“Destroyed By The Insolence of Demagogues”

It would be a mistake to think Donald Trump is the only American politician to aspire to greatness by whatever means he felt legitimate. There have been quite a few over the years, but one that springs to mind more readily than most is Huey Pierce Long, who became Governor of Louisiana in 1928 and was assassinated in September 1935.

He was similar in political outlook and personality to President Trump, although the current president would consider Long well below the salt in the lordly pecking order. Trump is from a wealthy family, well-schooled if not well-educated, and remarkably rich for an eight-time bankrupt.

Springing from an impoverished family, young Huey had enough smarts and ambition to stay in school long enough and study hard enough to pass his bar exam at the age of 22. At the age of 25, he got his first taste of politics and won election to the State Railroad Commission. It also gave him his first exposure to power – and he liked it.

So, apparently, did the people of Louisiana when he used his position to attack big oil companies with demands that tighter regulation of utility companies was needed. Standard Oil was one of his favourite targets, and its rank-and-file employees loved seeing their boss kicked around. They quickly gave Huey the nickname “Kingfish,” a title he loved and encouraged.

Encouraged by this adulation, the rookie politician made a bid for the state governor’s job in 1924. The Kingfish won a lot of support but not the election. Four years later, he tried again, leaning heavily on what was termed “irreverent language” on the hustings; language understood by farm and oil field workers.

His speech delivery was often described as “fiery and picturesque oratory” and well-spiced with “unconventional buffoonery.” The Kingfish stepped up the rhetoric, and his base – to use today’s political vocabulary – responded with solid support at the polls.

He won the election as the state’s governor.

His State was rewarded with massive public works projects and greatly expanded social welfare programs. New schools and hospitals were built, and the entire road system, long neglected, was improved throughout the state.

Where did he get the money for his programs? The oil companies were hit hard with various production taxes; inheritance taxes were imposed; and, income tax boosted.

Encyclopedia Britannica (EB) describes the times: “Long’s folksy manner and sympathy for the underprivileged diverted attention from his ruthless autocratic methods. Surrounding himself with gangster-like bodyguards, he dictated outright to members of the legislature, using intimidation if necessary.”

Times were good, but democracy wasn’t.

EB tells a story from the year the Kingfish left the State governor’s mansion to take up residence in Washington DC and his duties as a newly elected senator:  “When he was about to leave office, he fired the legally State elected lieutenant governor and replaced him with two designated successors who reported to him” and obeyed his orders from Washington.

Huey’s brother Earl had replaced him as Governor.

It was while Long was visiting Baton Rouge in 1935 that Carl Austin Weiss, son of a man the Kingfish had often vilified, stepped in front of the senator and shot him twice before bodyguards could return the fire that killed him. The Kingfish died two days later.

I think we can all hope for a better ending to the Trump story. The USA has lived too long believing in the power of the gun to solve political differences.

Aristotle once wrote: “Democracies are most commonly destroyed by the insolence of demagogues.” It is sad to watch the ancient philosopher’s truth come echoing down through time.To watch as demagogues like the Kingfish, and the man who wants so badly to be a king of any kind, prove the old philosopher right.

 

 

 

4 comments

  1. Your comparison of the Kingfish to Trump is very apt. The Kingfish’ story was well told in the novel “All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren and the excellent movie of the same name with Broderick Crawford in the title roll. Still very true to today’s events.

  2. I read long ago that the qualities needed to gain power are usually not the ones we want in someone who is exercising that power. The problem lies in our inability to shift gears once we’re in charge.

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