There are many striking commonalities in the methods of Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump. The senator from Wisconsin, who in the 1950s fascinated and repelled the media and nation with his assertions of treason by senior government servants, was a serial liar and died in sodden disgrace in 1957. His fixer was the lawyer Roy Cohn, a vicious, litigious consigliere who helped orchestrate McCarthy’s witch hunts, pursuing supposed Communist sympathizers in the State Department. This resulted in the degrading spectacle of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee hearings in 1954, which revealed him as a boor and bully to the nation.
While reported on lightly, notably by Jonathan Mahler and Matt Flegenheimer in The New York Times (June 20, 2016), Cohn was also a mentor to the young Donald Trump, who employed him as his legal hit man in New York real estate markets. This was in the 1980s, before Cohn’s death from AIDs in 1986. Peter Fraser, Cohn’s lover during the last two years of his life, told the Times: “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.” As Trump has recently implored in the face of his own indiscretions: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”
Trump found a paler version of Roy Cohn in Michael Cohen: a hapless, second-rate dealer in taxi medallions, now raised to scrutiny for promising cash-attracting “access” to multinationals including Novartis, ATT and others. It might be said that the recently revealed connivings of Michael Cohen are to Roy Cohn as the carnival-barking Trump is to the mendacious McCarthy. But old Joe, even if deeply dishonest and often drunk, was a notch or two above the president as a polemicist. To his credit, he sought fame in part by serving in the Marine Corps during World War II, unlike Trump, who didn’t serve during the Vietnam era. But there are still similarities. McCarthy’s letter of military commendation — which he claimed came from Adm. Chester Nimitz — turned out, according to his commander, to have been written by him, just as Trump dictated his own doctor’s letter in 2015.
Despite a similar MO, there is a difference that actually makes McCarthy look good. While Joe profited politically, at least until exposed as a fraud, from his charges of treason against State Department officers in league with the Soviets, Trump’s situation is the ying to McCarthy’s yang. His connivance with Cohen is one of cooperation with a former KGB officer and a host of apparatchiks and Russian oligarchs. Yet like McCarthy, Trump’s target is the State Department, and he is doing similar violence to U.S. statecraft. As Evan Osnos, writing in the May 21 New Yorker, described the situation, “the State Department is in its most diminished condition since the nineteen-fifties when McCarthy called it a hotbed of “Communists and queers and vowed to root out the prancing mimics of the Moscow party line.” While the strange and twisted plot of Trump’s own connivance with Moscow is still unfolding, the outlines are clear and only await dates and details, many of which are probably already known to Mueller and his associates.
Beginning in the mid-2000s, if not before, Trump’s financial errors necessitated major infusions of cash. He became a magnet for Russian oligarchs with the opposite problem, a surfeit of ill-gotten gains in need of laundering. Whether the oligarchs were acting alone or in concert with the Kremlin matters to charges of treason, but not to matters of finance. Trump’s dependence on these cash sources was famously stated by Donald Jr. in 2008, when he said, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross section of a lot of our assets.” In effect, the Trump organization became a conduit for oligarchic cash.
From that point forward, the pudding only thickened, as Russian money bought Trump condos in New York or mansions in Florida, heedless of price and abetted by agents such as Manafort, Gates and Cohen. These dealings extended to failed real estate deals in Moscow, Azerbaijan and elsewhere, all involving Cohen. It culminated in fulsome Russian participation in the campaign and inauguration. In 2017 and 2018, it was manifest in slow walking the Congress’ mandated sanctions against Russia.
The essential question facing the nation now is a magnified version of what it faced in the McCarthy era. As Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei wrote in Axios for May 12, 2018: “The undisputed known knowns about Trump, Russia and his associates are damning and possibly actionable. But the known unknowns of how much more Robert Mueller knows that is publicly unknown is what spooks Trump allies most. ”
Trump will soon be called to account for a multitude of misdeeds, both before the law and the public. If he is not, the idea of America is over.
Carlisle Ford Runge is a Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law, University of Minnesota. The views expressed here are those of the author.
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