Paranoid politics did not start with Donald Trump, and sadly, it will not end with him either. In a seminal piece on political paranoia, published in the November 1964 issue of Harper’s, Pulitzer Prize winning historian Richard Hofstadter noted that the paranoid style has been around long before the alt-right discovered it — its targets in American political history have included immigrants, Catholics, international bankers, Masons, Jesuits, abortionists, the press, munitions makers, and most anyone else worthy of scapegoating. The term is intentionally pejorative as paranoia has “a greater affinity,” Hofstadter argued, “for bad causes than for good.”
Immigration has long been a salient feature of paranoid politics. Hofstadter wrote about Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote in his 1835 Plea for the West that “A great tide of immigration, hostile to free institutions, was sweeping in upon the country, subsidized and sent by ‘the potentates of Europe,’ multiplying tumult and violence, filling jails, crowding poorhouses, quadrupling taxation, and sending increasing thousands of voters to ‘lay their inexperienced hand upon the helm of our power.’”
By “paranoid” I don’t mean to suggest that Trump, is a certifiable lunatic. This would be beyond my expertise. I would only argue that his political approach of demonizing his enemies; fabricating claims out of whole cloth; relying on conspiracy theories; expressing suspicion that others are out to get him, including the intelligence agencies, the FBI, Obama (with unsupported allegations of wiretapping), and the media; pandering to anger and fear in the populace; gross exaggeration, and distortion; xenophobia, racism, and let’s not forget misogyny, resonates with a paranoid style sadly seen all too often in American history.
In modern times, besides Trump, leading exponents of the paranoid model have been Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon. All these men did political battle in a paranoid style. And connecting the dots between these complicated men was a corrupt lawyer named Roy Marcus Cohn, who never held elective office, but was close to all of them.
The grand jury brought three separate indictments against Cohn in the Southern District of New York for crimes ranging from conspiracy to mail fraud, bribery to securities fraud and extortion to obstruction of justice. Cohn launched a vicious counter attack against the motives of his accusers; Prosecutor Robert M. Morgenthau, he claimed, was engaging in payback because McCarthy alleged Morgenthau’s father, as FDR’s Treasury Secretary, had helped the Soviets manipulate the currency in Berlin. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, he said, held a grudge against him from McCarthy days because Cohn edged Kennedy out to become McCarthy’s chief counsel. (I worked for Morgenthau as an Assistant United States Attorney.)
None of these men had hard and fast policy objectives. When Trump breached the barriers of political correctness and the Constitution to preach criminalizing abortion, mass deportation of immigrants, or barring Muslims from the country, these views were hardly born of a sincerely nurtured ideology. Fear-mongering techniques such as anti-intellectualism, communist witch hunts, racism, sexism and the suggestion of anti-Semitism, xenophobic building of walls to keep out foreigners and refugees are all paranoid ideation that go down well in the populist “alt-right” culture.
Cohn parlayed his reputation as the prosecutor in the Rosenberg atomic spy case, into appointment as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy. In January, 1950, McCarthy had soared to national prominence with his infamously bogus claim: “I have here in my hand a list of 205 names made known to the Secretary of State as Communists, but who are still on the payroll.” In fact, there were only 65. Of these, the Secretary ordered further security tests. All passed.
As McCarthy’s consigliere, Cohn mastered the art of the smear, the lie, and the counterattack. Cohn, a willing handmaiden, sat at McCarthy’s side at the nationally televised Senate hearings. He rocketed to national prominence just as Trump did with The Apprentice. As Cohn later wrote, “people are bored; they want entertainment.” Entertainment would prove to be the vehicle for both men to achieve political power.
Cohn and Trump first met at Le Club, a trendy New York café society hangout on East 55th Street. The two quickly became joined at the hip, and Cohn became Trump’s lawyer. A journalist told me that in 1984, the first time she interviewed Trump at the 21 Club, Cohn was there.
Also among Cohn’s clients were Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, owners of Studio 54, a watering hole for the international glitterati, where recreational drugs were plentiful, sex happened in the men’s room, and half-naked busboys cleaned up the remains of the evening. Studio 54 attracted city leaders, Hollywood stars and a pot pourri of straight, gay and bisexual revelers. Trump remembered going to the nightclub and seeing a couple “getting screwed” on a sofa.
Trump first hired Cohn in 1973 when the federal government investigated claims of racial bias involving Trump apartment buildings. At Trump’s Shore Haven apartments in New York City, the superintendent told a white woman she could have her pick of two units shortly after a black woman had been told there were no vacancies. The Justice Department then accused Trump of violations of the Fair Housing Act. Trump remembered that other lawyers told him, “You have a good case, but it’s a sticky thing.” Then, he explained his predicament to Cohn, and was thrilled when Roy instantly declared, “Oh, you’ll win hands down!” Cohn was quick to counter. He launched a suit against the government lawyers who had brought the case for $180 million, asserting that the charges were irresponsible and baseless. The court dismissed the lawsuit. Trump and Cohn settled the government’s original discrimination suit out of court in 1975 without admitting guilt. This marked a key moment in Trump’s career, as he became schooled in the tactic that would be a core feature of his political approach: hitting his critics back hard when he feels attacked. When Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions over Sessions’ ties to the Russians, Trump published an old picture of Schumer eating doughnuts with Vladimir Putin, and charged Schumer with “hypocrisy.”
Both Cohn and Trump abhorred paying taxes. In How to Stand Up for Your Rights—and Win! Cohn devoted an entire chapter to tax avoidance. He wrote: “More so than any other institution in these free and United States, the IRS smacks of a police state with police state methods. All this procedure must be viewed in the context of where tax money goes…welfare recipients…unemployment compensation…bloated bureaucrats…political hacks, and to foreign aid, where big money is ritualistically poured into countries that hate our guts….All of this provides an incentive not to overpay taxes….”
Trump learned at the feet of the master, reporting almost a billion dollars of questionable losses, which he could use to shelter substantial taxable income over a ten-year period. Giving the spurious excuse that his returns were under audit, he stubbornly refused to release them lest the returns disclose the extent of his tax avoidance schemes, and his rumored dealings with Russia.
On June 24, 1986, Cohn was disbarred for defrauding clients and others. Six weeks later he died of AIDS. Resonating with Trump’s reaction to criticism, Cohn dismissed the Bar grievance committee as “a bunch of yoyos.” Trump remained friends with Cohn. He had testified as a character witness for Cohn in the disbarment proceeding. He attended Roy Cohn’s funeral.
Hofstadter wrote that: “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.” With their paranoid political styles, McCarthy, Cohn, and Nixon, like Daedalus, flew too close to the sun, and went down in flames doubly afflicted. The jury is out on Donald Trump as it ponders the verdict of history.
Jim Zirin is author of two best-selling books, the latest of which is Supremely Partisan-How Raw Politics Tips the Scales in the United States Supreme Court. He is working on a book about paranoid style politics.