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Reagan was always a performer. The President had a background as an actor and was effectively playing a role in the White House. His speeches were lines given to him by his aides to read out in a commanding, presidential way. Pompously laying around the White House, according to his former speechwriter, were the sacred texts of the Conservative movement - Hayek’s ‘Road to Serfdom’, works by Milton Freidman - folded open on cluttered coffee tables, but “nobody seemed to be reading them”. Administration staffers from well-to-do backgrounds and with Ivy League educations started wearing cowboy hats and saying things like “on the level”, “get it done”, and “it's a rat fuck”. Corny, brightly coloured, 50s-inspired representations of American culture made a comeback - in Levi’s adverts, in ‘Back to the Future’, and in ‘Hairspray’. Years of supposed left-wing erosion of what it meant to be an American were to be erased in a positive orgy of self-reaffirmation.

This brings us to the figure of Roy Cohn. Roy Cohn was personal assistant to Joe McCarthy and hunted down supposed ‘communists’ he knew to be innocent, before pivoting into private practice and duping his exceptionally rich and well-connected clients (plus the names in their rolodex) out of their money. But he is also so much more than that. It is not enough to say, as it may first appear, the Roy Cohn was an unlikeable figure who was nonetheless skilled at manoeuvring himself into public prominence by exploiting the rich and finding chinks in the media. Rather, he had an eye for the psychological jugular. His mantra in the law and in the media was always to attack, to never admit defeat, to delay, and if necessary, to play to the court of public opinion, gunning against the motivations of his opponents. ‘Let me tell you’, ‘this is really about’, ‘the real truth is’ - this was the Roy Cohn lexicon.

'He had an eye for the psychological jugular'

His entire public persona therefore rested on persuading the public that his were simply the normal underhand tactics of the legal and political world, but stated more obviously, honestly, and carried out without shame. His 1977 book 'McCarthy: The Answer to Tail Gunner Joe' in defence of Joe McCarthy, the communist hunting demagogue, was an obvious coded message to potential clients that no matter what, he would stay loyal. What more could you want from a lawyer than a hired gun with paperwork instead of weapons?

What everybody assumed to be happening under the table was brought to the surface for them to gawp at in shock and – on some level – respect. The very American sense that you’ve achieved something with your life if you manage to succeed in your field in spite of all the rules – ‘they don’t apply to me!’- definitely applies to this expensive lawyer who would greet guests in a robe and take them into the front room to mingle with Mafia bosses, as one visitor described meeting him in 1980. In a TV debate in the 1970s, Gore Vidal (the most famous liberal public intellectual of the age) and Roy Cohn were asked to say what they liked about each other. Gore’s response was ‘Roy has managed to stay out of jail all these years, I admire him for that’.

Because he was so ghoulish (scars from plastic surgery being visible around his face, his skin stretched so tightly it pulled his eyes towards the side of his head) and so eminently hateable (representing Mafia dons and the scumbag rich) he had a transfixing quality that sometimes made it hard to look away. It’s in this sense that Donald Trump can be said to be his protégé. Indeed, Cohn was Trump's personal lawyer.

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When taken up on Trump's lies, his media outriders respond that ‘all politicians lie’ and that therefore, like Roy Cohn, Trump is doing something in the open which everyone else is ashamed about, but hypocritically does anyway. Any sense of the normal bartering and back-and-forth of respectable lines of work like law or politics are thrown overboard in a bonfire of our own expectations. These people are so fascinating because they are feasting on the weaknesses of a system that they themselves did not create.

'Creating fake identities comes naturally to those who have had to act for the entirety of their young lives'

This is what makes Angels in America relevant today – just when the panic of the AIDS crisis seems like an increasingly distant memory and could lead one to wonder if the work had any contemporary urgency. If only because Tony Kushner himself falls into the trap. Roy Cohn is presented as a genuinely detestable figure, but in the campness of his evil also – at times – as light relief. To do that, even subconsciously, is to buy these people’s schtick. Just as Trump can genuinely be funny – even if it’s in the little things like ‘low energy Jeb’ – to buy into this and enjoy the ride is to tacitly accept that the system is rigged and that the way to unrig it is to revel in its corruption. Trump apparently confided to someone shortly after moving into the White House that ‘Roy would love this’.

However, there is one key difference between Trump and Roy Cohn; Roy was a self-hating homosexual, who hid his identity by deliberately surrounding himself with the most macho men he could find. “Roy Cohn wasn’t gay”, said his long-time friend Roger Stone, “he just fucked dudes”.


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Angels in America, Part 2 is a weird and kaleidoscopic beauty to behold

I’ve always wondered why gay people are overrepresented both in the worlds of theatre and the arts, and also in the very different tradition of spy work and intelligence. At first you could say that creating fake identities comes naturally to those who have had to act for the entirety of their young lives. But, more than that, there’s probably an element of pleasure in the alternative identities that such lines of work induce. Speaking from personal experience, there reaches a point where you become adept at revealing different parts of yourself to different people at different times. A friend once turned to me and said, ‘I wish I wasn’t gay’, and when I asked why, they only offered ‘it would be much simpler’.

You can embrace your identity or, in the case of Roy Cohn, shun it entirely. The distance he kept between his inner self and his public image allowed him to view others with a coldness and exploitative cynicism, with unprecedented success.

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