Huey Long is back, proving William Faulkner’s admonition that the “past is never dead, it’s not even past.”
While Louisiana’s legendary former governor and U.S. senator may not actually be back in the flesh, reminders of Long’s brand of politics are oddly shaping the 2016 presidential campaign in two ways.
First, on policy: Long’s signature issue of wealth redistribution has found a footing in today’s increasingly left-leaning Democratic Party. When presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, talks about taming Wall Street and soaking the rich, you can hear Long’s populist echo in his outrage. Even front-runner Hillary Clinton has gotten on board, having made income inequality a key issue in her first speech as a nomination candidate.
Long’s Share Our Wealth plan was unveiled eight decades ago. It was radical, simplistic — and popular with millions of Depression-ravaged Americans. He proposed capping individual incomes, inheritances and fortunes of the super rich, and then using the confiscated funds to dole out cash grants, guaranteed incomes, free college educations and old-age pensions. To sell his plan, he built a nationwide organization with 27,000 fan clubs and nearly 8 million members — big numbers even by today’s Facebook and Twitter standards.
Long’s radicalism scared leaders of both parties. After his colleagues defeated one of his wealth-sharing bills, Long thundered on the Senate floor that a “mob is coming to hang the other 95 of you damn scoundrels, and I’m undecided whether to stick here with you or go out and lead them.”
Apart from the wealth issue, the second way we see the return of Huey Long has to do with his showmanship and strongman leadership style — and we see it in the person of Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner.
There are, of course, striking philosophical and personal differences between the two men: Democrat Long, the consummate politician, was a country boy from rural Winn Parish, Louisiana; Republican Trump, the consummate anti-politician, is a city kid who lives in a high-rise palace on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. But apart from those contrasts, Long and Trump have played the political game in similar ways.
Disruptors by nature, both Long and Trump have challenged — and horrified — their party’s establishments. Both have promised to solve intractable problems by sheer force of personality. Both have entertained record-breaking crowds with scorching rhetoric and piercing attacks. Long wanted to make every man a king. Trump wants to make America great again.
Easy to caricature as a clown — bulbous nose, loud suits and ties, the dimpled chin, reddened face, the shock of curly hair hanging on his forehead — Long was underestimated by the pundits of his day, just as Trump — brusque New York inflections, flying buttress hairdo — has been in this election.
Long’s methods were ruthless, even despotic. He ran roughshod over bureaucratic protocols to get things done, including thousands of miles of new roads; modern bridges, hospitals and airports; a great university system; a new state capitol building, the tallest in the nation. Long was a builder. So is Trump.
That being said, both The Kingfish and The Donald launched their careers as unlikely national leaders. But that didn’t stop either one from tapping into currents of public anger and fear, or giving voice to Americans who have felt voiceless.
Before a single vote has been cast, Trump already has thwarted the ambitions of many accomplished Republican politicians. He’s shaped the issues, dominated media coverage and topped national polls. The chance that he could still run as a third-party entry, which he’s pledged not to do, continues to give GOP leaders heartburn.
Long’s path to the White House was different, but equally unconventional. His plan was to leverage his national notoriety by running as a third-party candidate for president in 1936, peeling off enough votes from Democratic incumbent Franklin Roosevelt’s coalition to elect a Republican in a three-way split, then taking control of the Democratic Party and winning the White House for himself in 1940.
Of course, Huey did not live long enough to carry out his scheme. In 1935, at the age of 42, he became the first U.S. senator in American history to be assassinated.
No matter who ultimately wins or loses this election, notable strands from our political past are back on display in both parties. And because of that, the ghost of Huey Long is smiling.
An author and political analyst, Ron Faucheux is a former Louisiana legislator from New Orleans. He currently runs Clarus Research Group, a nonpartisan market research firm that has conducted polling for The Advocate and WWL-TV.