When faced with criticism it’s common these days for right wing politicians to scream “McCarthyism”. Trump regularly does this in angry and irrational tweets to ward off criminal charges arising from the Mueller investigation. The Trump strategy is to accuse his opponents of crimes he’s culpable of himself and to establishing himself as a victim of political persecution. Such behaviour has spread across the far right like fish rotting from the head.
Bringing up the rear is the pound shop Breitbart that is spiked.online, which has screamed “McCarthyism” when people have dared criticise it for taking money from those rabidly right¬wing corporate capitalists, the Koch brothers. But consider Roy Cohn, who played a leading role in the actual McCarthyism of the early 1950s.
Thousands of left leaning Americans were persecuted during the McCarthyite period, some imprisoned, many more blacklisted from employment. Cohn was particularly prominent in the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and prided himself on his role in securing the death penalty for them. He claimed that the sentence was based on Cohn’s personal recommendation. The Rosenberg trial had antisemitic overtones, with the right wing associating “Jewishness” with “Godless communism” as an explanation for the treason charges.
Many on the left who attacked that antisemitism were unfortunately undermined by the fact that an even worse persecution of Jews was underway in Eastern Europe around the same time, with show trials and executions of leading Communist Party figures who were Jewish.
Cohn went on to become Senator McCarthy’s chief counsel, the better to pursue the hunt for “commies”. According to former US Senator Alan Simpson: “The so-called ‘Red Scare’ has been the main focus of most historians of that period. A lesser-known element…and one that harmed far more people, was the witch hunt McCarthy and others conducted against homosexuals”.
Cohn was gay himself. Like many gay men on the right of American politics at the time, including most probably his pal FBI Director J Edgar Hoover, he sought to cover that up by vigorously persecuting members of the gay community. Roger Stone, to whom Cohn acted as a mentor, justified the hypocrisy thus: “Roy was not gay. He was a man who liked having sex with men”. Covering up his sexual orientation until the end, Cohn claimed he was suffering from liver cancer, but actually died of complications from AIDS in 1986.
When McCarthy turned his attention to phantom communists in the US military, it was a step too far for Eisenhower and the top brass. Following McCarthy’s fall from grace, Cohn began a career as an attorney in New York City. He represented such unsavoury characters as Rupert Murdoch, John Gotti and other leading Mafia figures such as John Gotti, and... Trump himself.
Cohn defended Trump over his “whites only” housing rental policy. Cohn’s associate Roger Stone ran a PR firm with Trump’s 2016 campaign chair Paul Manafort, representing numerous anti communist dictators. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, their circle was amongst the most rabid enemies of anything called “socialism”. The penny dropped when they realised that the Putin regime was just another gang of rapacious money grabbing capitalists, just like them except that Putin’s crew were able to get away with a lot more criminal activities than their newfound American admirers.
The cries of “McCarthyism” from Trump and his associates are a travesty and a stain on the memory of those left with Americans who suffered persecution for their political beliefs or sexual orientation. That many such victims held the mistaken belief that Stalin’s USSR was somehow advancing the interests of the working class only serves to underline their tragedy.