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?”