Roy Cohn and Donald Trump: A match made in hell.

June 7th, 2024 by Tom Lynch

James Madison and America’s other Founding Fathers were educated elites who were deeply schooled in the ancient Greek and Roman concept of virtue.

Today, virtue embodies  the idea of personal morality. For the Founders this was not the case. To them, virtue was a critical concept that meant serving the public good. They derived this from their study of the Romans and Greeks as sifted through the lens of the eighteenth century’s Scottish Enlightenment, with a healthy dose of Baron de Montesquieu folded in. At Harvard, William & Mary, and Princeton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Madison studied Tacitus, Cicero and even Xenophon for guidance as they developed into the leaders they became. Each of them understood that virtue was a desired end to everything they did publicly. It was the greatest good for the greatest number. It became their North Star.

The same held true for George Washington, who never had the education the others had, but through experience and the thoughtful analysis of his own character, became the leader Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, for all their education, could never be. It was Washington who, at the age of 14, copied out a small tract of rules to live by, signed his name to it, and called it Rules of Civility. Washington embodied virtue without having had it drilled into him at a college he never attended.

But the Founders recognized that the democratic republic they were creating was susceptible to corrupt ideas and people. That realization is the basis for their fervent belief that for government to function as they had envisioned, they must create a series of checks and balances.

In Federalist 51, James Madison, looking through a glass darkly into the future, emphasized how checks and balances were crucial to offset the self-interest of factions. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” he wrote. He concluded that thought with one of his wiser observations, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Which brings us to 2024, Donald Trump’s felony conviction in New York, his nonetheless adoring MAGA cult, Washington’s sycophantic Republican politicians, and the nation’s greatest factional split since the Civil War.

Yet, the Donald Trump the world sees today, the Donald Trump schooled by his profiteering New York City real estate mogul father, the Donald Trump who became the megalomaniacal, narcissistic serial liar, would never have happened were it not for Roy Cohn.

Cohn, Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy’s brilliant hatchet man, was supposed to have been washed up in 1954, after he and the witch-hunting McCarthy imploded in the televised Army-McCarthy hearings. McCarthy drank himself to death in the following two years, and Cohn fled Washington a pariah, his brief career in government service in ruins.

But over the next three decades Cohn reinvented himself as a power broker after returning to his hometown of New York, and he would remain so right up until disbarment and AIDS finally leveled him in 1986.

How did that resurrection happen? It’s true that the right-wing resurgence of the 1980s gave him a late-in-life boost, and his influence with Ronald and Nancy Reagan gained him access to the experimental medication AZT, which was denied most everyone else. As Frank Rich suggested in 2017, Cohn “may have been the only AIDS patient the Reagan White House lifted a finger to help.” But the question of how he both survived and flourished as a Manhattan eminence in the quarter-century between McCarthy and Reagan is curious, indeed.

And Donald Trump was his prime, A#1 protégée.

Cohn thrived throughout a New York second act rife with indictments and scandals that included accusations of multiple bank and securities-law violations, perennial tax evasion, bribery, extortion, and theft. Donald Trump also flourished for decades despite being a shameless lawbreaker, tax evader, liar, racist, bankruptcy aficionado, and hypocrite notorious for his mob connections, transactional sexual promiscuity, and utter disregard for rules, scruples, and morals. Indeed, Trump triumphed despite having all of Cohn’s debits, wartime draft dodging included, but none of his assets — legal cunning, erudition, a sense of humor, brainpower, and loyalty.

What Cohn taught Trump (who didn’t need much teaching) was that raw personal power could be leveraged for his own enrichment, privilege, and celebrity. At Cohn’s urging, Trump sought and won favors from some of the older, more powerful New York Democrats and Republicans who were essential to rising in a “New York City developers world.” With Cohn’s imprimatur, Trump gained easy access to the ostensibly nonpartisan press Establishment as well. Decades later, these same eminences would enjoy Trump’s hospitality at Mar-a-Lago.

And Cohn it was who got Barbara Walters, the journalistic celebrity other journalists called Cohn’s “platonic fiancé,” to put together in 1979 a promotional profile of his shiny young protégé for ABC’s 60 Minutes rival 20/20. Titled “The Man Who Has Everything,” it was, in the Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio’s description, “wealth pornography.” Among other superlatives, it floated the dubious claim (for the 1970s) that “the Trumps are treated like American royalty.”

The truly sad thing to contemplate is that back then none of New York’s elites ever intervened to block or seriously challenge Trump’s path to power. They had plenty of provocation and opportunities to do so. Trump practiced bigotry on a grand scale, was a world-class liar, and ripped off customers, investors, and the city itself. Yet for many among New York’s upper register, there was no horror he could commit that would merit his excommunication. As with Cohn before him, the more outrageously and reprehensibly Trump behaved, the more the top rungs of society were titillated by him. Sound familiar?

So, here we are today. After decades of otherwise decent people doing nothing to stop the Donald Trump runaway train, the nation faces the prospect of Roy Cohn’s mentee, his unguided political missile, blowing to smithereens James Madison’s concept of ambition counteracting ambition. For all his brilliance, Madison, whose entire life was guided by the “virtue” of serving the public good, never saw this coming.

The sad fact is that the cancer now consuming Washington and the nation was incubated not in that city’s notorious “swamp” but in the loftiest Zip Codes of New York City.