In the early days of the Russia scandal, President Trump famously asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”
It was a predictable question, and one that has particular applicability to the current headlines. The impeachment trial in the Senate has more parallels with McCarthyism than it does with prior impeachment proceedings. Joseph McCarthy was an unliked, small-time, near-anonymous politician until he began making unfounded claims about Communists working in the State Department. This made-up story mirrors Trump’s birtherism obsession; which like McCarthy’s red scare, rocket-boosted its chief messenger towards the top of America’s political heap. McCarthy was surprised that his bogus claims got so much attention, but the attention was what he craved and he weaponized it to perfection. The attacks, real and imagined, on Communists in America would be his one and only calling card. Thus began the meteoric rise of the man and McCarthyism.
The big turning point that preceded McCarthy’s even more rapid political demise was precipitated by Edward R. Murrow’s television editorial. (See if this line sounds applicable to the current era: “The actions of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies.”)
Trump heard all about McCarthy’s rise and fall in great detail from McCarthy’s right hand man, Roy Cohn. The McCarthy downfall — and later the Nixon downfall — help explain why goal number one of the Trump presidency was (and is) to attack the media. Sadly, that effort has worked. Today, there are hundreds of news anchors and reporters warning of the dangers of Trumpism and calling for a fair trial in the Senate.
But there are no Edward R. Murrows.
First, that’s because we’re all viewing our own news feeds from the comfort of our shrinking, digital silos of homogeneity. Second, and much more importantly, half the country doesn’t believe journalists and sees the media as the enemy. There are no universally trusted voices. There is a freefalling trust in media and institutions. There is no consensus; only an exhaustion driven by an overwhelming deluge of information. And all of this is by design. Trump and his GOP enablers have learned well the lessons of the past.
The Senators in the current impeachment trial, free from the threat of the mainstream media, can focus on protecting the defendant; no matter how urgent the situation; and no matter how distasteful he may be, even to those Senators who work to coverup his crimes.
Three years and countless crimes into his tenure, Donald Trump has an answer to his question, “Where’s my Roy Cohn.” He’s got 53 of them in the Senate. How will their efforts be rewarded? Well, for them it’s probably worth noting, that in the end, Donald Trump wouldn’t even talk to Roy Cohn, who famously said of his formerly loyal friend: “He pisses ice water!” Trump loyalists who back him today might soon find themselves without a pot to piss in.
Joseph McCarthy was ultimately censured, humiliated, and broken after a hearing summed up by Joseph Welch’s memorable line, “Have you no sense of decency sir? At long last, have you no sense of decency?” One wonders how that line would play in today’s America, where it’s unclear whether decency is still considered admirable.
In his takedown of McCarthy and McCarthyism, Murrow quoted Shakepeare: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” This time around, dear citizens, we’ve got no Murrow. The outcome is ultimately only left to us.
The Senate holds the trial. But all Americans are on jury duty.