Every man a king; one man an emperor

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Spring air refreshes our winter-weary lungs, yet most of that delicious smell comes from rot. Such is the nature of change.

Here in 2016 the political winds gust and swirl with unusual gusto, an El Niño year at the ballot box. Three out of the five candidates with any hope of a major party nomination are running as outsiders from their political parties.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Republican Party, where New York businessman and professional provocateur Donald Trump leads in the delegate count. Trump is, barring dramatic setbacks, the only Republican with a chance of winning a majority of delegates before this summer’s national GOP convention.

Nothing much needs to be said about Trump. The man is an enigma powered by public utterance of his own name, which he prescribes as the cure for an angry, weary nation. Some who read this are infuriated by his antics, while others remain infatuated by his disruptive political movement. History is full of men laughed at by the elites, but two parts loved and feared by the masses. Their faces adorn countless coins no longer accepted at the store.

A demagogue is a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. A demigod is a half-god, or a mortal raised to divine rank. The problem with demagogues is that they often think they’re demigods.

They never are.

America has known many demagogues. The world has known far more. Already, many compare Trump to various larger-than-life figures in U.S. history. Trump supporters would like him compared to Andrew Jackson or William Jennings Bryant. Trump opponents would argue he’s more like the Alabama segregationist George Wallace.

But more folks yet have compared him to Huey Long.

Huey LongIn some parallel universe, former Louisiana Gov. Huey Long seized power from Franklin Roosevelt right before WWII and reshaped our democracy. Long led Louisiana through the Depression. A gifted liberal politician, he took his state from muddy back roads into the modern age where roads, bridges and buildings would bear his name. An assassin’s bullet is the main reasons more people don’t know his name today.

There is no doubt that Long’s ego was just as large as Trump’s, thus it’s unlikely the two would have cared for each other’s company. The differences between their respective backgrounds are great. Long was a poor farmer’s son from rural Louisiana. His understanding of how to use populism to rise to power came from living among the dispossessed and aggrieved population of the time.

Like Trump, Long was an outsider. He, too, was dismissed as a petty demagogue as he rose in the ranks, but nearly everyone underestimated his political skill. Long not only won, and won and won again, but actually enacted his entire agenda. Can you name a modern leader who’s actually enacted their entire campaign agenda?

They say winners write the history books. Yet Long’s methods of political intimidation were so vicious that they drowned his historical reputation. Long’s slogan was “Every Man a King,” but the truth was an inversion of that adage: Long sought to be the King, on behalf of his supporters, of course.

Long was prepared to run a third-party leftist candidate against Roosevelt in 1936 to help Republicans win. Having no confidence in Republicans either, Long was convinced the country would be in such bad shape that he would cruise to victory in 1940, reshaping the nation as he had Louisiana. He was shot and killed in 1935 just as his plan was coming together.

“God, don’t let me die,” he was reported to say in his last words. “I have so much left to do.”

As someone who’s studied Long and his accomplishments closely I’ve come to see Long not as evil, but as a great talent corrupted by ego and power. My favorite book is Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men.” Warren, who once worked for Long, maintains the book was not directly based on Long but rather the ancient idea of the great man undone by pride.

Whether or not you believe Trump is a demagogue, know this. Throughout history, demagogues tend to meet a similar fate. Some go out in flash, like Long. Most are eventually spurned, spending long decades mired in regret as nearly-forgotten pariahs, like Wallace (who did seek forgiveness from African-Americans later in life). The only question is what happens to the people dragged down into the darkness during these people’s rise to power.

A greater King once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

There is so little light and love in our discourse today that we could rightly declare a crisis. Light the lamps of truth so we may investigate without contempt. Love thy neighbor. No true demagogue can survive such tactics for long.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, March 13, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

 

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