PRINT December 2019

Clout Theory

Senator Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn during the Army McCarthy hearings, Washington, DC, 1954.

ROY COHN’S NAME ECHOES in the bleakest twists and turns of twentieth-century history. He was the executioner of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, McCarthy’s right-hand man, and later, Trump’s personal lawyer. He introduced Ronald Reagan to Rupert Murdoch. In a final flourish of his natural talent for living ironically, he died of aids, in public, all the while maintaining it was cancer.

To the extent that collective histories are also the histories of the impasse of the psyche, Cohn’s desire, and his ambivalence about its public appearance, blew through American communism as a freezing-cold wind. In the documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn?, directed by Matt Tyrnauer, an interviewer manages an almost-direct question about the open secret of Cohn’s homosexuality. After a long pause, Cohn explains that the rumors can’t be true because he is a very aggressive person. Communism, for reasons that seem as much contingent as determined, was the first bad object that his aggression publicly acted on. It seems Cohn believed, in line with present-day consensus, that there was an underlying sympathy between masculinity, heterosexuality, violence, and the open market, a market whose freedom is paradigmatic in that, like legislative freedom, it is upheld by deprivation, coercion, and death—some of it meted out by Cohn. He embodied the open secret of the love affair between capital and the state. He was above the law, and beneath it too.

During the 1951 “atomic spy” trial that murdered the Rosenbergs and made his name, it was a twenty-four-year-old Cohn who persuaded the judge, a family friend, to hand down the death penalty. The Rosenbergs had to be made an example of, not only to prove the impossibility of communism, but also to demonstrate Cohn’s brute genius, which was his genius for brutality. Cohn prided himself on his loyalty, to friends, to accomplices, and to the half-hidden vicious spirit—though not always the official letter—of the law, but his loyalty appears to have been a pretext for his gift for annihilation. His friends hired Cohn to advocate on their behalf when they wanted not just to defeat but to destroy their adversaries. Cohn lived the theory that to have friends you also need enemies.

When he was accused by the army of inappropriately seeking preferential treatment for his recently enlisted “good friend,” the hotel heir David Schine, he and Joseph McCarthy counter-accused the army of communist infiltration in a series of televised hearings. Having killed the Rosenbergs and ruined lives under the sign of creeping red rot, Cohn revealed his absolute political insincerity by instrumentalizing the specter of communism to protect the object of his desire. It would be romantic if it weren’t total war, if an infatuation (the consensus seems to be that Schine did not reciprocate Cohn’s affections) weren’t a method of evading closeness or turning intimacy into an impossible dream. Schine’s name sounds like a surface or like the appearance of one.

Roy Cohn in his home, Greenwich, CT, 1986. Photo: James Meehan.

In any case, the counter-accusation strategy backfired; the Army hearings concluded, for Cohn and McCarthy, in public humiliation. The incident brought McCarthy’s reign to an end, though the worldview he institutionalized has lived an active life ever since, and Cohn thrived with it while he lived, too.

Cohn would have done just as well under Stalin. The point of his efforts wasn’t the political content but the pleasure in being expert in the mechanisms of the social. He would have appreciated the clout theory of politics that prevails in the art world today, which can only imagine political commitments as social strategies. If you take out the possibility of real material, spiritual, or collective commitments—really existing in that they make experience real—all of history, indeed, starts to look like various forms of striving for the corniest forms of recognition. 

Cohn would have appreciated the clout theory of politics that prevails in the art world today, which can only imagine political commitments as social strategies.

More than a true or gentle life, Cohn wanted the best table at the restaurant and famous friends. Despite and because of this, he is an unhappy figure, but just like that of his friend and associate Donald Trump, it’s an unhappiness without meaning or internal refraction. It would be nice to think Cohn was haunted by what he did to the Rosenbergs. But events are not under the control of a moral regime. Cohn’s unhappiness was a product of the usual negotiation between love and hate. He did what people do when trapped between incompatible and powerful drives: Promiscuous in his desire and in his anger, he spread himself very thin, hoping thereby to escape confrontation with the glaring fact of himself.

Against the background of capitalist barbarism, less than one hundred years after the abolition of slavery in the US, ruining the careers of a few communists doesn’t sound like much, but McCarthy and Cohn’s efforts succeeded in cleansing radical-left political thought from American public life, an arc of appearance/disappearance that moved through the Rosenbergs, through the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings up to the creation of cointelpro and the surveillance and suppression of the Black Panthers, antiwar groups, and other revolutionary left-wing movements. The current resurgence of American socialism is expanding a field of possibility up until now limited by generations of reactionaries, including Cohn and his friends.

Hypocrisy isn’t ethically important, but it can be dazzling. The thing that one intuits everyone already knows is inevitably the thing that one has to try hardest to hide; that’s why it can be painful to feel seen or be seen. Cohn, especially in later life, was showy, fond of expensive cars, nice clothes, yachts, and beautiful men, even as he lightly maintained the myth of his straight bachelorhood. Maybe the whole performance was intended to signal a ban on speech, not a ban on knowledge: Do what you want, but don’t give it to language. That’s how you show you know what’s sacred.

Cohn is legendary for his life’s flattest paradoxes: He was a Jew who persecuted Jews, a gay man who persecuted gay men, and a deeply secretive person who lived a wildly public life. In this sense ahead of his time, he was hopelessly, negatively transfixed by identity, by the concretized traces of collective history, sometimes spectral, sometimes strangling. 

Hannah Black is an artist and writer based in New York.