Angels in America is a period piece. Kushner bridges fact and fiction in a story set in 1980s America. One of the key pillars of that bridge is big gun prosecutor Roy Cohn. He is the only major character in the play explicitly based on a real life person.
“Have you no sense of decency?”
Louis berates Joe for lying to him, and repeatedly asks if he knew who said that. Joe’s oblivion is convincingly shocking for Louis. This was one of the turning points of American politics in the 1950’s.
It’s worth exploring some of the background behind Roy Cohn, who he was, and how he is relevant even today, decades after his death
It all began with the rise of Communism across the world. There was a growing body of communists in the US, who also supported the USSR. Anti-Soviet rhetoric was heralding the Cold War. In order to protect the American ideals of liberty and democracy against the oppressive regime of the Soviets, many Americans created an oppressive regime that attacked the American ideals of liberty and democracy.
The man who would come to lend his name to this period in America’s history was Joseph McCarthy. He was a Republican senator from Wisconsin who made a name for himself by attacking anyone and everyone under the guise of purging the US of communists. This “McCarthyism” manifested itself in the widespread fear of even an accusation of being a communist.
Roy Cohn would be chief counsel to McCarthy in the Army vs. McCarthy hearings. These came at the height of McCarthy’s influence, when he even got into a tussle with the US Army about it’s security. During this trial, this famous sentence was used by the army’s lawyer Joseph Welch. This would be the point which determined McCarthy’s downfall, losing him popularity nearly overnight.
Roy Cohn was also famous for his trial of the Rosenberg case, where he prosecuted suspected Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He was publicly proud of his role in getting them the death penalty, as is also referenced in the play.
What isn’t referenced in the play though, is who Roy Cohn mentored. It was none other than Donald Trump, back when he was a real estate mogul in New York City. They met at a club in New York City in 1973, and hit it off. Cohn would become Trump’s lawyer through thick and thin. His aggressive approach was what Trump loved, and that is what Trump learnt.
According to a Washington Post article,
“Cohn also showed Trump how to exploit power and instill fear through a simple formula: attack, counterattack and never apologize.”
Anyone living today who reads this will agree that that has been Trump’s mantra all along. He comes on aggressive, attacks everyone, and never backs down from his claims. Cohn was also the one who introduced Trump to Roger Stone, who became one of Trump’s campaign advisors in his successful bid for presidency.
Cohn became so important to Trump, that birthed a catchphrase for sticky situations: “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”
In real life, just like in the play, Roy Cohn maintained until the end that he had “liver cancer”. He was disbarred as a lawyer shortly before he died, and maintained his disgust for homosexuality in his political beliefs. As his friend Roger Stone said:
“Roy was not gay. He was a man who liked having sex with men. Gays were weak, effeminate. He always seemed to have these young blond boys around. It just wasn’t discussed. He was interested in power and access.”
Roy Cohn, in his short life of 59 years, left a lasting impact on the legacy of America through Donald Trump. Even in death, he had the power to turn the country upside down.