By Elisabeth Hellenbroich
The well- known American writer George Packer from the magazine The Atlantic (he wrote several books, among them Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century as well as An Inner History of the New America) published August 28th an insightful essay in The Atlantic: This is how Biden is losing. Packer expressed his deep concern which is not only shared by attentive political observers in the US, but also by political observers and analysts in Europe, concerning the upcoming November presidential elections. In the article Packer stated that “if Donald Trump wins, in a trustworthy vote, what’s happening this week in Kenosha, Wisconsin, will be one reason. May be the reason…. And yet Joe Biden has it in his power to spare the country a second Trump term.” Packer recalled the dramatic events during this summer in the US: the death of George Floyd “who was crushed to death by depraved indifference,” while Jacob Baker (who was shot by the police in his back) became object of an “attempted execution.”
According to Packer events in Kenosha are characterized by an explosion of rage, “the same rage that has been ignited around the country all summer long… What starts in Kenosha as peaceful protests soon leads to violence: cars burned, shops smashed, local business destroyed. Police and rioters incite one another to escalate; armed vigilantes take matters into their own hands. (…) Within a couple of days, much of the small city is a ruined land scape,” Packer comments. During the republican convention, the “mayhem in Kenosha seemed like part of the script, as it played into their main theme: that Joe Biden is a tool of radical leftists who hate America, who want to bring chaos of the cities they govern out to the suburbs where the real Americans live. The Republicans won’t let such opportunity go waste. …Trump will bang this loud, ugly drum until Election Day. He knows that Kenosha has placed democrats in a trap. They have embraced the protests and the causes that drive them.”
Even if Biden and his vice candidate Senator Kamala Harris released statements expressing outrage and opposing the burning down of communities and needless destruction, Packer warned that according to the summer polls Biden has lost some “of the support he gained among older White Americans in the first months of the coronavirus pandemic.” He urges that Biden step forward and takes the chance to address the issue of violence as well as give a unifying speech. Trump is temperamentally incapable of doing so and, in fact, “has a political interest in America’s open wounds and burning Cities…Biden should speak for justice and for safety, for reform and against riots, for the crying need to bring the country together.” If he says these things …we might not have to live with four more years of Trump.”
Embodiment of Mafia style in American politics
A year ago – on October 3rd, 2019 – which coincided with the presentation of the documentary film Where’s My Roy Cohn? Packer published in The Atlantic an article entitled The Mafia Style in American Politics with the subtitle: Roy Cohn connects the McCarthy era to the age of Trump across more than half a century. The article gave a comprehensive profile of Donald Trump and his mentor Roy Cohn and essentially concluded that US politics is run by a Mafia style presidency, a president who uses all dirty tricks in order to keep in power, while he splits the country and causes chaos. Packer made reference to the portray given in the film about Roy Cohn– a man, “whose 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.”
According to Packer Roy Cohn’s life – known as the former infamous New York City Mafia lawyer – connects the McCarthy era to the age of Trump across more than half a century. McCarthy hired in the beginning 50ies Cohn as chief counsel to his Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and made him infamous as a Communist hunter. Cohn in turn mentored Roger Stone, a “spin doctor” and former political advisor to Trump, who in the beginning of this year got sentenced by the US district Court of Columbia to several years of prison for giving false testimony in February 2020 ( in June 2020 he was pardoned by Trump.) Cohn and Trump met at a New York night club in 1973, when Trump was in his mid -20ies and the Trump organization was being sued by the federal government for “racist” housing practices.
As Packer wrote: “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 telling us, ‘Give up, do this, sign a decree and all of that’. I’ve followed your career and you seem- you’re little bit crazy like I am, and you stand up to the establishment. Can I come see you?” Trump at that time became Cohn’s client and protégé. They won the Trump housing case, “by counterattacking, raising phony charges, admitting no wrong.” Trump paid careful attention. ‘”Roy would always be for an offensive strategy,” Roger Stone is also quoted saying in the film. “These were the rules of war. You don’t fight in the other guy’s ground; you define what the debate is going to be about. I think Trump would learn 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, 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,” Packer wrote.
According to Packer, “Cohn and Trump embody the Mafia style in American politics. …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 never pinned on him. As Packer put it, “there is a soft spot in American life for this type (… ) Americans have never lost and will never lose a war, because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.” Two people interviewed in the film describe Cohn as “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.
Roy Cohn and McCarthy
Packer underlined that “whenever the Mafia style seems about to die, it turns out to be unkillable. McCarthy met his fate in 1954, when he took 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 Welsh finally said: ‘Let us not assassinate this further, Senator, You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?’
It was this infamous televised hearing which flipped public opinion on McCarthy. At the end of the year McCarthy was censored by his colleagues – for abusing and dishonoring the Senate. Three years later McCarthy had died.
Cohn however 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- among them Rupert Murdoch, the Mafia bosses and Trump,Packer reported. Everyone knew that Cohn was a crook, but no prosecutor could put him away. 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. He was loyal which Trump wasn’t. Cohn talked about his protégé’s future: “Donald Trump is probably one of the most important name sin America today,” he told 1984 an interviewer, after clearing the way for Trump to build his fifth Avenue Trump 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,” he stated then.
In 2017 when FBI Director James Comey refused to make Russia investigation go away and Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself, Trump reportedly demanded, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” He was crying for a fixer who would do anything to save him. One reason why Trump needs Roy Cohn is that he can’t be his own. Cohn was smarter, more in control of his impulses and insecurities.” Packer called Trumps presidency a “Mafia presidency” and concluded: “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.”
On June 18th this year The Atlantic published an article by Sophie Gilbert who announced a new documentary to be aired about Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn: “HBO’s Roy Cohn documentary is a lesson for Trump.” The author Gilbert announced the new film as one that “explores the path of the president’s mentor from relentless aggressor to unwilling victim.” She reported about an AIDS memorial Quilt at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Amid the thousands of panels was one dedicated to the Lawyer Roy Cohn and underneath Roy Cohn’s name which was inscribed in plain black letter and enclosed inside a tight rectangular frame, were three words: BULLY, COWARD, VICTIM.”
By Elisabeth Hellenbroich