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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Echoes of the 50s: Trump and Roy Cohn

by digby

Donald's Ducktail

Yesterday afternoon after delivering a textbook example of mendacity, exploitation and demagoguery with this "terrorism speech", Donald Trump took to Facebook to make an announcement:
Based on the incredibly inaccurate coverage and reporting of the record setting Trump campaign, we are hereby revoking the press credentials of the phony and dishonest Washington Post.
What was the specific coverage that prompted this petulant action?
I am no fan of President Obama, but to show you how dishonest the phony Washington Post is, they wrote, "Donald Trump suggests President Obama was involved with Orlando shooting" as their headline. Sad!
The headline was changed to “Donald Trump seems to connect President Obama to Orlando shooting” but the first one wasn’t inaccurate. It was a story about calls Donald Trump made to various news shows on Monday morning in which he said that many people think President Obama has ulterior motives for failing to stop terrorist attacks and hinted broadly that he may actually be a co-conspirator. He claimed that he was not among them because he thinks President Obama is simply incompetent, weak and foolish. But he made a point of sharing that this was a common view among “people” he knows.

Here are the exact Trump quotes:

"Look, we're led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he's got something else in mind. And the something else in mind — you know, people can't believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can't even mention the words 'radical Islamic terrorism.' There's something going on. It's inconceivable. There's something going on."

He had said in his formal statement on Sunday that President Obama should resign from office because of the Orlando shooting. When asked why he said that later in the interview, this was his answer:
"He doesn't get it or he gets it better than anybody understands — it's one or the other, and either one is unacceptable."
“He’s got something else in mind… he gets it better than anyone understands .. there’s something going on …” 

This is the King of the Birthers the man who mainstreamed the looney fringe conspiracy theory that President Obama was a secret Muslim who wasn’t really born in America. He’s been “suggesting” for years that he was some kind of Manchurian candidate. Recall this from 2011:
“Let me tell you, I’m a really smart guy. I was a really good student at the best school in the country. The reason I have a little doubt, just a little, is because he grew up and nobody knew him. If I got the nomination, if I decide to run, you may go back and interview people from my kindergarten. They'll remember me. Nobody comes forward. Nobody knows who he is until later in his life. It's very strange. The whole thing is very strange.
This wasn’t true, of course, but that would describe at least 50% of what comes out of his mouth. He has been implying that President Obama is not who he says he is for five years. And two-thirds of his voters believe him.

The other night Trump said something else that also drew the attention of the press. He gleefully proclaimed, “Dwight D. Eisenhower, great guy—you know, he won the Second World War though I think other people had something to do with it, in all fairness. But he was given a lot of credit for winning the Second World War; he runs for president—I beat him.” He was referring to the number of votes he won in the primary failing to account for the fact that there were very few primaries in 1952 and a much smaller total population. But that wasn’t the first time Trump referenced Eisenhower. Throughout the primaries he tied his mass deportation plan to Eisenhower’s “Operation Wetback”, calling it a massive success. (It wasn’t.)

So Trump has some fixation with Eisenhower, probably because he’s the president Trump remembers from his childhood and Trump’s “Leave it to Beaver” fantasy 1950s is the era he is trying to recreate for his frustrated white constituency. (Even Trump’s elaborate comb-over is a throwback to the “ducktail” haircut of the time.)

But there might be another reason Trump brings up Eisenhower so often. For all of its image as a period of American social conformity, peace and prosperity, political witch-hunts were very much in fashion. And Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn made his reputation during that era as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s henchman. This article by Michael Kruse in Politico explored their deep relationship:

Roy Cohn, the lurking legal hit man for red-baiting Sen. Joe McCarthy, whose reign of televised intimidation in the 1950s has become synonymous with demagoguery, fear-mongering and character assassination. In the formative years of Donald Trump’s career, when he went from a rich kid working for his real estate-developing father to a top-line dealmaker in his own right, Cohn was one of the most powerful influences and helpful contacts in Trump’s life.
Over a 13-year-period, ending shortly before Cohn’s death in 1986, Cohn brought his say-anything, win-at-all-costs style to all of Trump’s most notable legal and business deals. Interviews with people who knew both men at the time say the relationship ran deeper than that—that Cohn’s philosophy shaped the real estate mogul’s worldview and the belligerent public persona visible in Trump’s presidential campaign.
One can certainly see the echoes of McCarthy in Trump’s comments yesterday. Suggesting that the president is colluding with terrorists (if not worse) is right out of the Roy Cohn playbook.

Cohn and McCarthy weren’t the only one’s however. This particular strain of right wing thought --- the idea that the government had been infiltrated by America’s enemies --- was held by many people during that era, famously including Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, who had this to say about the man who won World War II in his book “The Politician”:
My firm belief that Dwight Eisenhower is a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy is based on an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable that it seems to me to put this conviction beyond any reasonable doubt.
According to Rick Perlstein’s history of the early conservative movement “Before the Storm”, upon receiving his advance copy of the book, William F. Buckley wrote Welch a note saying “if you were smart, you’d burn every copy you have. It will do great damage to the conservative cause.” Both Nixon and Goldwater ran from that noxious Eisenhower accusation and it’s not as if they were soft on the commies.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the national mood, Trump’s trip back to the good old days of McCarthyism is catching on. Just as he’s successfully tarred undocumented workers from Mexico as rapists and criminals he’s having some success at tarring real American Muslims (as opposed to the president) as terrorist sympathizers. He made it quite clear in his chilling speech yesterday what he expects going forward:
The Muslim people have to cooperate with law enforcement. They have to turn in the people who they know are bad. And they know it! They have to do and they have to do it forthwith...
As I noted yesterday, Trump has recited his belief that the Muslim community is “covering up” for terrorists for many months. And he has said that he thinks “we need to be tough” including the use of torture and “taking out” the families of terrorist suspects. He certainly seems to think the family of the Orlando killer are guilty of something. So, it’s not hard to guess what the “or else” is in that threat. 

One of his most ardent supporters and possible Vice Presidential candidate former Speaker Newt Gingrich had some ideas that would warm the hearts of Roy Cohn and Joseph McCarthy:
Let me go a step further, because remember, San Bernardino, Fort Hood, and Orlando involve American citizens. We’re going to ultimately declare a war on Islamic supremacists and we’re going to say, if you pledge allegiance to ISIS, you are a traitor and you have lost your citizenship. And we’re going take much tougher positions. In the late 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt was faced with Nazi penetration in the United States. We originally created the House Un-American Activities Committee to go after Nazis. We passed several laws in 1938 and 1939 to go after Nazis and we made it illegal to help the Nazis. We’re going to presently have to go take the similar steps here.
The eternally “too clever by half” Gingrich cynically elides the fact that the HUAC may have been instituted to fight Nazis but it was just a little bit better known for what it morphed into after the war when it launched a crusade against Americans accused of being communists, a perfectly legal political affiliation. And we know where that went, don’t we? Blacklists, witch hunts and ruined lives.

McCarthy and the HUAC were congressional abuses. But the presidency is also subject to undemocratic abuse. One of Trump’s other heroes, Richard Nixon, was famous for them. But as this analysis of Trump’s proposals by Robert Kuttner in the American Prospect lays out in chilling detail his approach to the constitution represents an unprecedented threat in our current political environment. He concludes the piece with this:
The founders of our republic devised a complex system of checks and balances as a bulwark against tyranny. But much of our liberty depends on the internalized constitutions of our leaders, their respect for democratic norms and their sense of restraint. When that falters, the latent power of the other two branches of government kicks in—but sometimes it doesn’t. A Trump presidency would likely display neither the self-restraint of a Lincoln or a Roosevelt, nor the institutional checks and balances that ultimately brought down Nixon.
We certainly can’t expect the Republican party to rein him in since they have shown themselves to be completely impotent. The press is flummoxed by his aggression (and in the case of the news network the profits he brings…) So, it looks as though it’s going to be up to the Democrats and the American people to step up and ensure this Putin-loving maniac never sees the inside of the White House.

There’s only one common sense response to Trump’s Putinesque performance yesterday: “at long last sir, have you no decency?”