On NPR's This Week in Politics yesterday, we heard playwright Tony Kushner talk from London with NPR's David Furst about the link between Roy Cohn and Donald Trump.
Probably I haven't been paying close enough attention — and goodness knows, I've tried my hardest to pay as little attention as possible to this whole election thing — but in all my years of forced Trump-watching, I've managed to miss the link between the Billion-Dollar Loser and his (and his dear old dad's) onetime lawyer, Roy Cohn. But as soon as you think of that rabid legal attack dog imparting his, er, wisdom, to the Younger Donald, and something sure clicks. And especially now that we see the older and scummier Donald as a full-time politician. (I see now that in June the Washington Post's Robert O'Harrow and Shawn Boburg took an extensive look into the Donald-and-Roy connection in a piece headlined “The man who showed Donald Trump how to exploit power and instill fear.”)
And when you think about Roy Cohn, who in the land of the living would you be most likely to think of next? If you said playwright Tony Kushner, who made the dying-of-AIDS Roy Cohn a major character in his epic play Angels in America, then you're thinking in the same groove as NPR's This Week in Politics, which yesterday shared a phone interview that David Furst did with Kushner from London. Here's how the Cohn-Trump and Cohn-Kushner connections are established on WNYC's program page for This Week in Politics:
In just about any introduction for Roy Cohn, you find the word 'infamous' within the first sentence or two. He was chief counsel to Joseph McCarthy during the senator's Communist witch hunt of the 1950s. Instrumental in the trial that led to Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg’s executions. Attorney to mafia bosses. Eventually disbarred for misconduct in 1986.
And in the 1970s and 80s, he was Donald trump's lawyer. Many say, his mentor.
Roy Cohn appears as one of the characters in Angels in America, Tony Kushner's award-winning play and miniseries about New York during the worst years of the AIDS epidemic.
This week, playwright Tony Kushner joins host David Furst to talk about Cohn, Trump and the 2016 race. Kushner is in London, where he's working on his new show, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.
Now Kushner isn't exactly a fan of Roy Cohn, but he feels a connection to him and his story, which is how he came to put Cohn in Angels in America. At the time of Cohn's death, a closeted gay man felled by AIDS, Kushner was uncomfortable with the homophobic glee in the response of some of Cohn's longtime enemies, and thought the story at least called for some looking into.
Kushner specifies in the interview that he has to be careful to distinguish the real Roy Cohn from the character he created in the play, but he carefully notes that he devoured every source he could find on the subject, and in the interview he surprises David Kurtz at the outset by saying that no, he doesn't see a copy of Roy Cohn in Donald Trump.
“IT SEEMS WEIRD TO SAY THIS, BUT I
THINK MAYBE ROY WAS A FINER PERSON”
What? He thinks Donald Trump doesn't measure up to the likes of Roy Cohn?
I felt, in reading about him, and I read everything I could get my hands on, that there was something coherent in his core, that he was — for all of his maliciousness and his ruthlessness and his destructiveness, in the case of the Rosenbergs' execution (he frequently bragged about forcing the judge to send Ethel Rosenberg to death; his malevolence crossed over into judicial murder) — so he's a very bad person.
But one thing that impressed me was that from the day McCarthy drank himself to death to the day Roy Cohn died, he never abandoned the memory of Joe McCarthy. He defended it; he defended what McCarthy had done; he defended McCarthy himself, as a wonderful person. In reading what Roy wrote about him, and he wrote a lot about him, it seemed to me that this was somebody who actually was capable of loving someone else, and maintaining that love, even when it became very unfashionable to do so.
Which speaks to a kind of character consistency in Roy that I see no evidence of whatsoever in Donald Trump, who seems to me to be a profoundly disloyal person who's so entirely interested in himself to the exclusion of all else, who lives in a world of delusion that's entirely created by his titanic, monstrous narcissism, that loyalty to other people, which requires a kind of object constancy, is completely out of the question.
So he seems to me really nothing like Roy in that sense. It seems weird to say this, but I think Roy was maybe a finer person than Donald Trump.
KUSHNER RECOGNIZES TRUMP-STYLE POLITICAL
TACTICS AS “THE QUINTESSENCE OF McCARTHYISM”
This photo was one of those used to accompany an extensive piece that Trump biographer David Cay Johnston wrote for London's Daily Mail in July, “How Trump made the Mob an offer they could not refuse: He might have made a killing building his first skyscraper, but Donald's shrewdest investment was in the MAFIA.”
Which is not to say that Kushner doesn't see the Cohn-McCarthy legacy in Trump. Asked about such things as Trump's practice of systematic character assassination of his opponents and his “relentless conspiracy theories,” Kushner says, “It makes complete sense that he learned lessons from Roy, who learned lessons from McCarthy, or McCarthy learned lessons from Roy, or the two of them together cooked up this style.”
Then Kushner listens to a pair of audio clips: first, McCarthy raving about “Communist infiltration of the CIA” and our nuclear program and God knows what else; then Trump saying, “She's guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run. And just in that respect I say it's rigged.”
And Kushner pronounces this “the quintessence of McCarthyism.”
And it has been horrifying but kind of fascinating to watch it happen in real time as opposed to reading about it in the history books. If you say an enormous lie, that you yourself know is a lie, and you just repeat it over and over again, and don't bother to answer any questions about it, and never get yourself in a situation where you're going to have to answer the questions — I mean, that's where McCarthy made his big misstep, taking on the U.S. armed forces, so soon after World War II, and calling them an organization full of traitors –
and, of course, precipitating the televised hearings that unmasked McCarthy in front of the whole country. This lesson Trump seems to have learned quite well, Kushner suggests, noting that he's “pretty good at avoiding” answering awkward questions.
Mostly he never has to really explain anything, or reconcile any contradictions, and he just repeats whatever lie has popped into his head over and over again, leaving us to simply wonder, “Does he know he's lying now?” And whether the con artist believes his own con is a kind of a mesmerizing question. It's just unfortunately not the question we should be obsessed with in a presidential election.
“No, AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer,” says Al Pacino as Roy Cohn in response to the diagnosis his doctor (James Cromwell) is trying to deliver, in Mike Nichols's HBO production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America.
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis