According to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James Ball, 2016 marked the dawn of the post-truth era. While sophistry and spin have been part of politics since the dawn of time, the author remarks that modern times have started a new chapter since the elevation of Donald Trump to America’s President. The origin story of this rise, however, holds the teachings of Roy Cohn: an essential character to the making of Trumpism. And Trumpism — highlights Dan Slater director of Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies tweets, is potentially “becoming America’s version of Peronism; Highly mobilizing, highly polarizing, not always in power, but never going away”.
The year is 1950 and America is going through what has been called the Second Red Scare. Heavy loads of anti-communist propaganda heightened the political setting and US Senator Joseph McCarthy delivered a speech with a detailed list of alleged members of the Communist Party working in the state department. McCarthy was blatantly transforming rumors into facts at his own will power — not worried about consequences or even without presenting the slightest piece of evidence. His claims were only possible after supported by lawyer Roy Cohn, a key piece in this setting. The term “McCarthyism” was born, and it has since been used whenever demagogic and unfunded claims are taken as truth at the cost of one’s patriotism. Well — that is, until the arrival of a certain someone.
The disposition to make a statement without the fear of its true nature (or “the beauty of well-told lie”) is imperative for the understanding of this scenario. All-American attorney Roy Cohn understood the power of having a rumor spread to the next level, and he saw no reason not to do it. Despite being disbarred in 1986 for what was consistently described as evil doing in 20th-century American politics, it took him a long time to know substantial repercussions to his practices, and he had one prominent protegé.
Amongst Roy Cohn’s defense tactics were the refusal to apologize and retract and the adaptation of facts according to the authority in charge (“I don’t care what the law is, tell me who the judge is”). If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is being overplayed by his most notorious student, Donald Trump.
After making his name through the McCarthy hearings, Roy Cohn had his legal-bludgeoning skills exploited by the rich and corrupt to get away with scandalous crimes, Cohn caught the eye of one young businessman in New York. In 1971, Trump hired the attorney and new mentor to help him pave the country with his business. Knowing how to manipulate and discard the press, the future president was only learning and observing a masterclass on what came to be his own policy later on. With the help of other masterminds, Trump has been the true bully that his mentor taught him to be. Ruthless and unapologetic, he made this “new law” more public than it never was — and with the help of technology, he seemed to have cemented the human tendency to believe in whatever they prefer to.
This navigation through the absence of real repercussions carved a hole in the North American sense of civility. With such an aggressive attack from one side of the political coin, the country had divided itself into a policy of secession, which seemed to only feed into whatever Trump’s wills were. The 2020 elections in America have ended, and as soon as he realized he might not meet his true desires this time around, accusations started to fire away. By following another one of Cohn’s signature modus operandi, Donald Trump manages to present himself as both the bully and the victim in a tweet-rant version of King Lear’s “I am a man more sinned against than sinning”.
Back in 1950, when the McCarthy hearings were televised for the grand audience, the people experienced a sober and poignant cut to a Roy Cohn attack. After the insistence on rumor-based arguments which seemed to only feed the Judge’s perception of the truth, the opposing attorney Joseph N. Welch interrupted McCarthy in a famous delivery by asking “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”. This interjection was met with applause from the jury, and the trials reportedly took another course after it. One can see the shift in today’s scenario to this one of McCarthy; to question someone’s decency after they present unsupported accusations was still see as, well, decent. It is a strategy that holds no strength or even a chance of light in today’s world politics — because Trump’s populism is a very particular one.
The Republican National Committee (GOP) — Trump’s current political platform — took about 4 days to push back against Trump’s election fraud allegations. Regardless of what this means for his future course of action, it is a considerable amount of days while entertaining claims that were unfunded. These accusations were also received with support from other potencies; political leaders in Tehran, Beijing, and even Moscow took their time to express solidarity to Trump’s claims.
“Trump has become a savior figure, a sort of great redeemer for the German far-right”, reports far-right extremist expert Miro Dittrich from the Amadeu-Antonio-Foundation in Berlin. One can say that what is in question is not the facts behind the words — but rather what the words represent.
Cover Photo illustration by: Elise Swain/ ® The Intercept, Getty Images