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Friday, September 20, 2019

Opinion | Roy Cohn Is How We Got Trump - The New York Times

"By Michelle Goldberg

Near the beginning of “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” the new documentary about the lawyer and power broker who mentored Donald Trump, an interviewee says, “Roy Cohn’s contempt for people, his contempt for the law, was so evident on his face that if you were in his presence, you knew you were in the presence of evil.” He wasn’t being hyperbolic.

The film, which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, will likely be of wide interest because of how Cohn helps explain Trump. In the attorney’s life, you can see the strange ease with which a sybaritic con man fit in with crusading social reactionaries. You see the glee Cohn derived from being an exception to the rules he enforced on weaker people. From him, Trump learned how, when he was in trouble, to change the subject by acting outrageously, to never apologize and always stay on the offense. When the Justice Department claimed that apartment buildings owned by the Trump family were discriminating against black renters, it was Cohn’s idea to countersue the Justice Department for $100 million.

In the 1950s, as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy, Cohn wasn’t just a key player in the anti-Communist witch hunts of the time. He also persecuted men in the State Department who were suspected of being gay, despite being a closeted gay man himself. Later, he became a consigliere to New York’s mafia families, some of whom also had ties to Trump, even as he ranted about law and order.

The film’s title comes from something Trump said when he was frustrated with then Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Cohn was Trump’s template for what a lawyer is supposed to be. (In Attorney General Bill Barr, he seems to have found someone who satisfies him.) “Roy was somebody that had no boundaries,” a lawyer in his firm says in the film. “And if you were on the right side of him, it was great. And if you were on the wrong side of him, it was terrible.”

But what I found most striking about “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” wasn’t its insights into the thuggish president, whose particularly brand of malevolence has been theorized to death. It was its reminders of just how decadent, in every sense, New York society used to be. Cohn was manifestly despicable, but he was embraced, rather than shunned, by New York elites. For a time, he had a sham engagement to Barbara Walters. He hung out with the famed artist Andy Warhol and was a regular at the oft-mythologized nightclub Studio 54.

Warhol is only briefly mentioned in the film, but his diaries mention Cohn’s parties repeatedly. “And when you go to these Roy Cohn things all everybody says is, ‘It’s so amusing, it’s so interesting, because you never know who you’ll find at these things,’” Warhol wrote in 1982. In 1985, he described Cohn’s birthday party at the New York nightclub The Palladium. TV monitors showed Cohn’s anti-Communist speeches from the 1950s. “And that was exciting, it was the best thing,” wrote Warhol.

To understand the milieu Cohn moved in is, I think, to understand at least some of the generation gap among elites over what’s sometimes called “cancel culture” or “call-out culture” or even just “political correctness.” If you are under 35 or 40, it’s probably hard to grasp just how much depravity used to be tolerated in fancy circles, and, further, how tolerating it was itself taken as a sign of sophistication

[Listen to “The Argument” podcast every Thursday morning, with Ross Douthat, Michelle Goldberg and David Leonhardt.]

During Warhol’s heyday, the amoral celebration of fame was considered glamorous and edgy, and genuine outrage was deeply uncool. Similar values still predominated when I moved to New York almost 20 years ago, when figures like Harvey Weinstein seemed to rule the city.

It wasn’t until the intertwined ascents of social media and millennial progressives that the zeitgeist really turned, and jaded acceptance of the status quo fell from fashion. Younger people, scarred by the wreckage of the financial crisis, looked at the world they’d inherited and felt wide-ranging moral indignation. Unlike their elders, they hadn’t watched the radical promise of the late ’60s curdle into violence and farce, and so weren’t disillusioned with the left.

From left, Donald Trump, Mayor Ed Koch and Roy Cohn at the Trump Tower opening in 1983.

From left, Donald Trump, Mayor Ed Koch and Roy Cohn at the Trump Tower opening in 1983.Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images

Today, wealth and power can still buy horrible people a degree of social acceptance. Sean Spicer lied to the American people for a living and is now on “Dancing With the Stars.” Ivanka Trump is still reportedly invited to celebrity weddings. But the left has far more cultural power than in the past, and some on the left have used that power to re-moralize the public square. Sometimes that means ostracizing people, or, as they say on the internet, canceling them. A more decent society would have done that to Cohn.

Still, it’s easy see why the way the left deploys its influence feels, to some, inquisitorial. The religious right, of course, hates the new cultural mores because it wanted to re-moralize America on its terms. But plenty of liberals are nostalgic for a less sanctimonious era, where, at least in certain cosmopolitan precincts, being amusing and interesting were more important than being upright. Sometimes I feel this nostalgia myself; if you came of age in a culture that celebrated transgression, norms that demand sensitivity can feel restrictive.

But to see the way Cohn was accepted among artists, socialites and the demimonde of New York night life is to be reminded how warped the city’s values used to be. That’s why, for so long, Trump was able to thrive here.

In the end, the social world in which Cohn could be at once a right-wing dirty trickster and a celebrity bon vivant did have rules, and he ran afoul of them. In 1986, after a lifetime of skirting consequences for his corruption, Cohn was disbarred for cheating his clients. (At one point Cohn allegedly dressed up like a male nurse to get a dying multimillionaire client to sign a document making him a trustee of his estate.)

Unable to practice law, his power evanesced. In “Where’s My Roy Cohn,” an old friend explains how, every year, Cohn held a private dinner for his intimates. After the disbarment, the friend arrived at one such dinner. “When I get there, this long table was set, and nobody came,” he said. At the same time, Cohn was dying of AIDS, though he refused to admit it. Trump, his protégé, cut him off. New York wasn’t more forgiving back then. It was just more forgiving of certain people."

Opinion | Roy Cohn Is How We Got Trump - The New York Times

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