executed plan.
Some have commented to me, critically, that the country has moved on from January 6th and that I should as well. Not a chance, at least not while there are those who have moved on from January 6th.
Moving on from Trump’s tactical plan to falsely declare victory and unleash the calculated chaos that he and his lieutenants had carefully plotted would signal the end of our American constitutional democracy. Had they succeeded, or should they succeed next time, American democracy as we know it, and as the founders intended it would be done. Trumpism and Cohnism would have won the day, and the country as well.