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Commentary

The many similarities between Trump and McCarthy

Jack Lessenberry

For years, one of the nation’s most sinister figures was Roy Cohn, best known as the young chief counsel to Senator Joe McCarthy’s crusade to expose Communists in government.

McCarthy and Cohn never uncovered a single Communist agent, though they ruined lives and careers and greatly worsened the climate of suspicion and fear called the Red Scare.

Eventually, thanks in part to the pioneering broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, the true nature of McCarthy and McCarthyism was exposed to the nation. Eventually, when Cohn pushed McCarthy to take on the U.S. Army, the Senate decided it had enough.

Late in 1954, they censured McCarthy and took his power away, and within two and a half years, he had drunk himself to death.

But Roy Cohn’s career was just starting. He was still in his 20s when he became famous, and after McCarthy’s fall he left government and went into private practice in New York City.

His client list included many prominent Mafia figures, George Steinbrenner, and oddly the Roman Catholic Archdiocese.

Cohn was frequently charged with professional malpractice, and was disbarred for “particularly reprehensible conduct” shortly before his death from AIDS, a condition he had tried to conceal.

That was 30 years ago, and Cohn had since become mostly a distasteful memory. That is, until a blockbuster story in the New York Times Tuesday, revealing that he left one final protégé, whose lawyer and mentor he had been for many years: Donald Trump.

The newspaper concluded:

Decades later, Mr. Cohn’s influence on Mr. Trump is unmistakable. Mr. Trump’s wrecking ball of a presidential bid — the gleeful smearing of his opponents, the embracing of bluster as brand — has been a Roy Cohn number on a grand scale.

Well, there’s a man in Lansing who knows more about Cohn and McCarthyism than most people: Mike Ranville, a retired lobbyist whose highly praised book To Strike a King looked at how Edward R. Murrow used the case of a Michigan victim of the Red Scare as preparation to go after McCarthy.

Few have studied the era more intensely.

Last night, Ranville told me there are many similarities between McCarthy and Trump.

"Demagogues both, they appeal to the lowest common denominator."

"Demagogues both, they appeal to the lowest common denominator," he said. "Both are disciples of 'the more outrageous the statement, the longer it will be remembered.'"

Ranville told me the marks of Cohn’s influence are all over the presumptive Republican nominee.

“Both McCarthy and Trump set up (phony) demons in order to slay them. Trump goes after Mexicans and Muslims; McCarthy, Communists.”

Both attack anyone who seeks to examine their methods. McCarthy went after Murrow; Trump bars the Washington Post and levels sexist insults at Megyn Kelly.

And in both cases, Ranville says the media were complicit.

“Reporters would rather cover PT Barnum and be the lead story on the evening news,” he said.

Claiming Mexico is sending rapists here gets you on page one; a principled plan to save Social Security gets buried deep inside the newspaper.

Ranville thinks Murrow’s words at the end of his McCarthy broadcast are as valid now as then:

“He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it – and rather successfully.”

And then, quoting Shakespeare, he added, “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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