We’ve seen his kind before, or nearly. Trump is his own special breed of carnival barker, no doubt, but in some ways he has a lot in common with his disgusting idol, Andrew Jackson, as well as with the deplorable Andrew Johnson, who ascended to the Presidency after Lincoln was assassinated, and promptly got himself impeached. There’s Nixon too, of course, whose corruption and illegalities were myriad, though in many ways not particularly Trumpian, especially since Nixon did his conspiring in secret and wasn’t, at the end of the day, willing to tear the whole system down. What really makes Trump stand out is that no one before him has boasted such a toxic combination of avarice, incompetence, stupidity, demagoguery, criminality, and open contempt for all laws, norms, rules and mores, whether written or unwritten. Bill Mahar once quipped that Nixon was vile but not stupid, while Reagan was stupid but not vile, but in The Donald you got it all. Compared to someone really ruthless and conniving like Dick Nixon, he can seem a comical, even hapless figure, more to be pitied than feared, but his rise to power poses a threat to American democracy that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Yet Trump, I fear, isn’t the real, long term danger. He’s come a long way on lies and race-baiting, but he’s so profoundly idiotic and disastrously incompetent that in my view he’s just got to crash and burn before long. He can’t even trouble himself to properly hide his many crimes. He obstructs justice and colludes with Putin on TV and Twitter. Everything he’s ever done is now the subject of one investigation or another, where trail after trail of illicit bread crumbs waits to be followed, and everyone he’s ever known has ratted him out. He’s the sort of mental wizard who leaves a paper trail of his criminal conspiracies, and plans skullduggery via email. Nobody like that can succeed for more than a little while, surely, not after subjecting himself to the intense scrutiny that comes with the Presidency.
No, what really worries me isn’t The Donald, and his cast of supporting stooges, from the craven cowards in Congress to the morons on Fox News. What’s truly scary, when contemplating how very little Trump has leveraged to accomplish so much, is the prospect that the next such huckster to hit the scene won’t be an incompetent fool too stupid to get out of his own way and too complacently dumb to even cover his own dirty tracks.
What scares me is Huey. What if we see the likes of Huey again?
A few decades ago, still recently enough to be recorded on film, there was a politician who posed, arguably, the greatest populist threat to democracy and constitutional government that America has ever seen. That was Governor Huey P. Long, in his day the virtual emperor of Louisiana, whose eye was on much bigger prizes. He’s not well remembered today, but he should be. We should study his career carefully, learn his tricks, and be on the lookout for anyone who might come along and use the same playbook. Huey might have changed everything, was indeed on his way to setting off a political firestorm, when fate intervened and we were spared the rise of an American brand of populist fascism. Europe was heading that way while Huey was growing in power and prominence. America could have, too.
He emerged out of the bayous of dirt-poor Louisiana at the height of the dire economic crisis of the 1930s, when unemployment soared above 25%, men wandered hopelessly from town to town looking for work, any work, and nobody seemed to have any money at all, none save the plutocrats, who had plenty. People were angry and despondent, as so many are today, and like today there were many eager to listen to an “outsider”, a renegade who could come in and sweep aside the political elites who apparently worked only for themselves and their cronies, caring nothing for the plight of the masses. It was a dangerous time for America. Desperate. The public was ready to grasp at straws, ready to be led by a cynical, scheming populist, and ready to smash things. And along came Huey.
Once in power he was as venal a politician as ever lived, raking off public revenues for his own use and storing the cash in what he called the “dee-duct box”. He was constantly exceeding his legal authority, concentrating power in his own hands, even doing unconstitutional things like getting elected to the U.S. Senate yet staying on as Governor. Even the good things he did were done in corrupt fashion, unlawfully, usually, and there was always a little something in it for Huey. He revelled in the nickname “Kingfish”, while pretending to be an ordinary bumpkin, the better to pander to his base. And nobody, but nobody, pandered like Huey.
Yet he was so much more than the average con man, and this is where he and Trump part company. He was elusive, devious, and clever. There was something magnificent about the way he tap-danced all over the norms and laws meant to restrict the sorts of abuses of power that were his stock in trade. He gamed the system like an expert. He beguiled, persuaded, and entertained. He counter-punched, viciously, but he was funny while he did it. Regular folk ate it up, and he kept getting away with things that nobody before him ever dared to attempt. All attacks on him failed, impeachment attempts came to nought, enemies were crushed. Political cartoons portrayed him as “Hooey the 14th”, but his contemptuous, imperious disregard for the rules was what a lot of regular folk loved about him. The underprivileged figured that Huey was on their side. They buoyed him up, even while all intelligent commentary opposed him, all elites loathed him, and it was said that you couldn’t get three decent people in a room in Louisiana without somebody bringing up how Huey ought to be shot.
Yes, he was loathsome. Stupid, though, he most assuredly was not. The crude bumpkin pose was pure theatre. Huey was a brilliant striver, at first a mere travelling salesman, who then, having passed the bar on the first try without any schooling in the law, became a successful lawyer who eventually fought and won cases before the Supreme Court. His political campaigns were masterpieces of populist rhetoric and crowd-pleasing indignation at everything that had gone wrong in contemporary American society – and he didn’t lack for material. Huey was a sham, a grifter, and a clown, but sadly for those who opposed him, he was perhaps the most intelligent and talented sham of a grifting clown to ever live. He was a genius, really. What made him most frightening was how hugely and deceptively smart he was, how well he knew how to gain, agglomerate, and hang on to power.
For those who caught on, it was easy to hate him. And yet…the base to whom he pandered comprised the mass of impoverished and downtrodden rural inhabitants of just about the poorest and most neglected State in the Union, and Huey often seemed genuine in his urge to improve their lives. Coming to power in the depths of the Great Depression, Huey gave fiery speeches in which he spoke up for the poor, and against America’s outrageous concentration of wealth in the hands of a small class of plutocrats.
Pure demagoguery? You’d think so, except he built schools, and gave poor kids free textbooks. He built desperately needed roads and bridges, and charity hospitals to tend to the indigent. With an apparently unaffected white-hot hatred of the greed of the upper classes, he railed against government incompetence, and advocated sweeping legal changes to redistribute America’s highly concentrated riches – indeed he started a political movement called Share Our Wealth. He proposed a guaranteed minimum income for all, limits on hours of work, old age pensions, and upper limits on the amount of filthy lucre any one person could accumulate. In his avowed policies he was, really, a radical progressive, but if this wasn’t purely a dodge, it was also a means to an end. He craved, above all, an opportunity to do right by himself. Step one was mobilizing the people who suffered from the myriad injustices of American society. He knew just how to wage that war. It came naturally, and he appeared to relish the chance to take down the high and mighty, even as he did everything he could to become just like them.
And oh, what speeches he gave:
And it is here, under this oak where Evangeline waited for her lover Gabriel, who never came. This oak is an immortal spot, made so by Longfellow’s poem, but Evangeline is not the only one who has waited here in disappointment.
Where are the schools that you have waited for your children to have, that have never come? Where are the roads and highways that you send your money to build, that are no nearer now than ever before? Where are the institutions to care for the sick and disabled? Your tears in this country have lasted for generations. Give me the chance to dry the eyes of those who still weep here.
So, we have in America today, my friends, a condition by which about 10 men dominate the means of activity in at least 85 percent of the things you do to earn a living. They either own directly everything or they have got some kind of mortgage on it, with a very small percentage to be excepted. They own the banks, they own the steel mills, they own the railroads, they own the bonds, they own the mortgages, they own the stores, and they have chained the country from one end to the other, until there is not any kind of business that a small, independent man could go into today and make a living; and they have finally and gradually and steadily eliminated everybody from the fields in which there is a living to be made, and still they have got little enough sense to think they ought to be able to get more business out of it anyway.
The wealth of this land is tied up in a few hands. It makes no difference how many years the labourer has worked, nor does it make any difference how many dreary rows the farmer has ploughed, the wealth he has created is in the hands of manipulators who have not worked any more than many other people who have nothing. Now, we do not propose to hurt these very rich persons. We simply say that when they reach the place of millionaires they have everything they can use, and they ought to let somebody else have something. As it is, 0.1 of 1 percent of the bank depositors own nearly half of the money in the banks, leaving 99.9 per cent of bank depositors owning the balance. Then two thirds of the people do not even have a bank account. The lowest estimate is that 4 percent of the people own 85 percent of our wealth. The people cannot ever come to light unless we share our wealth.
It was all true; looking back, even as you see him clearly for what he was, it’s hard not think that dammit, he was right. A favourite analogy of Huey’s was a church bar-be-que, at which meals had been set out for a hundred people, except one man came along and took the food for 90 away for himself. He couldn’t even eat all that food. Shouldn’t he be told to bring some of it back? What did these rich men want? After they had every mansion they could ever live in, every yacht they could sail, every car they could be driven around in, every silk suit they could ever wear, every steak they could ever eat, why did they still want more? Why did they insist on material wealth beyond anything they could ever even enjoy? Why did we let them?
Call it rabble rousing. When the plight of the ordinary worker was desperate and unconscionable, when wealth distribution was grotesquely unfair, when children went hungry while the wealthy made out like bandits, their buying power growing with every bout of deflation that a sound monetary policy should have prevented, maybe the rabble needed a little rousing, yes? Was he wrong? That was the most dangerous thing about Huey. He used God’s truth as a devastating weapon. Why not? You didn’t need to lie about anything. You just had to exploit the rage against what was undeniable. You also had to be smart enough to deliver on a few of your promises, and do enough good that they loved you, even as you fleeced the entire rotten system – a lesson Donald will never learn.
In 1935, Huey was fixing to run for President, when he was shot and killed by a relative of one of his political opponents. Among the most urgent questions posed by his cronies as they rushed him to the hospital: “Huey! Where’s the dee-duct box?!” Meanwhile, it was said, everybody ran to the phone at once to call friends and family to make sure it wasn’t any of them that did it.
Many historians are inclined today to think America dodged a bullet when Huey didn’t. A man with his brains and oratorical skill, his preternatural gift for whipping the underclass into a righteous fury, could have started a revolution. For a time he seemed unstoppable. One hesitates to condone political violence, but with Huey, it was hard to condemn his fate without also breathing a small, quiet sigh of relief.
What we see today in Trump is someone who would do everything Huey might have done, if he could, but we got lucky this time. Trump, praise be to the Saints, is a transparent idiot. His grift lacks all nuance. He can neither think nor speak properly. He gives speeches that are probably among the worst ever heard from a successful politician; when he isn’t droning lifelessly from the teleprompter he’s free-associating nonsense and ricocheting from topic to topic while making no point at all. More people can see through him than not. He can appeal to hatred and racism, but he can’t bring any sort of sophisticated knowledge to the fray, or any grasp of America’s cultural history, its literature, its past struggles, nothing that would win over even a slightly literate and thoughtful crowd. He gets applause when he blows his dog whistles, sure, but he can’t sway the doubters with sheer eloquence and pure logic like Huey could. He can’t reason from facts, make a case, or cite verifiable empirical evidence, any more than he could evoke memories of a poet like Longfellow to make a salient point about the present situation. Everything that comes out of his odd, circular little yip is either schoolyard taunts or incoherent word salad. Huey could talk birds out of trees. A good person, even a smart person, could really believe in him. Thank God, Trump can only rouse those already predisposed to buy his bullshit, and let’s just say that the average MAGA crowd isn’t likely to be a gathering of Mensa Chapter Local 558.
Yet for all his shortcomings, Trump still managed to tap into something dangerous, and it propelled him to the White House. Donald will fail, I think, but a groundwork has been laid, and someone new may come to occupy the space. What if we don’t get lucky again? What if he’s like Huey? What if he’s a Machiavelli who comes on like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren? What if his deadly trick is not to lie, but to tell the plain, awful truth? Aren’t we ready for Huey’s message again at the height of this new Guilded Age of billionaires and dark money slopping into every corner of the political system? Aren’t things just as badly out of whack as they were, back when Huey was promising to rein in the filthy rich?
The crowds that show up for Donald have a lot of the same gripes that Bernie’s do, and a lot of the same resentments that briefly fuelled the movement to Occupy Wall Street. Wages are stagnant. All the wealth is held by the 0.01%, who just a got a huge tax break. Unemployment is low, but they’re all jobs at Taco Bell, and you have to hold down three of them to make a living wage. All this while the economy is enjoying an unprecedented stretch of sustained growth and job creation! Recession will hit sooner or later, and then what? Will people just keep on taking it? Or will they find a champion? Think what you could do with all that seething energy.
Listen to Huey, and think about the ridiculous economic and social injustices we face today. The most clever would-be tyrant advocates justice. God help us, we’re ripe for it, and we may see his like again. Then, watch out.