Earlier this month, when conservative Washington Post columnist George Will wrote a piece comparing Donald Trump to Huey Long, local readers took notice. Will’s column generated lots of traffic at The Advocate’s website — a testament to how much people are interested in Trump but also evidence that Long continues to draw a crowd, too.
Will lumped Trump and Long together as tinpot demagogues, although of the two, Long had a more comprehensive political mind — and a more detailed program for change.
As Will sees it, though, Trump shares Long’s zeal for rabble-rousing, as well as the Kingfish’s predilection for strong-arm tactics. Will blames Long for using the Governor’s Office to make “Louisiana into America’s closest approximation of a police state.” He also quotes Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who could have been describing Trump when he made this observation about Long: “He screams at people, and they love it.”
Long served only one term as governor, from 1928 to 1932, but he continued to run the state by proxy after he was elected to the U.S. Senate. His populist program and dictatorial practices are the stuff of legend, and schoolchildren still flock to see the towering statue of him at the State Capitol — and the bullet-pocked marble in the Capitol hallway where Long was gunned down in 1935.
But for many — if not most — of those who look at Long’s image shadowing the Capitol grounds, he’s as distant as Caesar. The generation of Louisianians who have direct memories of Long is almost gone.
So in yet another season of political intrigue in Baton Rouge, the city’s library has done a good thing in nudging people to read “Kingfish,” LSU professor Richard D. White’s critically acclaimed 2006 biography of Long. It’s all part of the library’s “One Book, One Community” program, in which residents are encouraged to read and discuss the same book.
We hope, in a small way, that this renewed attention to White’s book inspires readers throughout Louisiana to pick up a copy. The chief lesson of Long’s life — that strongmen have their highest appeal when traditional politics seem broken — could not be more relevant as Americans prepare to choose a new president.
“Many factors contributed to his rise to near-absolute power,” White writes of Long. “He possessed unflagging energy, razor-sharp political savvy, absolute brilliance, and most important, an unquenchable thirst for power. He also had help from others, including a horde of bootlicking followers who did his bidding without question, disorganized opponents who never fully recognized his cutthroat ambition, and a Depression-weary population searching for someone to promise them a better life.”
White quotes novelist Robert Penn Warren’s conclusion that Long exploited the primary vulnerability of our system of government, which is that it allows despots “to employ democratic means to achieve undemocratic ends.”
That dilemma continues to be as urgent as today’s headlines, which is why “Kingfish” should be on every American’s reading list.