Donald Trump is a great man Arthur. Some people are saying he’s still President. pic.twitter.com/iNi2beBEoP— menace 2 society (@appledoglives) February 6, 2021
Why are we reviving interest in Huey Long?
Donald Trump was the first demagogue to be elected president. American history is full of colorful demagogues though especially in the South. Trump basically maintained the status quo and made his supporters feel patriotic while feeding them a diet of empty performance art and conspiracies to keep them complacent. It is hardly a new phenomenon in American history.
The following excerpt comes from the introduction of Huey Long’s Every Man A King: The Autobiography Of Huey P. Long:
“Huey P. Long was born in 1893 in Winn Parish (County), the seventh in a family of nine children. There is a myth about his background that colors everything that has been written about him. It is that the Longs were abjectly poor, were without education or culture, were, in Southern terminology, “hillbillies” or “trash.” Long himself helped to father the myth – he operated in an age when politicians found it profitable to boast of a log cabin origin – but it has little foundation. Winn Parish with its thin soil and cutover timber patches, was undeniably poor in comparison with the more favored cotton and sugar parishes. It could not show an array of planter magnates, but it did have a substantial number of small farmers who worked hard and enjoyed a comfortable living. The Longs were as well off as most people in Winn and, indeed, something above the average. Rather than scorning culture, they were highly respectful of it and eager to acquire it. Every member of the large family secured at least a touch of a college education. Huey Long, as he relates in the autobiography, had relatively little formal schooling at the higher levels – he exaggerates somewhat the work he took at Tulane University – but from boyhood he educated himself with a program of voracious reading. It is unlikely that many college graduates of the period had, for example, as wide a knowledge of history, or as much a sense of history, as this product of the north Louisiana hills …
His own political philosophy was a kind of neo- or modified Populism. Drawn from his observation of local issues and conditions and his wide reading in past and current history, it was a down-with-the-big-man and up-with-the-little-man creed. He expressed it in definite terms when in 1918, at the age of twenty-four, he ran for his first office, and he never deviated significantly from it thereafter. …
After Reconstruction, in all the Southern states the places of power were taken over by the upper income groups, the old planter class and the new and rising business interests. For generations these hierarchies ruled Southern politics, exercising their power through the medium of the one-party system, manipulating and combining factions in the Democratic organization. Occasionally rebels rose to challenge the existing order. They were men who claimed to speak for the masses and who demanded for the masses some voice in the councils of government and some share in the material rewards that government could bestow. In Southern historical writing they are called the demagogues. The demagogues made much noise and won some elections, but they did not alter in any fundamental way the nature of power relationships. Despite their violent denunciations of the ruling classes, they did little to raise up the masses. Some of them had no real interest in reform were easily deflected into race baiting or into collaboration with the hierarchy. Those that had a program were unable to put it through, and for a fundamental reason – they lacked the ability, or more probably the will, to destroy the organization of the oligarchy and were eventually overthrown by it. …”
If this rings a bell, you probably read that Molly Ball article in Time yesterday on the secret history of the elite cabal that conspired against Donald Trump. Donald Trump’s only major accomplishment in office was cutting the taxes of the oligarchy and catering to their whims. They still destroyed him.
“No demagogue had dared to defy the Louisiana hierarchy. Composed of the usual upper income groups and others peculiar to the local scene – the Standard Oil Company and gas and shipping interests – and allied with the New Orleans Old Regulars, the machine seemed especially strong and secure, and it was usually conservative and complacent. It was capable of meeting demands for social change and absorbing and blunting them. It had, for example, to deal with the threat posed by the Progressive movement, which affected Louisiana and the South somewhat later than other sections. John M. Parker, who won the governorship in 1920 and who had Long’s support, advocated some Progressive ideals, and as governor he steered some Progressive measures to enactment. But Parker, a man of ability, was himself a representative of the planter class, inhibited by his own standards and those of his group, and though he pushed harder than some associates thought he should, he did not push too hard. The Louisiana of the 1920s could hardly be said to be a modern state. It had less than 300 miles of cement roads, only 35 miles of roads with other surfacing, only three major bridges in the state highway system, an inadequate educational arrangement from the state university down to the elementary level, and archaic hospital and other public services. Both the place and the time were ripe, overly so, for a leader who would demand change. But few could have guessed what kind of change would come after 1928 …”
In countless ways, America in 2021 reminds me of Louisiana in the 1920s, especially now that Neoliberal Joe is president and our elites have learned nothing from their captivity under the Trump presidency. They’re currently feeling emboldened and flexing their hard power. It is their first mistake.
“Long had promised change in both his campaigns. That he would succeed in getting much seemed doubtful to supporters and opponents and disinterested observers. He took with him into office only a minority of pledged followers in the legislature, and everybody knew the vast power of the opposition to contain its enemies. Besides, Long was one of those demagogues. He would make a token effort for reform and then go to denouncing Negroes or Yankees and recalling Confederate glories in the Civil War and Southern suffering during Reconstruction. That was the way it had always been.
It was not going to be anything like that way. Long was the one Southern popular leader who promised something and then delivered. He was governor from 1928 to 1932. In 1930 he ran for the United States Senate, defeated the incumbent with ease. He could not take his seat, however, because of a conflict with his lieutenant governor, Paul Cyr. Long and Cyr had broken, and Huey would not go to Washington until he had made certain that one of his own men would succeed to the governorship. Not until January, 1932, could he safely leave the state. He was in the Senate after that date, but he was, in effect, still governor. His friend, O.K. Allen, was governor in name only. Long ran the administration and the state, ran both, his enemies charged, like a dictator.
The Long program of legislation was put into force over the period between 1928 and 1935. Although it took some time to enact, it was an impressive accomplishment. By 1935 Louisiana had 2,446 miles of cement roads, 1,308 miles of asphalt roads, twice as many miles of gravel roads as when Long took office, and over forty bridges in the state highway system. Appropriations for education, especially at the higher level, were increased, and the providing of free textbooks caused a 20 percent jump in public school enrollment. In a notable attack on ignorance, free night schools were set up that aided over 100,000 adult illiterates of both races. State hospitals and other public institutions were expanded and enlarged and their services were humanized. Repeal of the poll tax opened the political doors to a host of new voters, and the new, significant issues that Long introduced aroused popular interest in politics to a degree unmatched in any other Southern state. The huge costs of the Long program were met in a manner that anticipated the New Deal – by heavier taxes, especially on corporations, and by the issuance of state bonds that increased the state debt to what was by the standards of that time an astronomical figure. ….
Long’s first objective after going into office was to perfect the organization that had elected him. He shortly welded together an extraordinarily effective machine. It covered the whole state and was one of the instruments that eventually enabled him to control the legislature almost completely. …
If Long had simply created an efficient machine, his achievement, while noteworthy, would not have been unusual, nor would it have won him the attention he secured in his own time or entitle him to the unique place he has in the annals of American politics. He went far beyond the pattern of previous leaders in the South or any section. He was the first mass or popular leader to set himself, not just to establish a machine of his own or to bring his enemies to terms, but to overwhelm utterly the existing organization and force it to enter his own apparatus. He systematically deprived the opposition of political sustenance, until finally he brought even the Old Regulars to their knees. At the time of his death by assassination in 1935, he had compelled most political elements in the state to affiliate with his organization. Each had a place and received certain rewards – but he defined the terms. A Long henchman was governor, and Long appointees filled all the executive offices. Long followers dominated the legislature, and a Long majority sat on the state supreme court. More, a series of far-reaching laws passed by an obedient legislature gave the governor, that is, Long, a controlling influence over local governments …”
Here are some of the most striking differences between Huey Long and Donald Trump:
Donald Trump wasn’t a “fascist.” He was a narcissist who was satisfied with being the center of national attention. The man does not have an ideological frame of mind. In contrast, Huey Long was an ideologue. Trump was a demagogue. The last thing that Long craved was the respect of other oligarchs.
Donald Trump is a billionaire and came from that class of people. The man never had any desire to take on the oligarchy. On the contrary, Donald Trump was a Wall Street cheerleader.
Donald Trump’s idea of populism was more of the same Reaganism of the 1980s. It was a conservative “rising tide lifts all boats” creed. He boasted about signing huge supply side tax cuts and deregulation. The guy made Gary Cohn, the president of Goldman Sachs, and then Larry Kudlow his chief economic advisers. Trump couldn’t be more different from Huey Long in that respect.
Donald Trump surrounded himself with legions of his sworn enemies and was the most disloyal man ever elected president. In contrast, Huey Long surrounded himself with his own men, rewarded loyalty and punished disloyalty. Huey Long went out of his way to destroy his enemies.
Huey Long was bent on the absolute and total destruction of the oligarchy and was building political support for it with his Share Our Wealth program when he was assassinated.
Donald Trump never built his own organization. Instead, he held pep rallies for millions of his most devoted followers. He never organized them into a machine that could bypass the existing conservative apparatus. In 2020, the Left mobilized all of their organizations in a campaign of violence.
In the moment of victory, Donald Trump inexplicably detached himself from his most enthusiastic supporters and turned to the the counsel of the people who he had defeated in the 2016 election and agreed to enact their program. He began to dismantle his own coalition and empower his daughter and son-in-law. He had no interest in empowering people who shared his own political vision.
Donald Trump never used his skill at marketing himself and cult of personality to push economic populism … until he lost the election and started pushing for $2,000 checks to spite Mitch McConnell.
Huey Long did not share Donald Trump’s naiveté about the ruthlessness of his opposition and wasn’t stupid enough to fall for flattery due to his political experience.
Huey Long waged a bottom vs. top campaign against elites and the oligarchy. He always punched up at the wealthy and powerful who were hated by everyone. In contrast, Donald Trump punched down far too often and his program benefited the top of the income distribution, not the bottom.
If we can find a better and smarter populist candidate, learn something from the Trump experience and learn something from our own mistakes, we can go a lot further than we did with Donald Trump. Neoliberal Joe might be president for now, but the country is ready for the real deal.
Now that Trump is gone, it is a great time to look at Huey Long because the side by side comparison highlights all the mistakes he made and the opportunity and mandate that he squandered.