The Mafia Style in American Politics

Roy Cohn connects the McCarthy era to the age of Trump across more than half a century.

A black and white photo of Donald Trump sitting in front of microphones next to Roy Cohn.
Bettmann / Getty

In the new documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn? nothing is more mesmerizing and disturbing than Cohn’s eyes: flat and hooded; rare flickers of charm, but void of emotion by default; darkly staring down his prey in TV footage from the ’50s; washed-out blue and shifting away when asked whether he is gay and dying of AIDS in the ’80s. Cohn once included among his flaws “a total failure to sympathize with the emotional element in life.” The eyes turn his face—especially after the skin has been pulled taut by cosmetic surgery—into a living death mask. And throughout the film, these lifeless eyes keep appearing in other guises, other faces: the puffy, drowning drunk’s eyes of Joe McCarthy; the close-set reptilian stare of Roger Stone; the tight, appraising eyes of Donald Trump.

Cohn’s life connects the McCarthy era to the age of Trump across more than half a century—a dark thread in American politics. Cohn was trained as a lawyer, but he was a fixer by trade. McCarthy hired him as chief counsel to his Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and made him infamous as a Communist hunter. Cohn in turn mentored Stone, who got his start as a Nixon dirty trickster and later introduced Cohn to Ronald Reagan, whom Cohn introduced to Rupert Murdoch. Cohn and Trump met at a New York nightclub in 1973, when Trump was in his mid-20s and the Trump Organization was being sued by the federal government for racist housing practices. Trump recognized a man after his own self-image: a ruthless player who knew how to win. In the film, Cohn remembers Trump saying, “I’ve spent two days with these establishment law firms, and they’re all telling us, ‘Give up, do this, sign a decree and all of that.’ I’ve followed your career and you seem—you’re a little bit crazy like I am, and you stand up to the establishment. Can I come see you?”

Trump became Cohn’s client and protégé. They won the case by not losing—by counterattacking, raising phony charges, admitting no wrong. Trump paid careful attention. “Roy would always be for an offensive strategy,” Stone says in the film. “These were the rules of war. You don’t fight on the other guy’s ground; you define what the debate is going to be about. I think Trump would learn that from Roy. I learned that from Roy.”

In 1953, Harry Truman described McCarthyism as “the corruption of truth, the abandonment of our historical devotion to fair play. It is the abandonment of due process of law. It is the use of the big lie and the unbounded accusation against any citizen in the name of Americanism and security. It is the rise to power of the demagogue who lives on untruth. It is the spread of fear and the destruction of faith in every level of our society.” But even this accurate list of brutal tactics and crushing effects doesn’t quite convey the malevolent quality that hovers over the story of Roy Cohn.

Cohn and Trump embody the Mafia style in American politics. I don’t mean the Sopranos; I mean the cold will to power that carries a threat of murder without shame. (Cohn was accused of being responsible for the death by fire of a crewman on his yacht in an insurance plot; like so many other charges, this one was never pinned on him.) There’s a soft spot in American life for this type. He’s admired in mob movies, in war movies (George C. Scott as General George S. Patton: “Americans have never lost and will never lose a war, because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans”), in sports (Al Davis, the owner of the Oakland Raiders: “Just win, baby”), in entertainment (Jay-Z: “I never prayed to God, I prayed to Gotti / That’s right, it’s wicked, that’s life, I live it / Ain’t asking for forgiveness for my sins”).Two people interviewed in Where’s My Roy Cohn? describe Cohn with the word “evil.” The film shows the Mafia style as it recurs in modern American politics—a kind of metaphysical spirit that inhabits different characters at different times, always identifiable by the dead eyes.

Whenever the Mafia style seems about to die, it turns out to be unkillable. McCarthy met his fate in 1954, when he took on the United States Army in hearings watched by 20 million Americans. The public was new to television and hadn’t seen the Republican senator’s tactics before—the bullying, the lies and smears. When McCarthy went after a young lawyer who’d been on the staff of the Army counsel, he didn’t see the trap that was about to spring. Joseph Welch, the Army’s special counsel, who had hired the young lawyer and was distressed to hear him needlessly maligned, interrupted: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or recklessness.” Cohn saw the danger; he shook his head and motioned for McCarthy to stop, but McCarthy kept pressing, until Welch finally said, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

The televised hearings flipped public opinion on McCarthy. The Senate quickly found its courage. At the end of the year, with Republicans leading the way, McCarthy was censured by his colleagues—for abusing and dishonoring the Senate, not for disgracing democracy and destroying lives. Three years later McCarthy was dead, but Cohn somehow escaped and turned his dark reputation to advantage as a ferocious New York lawyer willing to walk up to the edge of the law and then cross it for his clients—the Catholic Church, George Steinbrenner, nightclub owners, mob bosses, Murdoch, and Trump. Everyone knew that Cohn was a crook, but no prosecutor could put him away. His untouchability became part of his mystique, a magnet that drew celebrities as friends. Finally, in 1986, a panel of lawyers disbarred him for defrauding his clients—the equivalent of the Senate’s censure of McCarthy. As with McCarthy, Cohn’s public fall hastened his physical demise, and he died a few weeks later, all but abandoned, denying to the very last that he was a gay man with AIDS.

His one redeeming feature was loyalty. Trump, lacking even this virtue, had already dropped Cohn by the end. Cohn, for his part, had imagined his protégé’s future. “Donald Trump is probably one of the most important names in America today,” Cohn told an interviewer in 1984, after clearing the way for Trump to build his Fifth Avenue tower. “What started off as a meteor mounting from New York and going upward is going to touch this country and parts of the world. Donald just wants to be the biggest winner of all.”

In 2017, when FBI Director James Comey refused to make the Russia investigation go away and Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself, Trump reportedly demanded, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” He was crying out for a fixer who would do anything to save him. One reason Trump needs a Roy Cohn is that he can’t be his own. Cohn was smarter, more in control of his impulses and insecurities. It’s hard to imagine Cohn creating and then releasing a record like that of Trump’s dealings with the president of Ukraine.

Until last week, Trump seemed as untouchable as his brazen mentor. No one knows whether the words “I would like you to do us a favor” will mark the beginning of the end of the Mafia presidency, the way “Have you left no sense of decency?” destroyed McCarthy. Many things that once kept Mafia politics in check pose no threat to Trump. TV is his ally, public opinion is entrenched, moral authority has lost its sway, and facts themselves are always on the verge of disappearing. The malevolent spirit of Roy Cohn has taken over an entire party, powerful elements of the press, and a good part of the public. Anyone prepared to win at all costs always seems invincible, until he loses.