It is easy to believe that Donald Trump is a brand-new phenomena in American politics, never before seen and never to be seen again. But that isn’t the case.
There were in fact thematic and individual similarities between Trump and Andrew Jackson, which is why Steve Bannon likes to compare them. Another analogy, though, is Huey Long, the populist politician from Louisiana who was Teflon before it was invented. This is particularly appropriate given that impeachment and indictments have thus far failed to damage Trump.
Long demonstrated the power of a politician who is cunning and charismatic and creates a dynamic whereby the hatred and accusations directed at him by the opposition — no matter how justified — are considered validation by his fervent supporters about a century before Trump descended the escalator.
The similarities between the two imply that in order to succeed, one needs a charismatic personality, an us-versus-them worldview, and an outrageous communication and operating style that emphasizes the ongoing conflict with the ruling class and its ostensibly pointless norms and rules.
Now, Donald Trump isn’t really a Kingfish from the twenty-first century. Significant distinctions exist between the two.
For starters, Long was able to subvert the government machinery of a small Southern state to his will and abolish all checks and balances in a way that would be impractical in contemporary American politics, when the judicial system is strong, independent, and the operations of government are governed by a complex set of laws and regulations.
No matter how much Trump may like the idea of personal authority à la Huey Long, Baton Rouge in 1933 is not Washington, D.C. in 2023.
Long was a skilled — and dishonest — legislative tactician as well as a lifelong politician. Early on, he discovered that Louisiana’s state railroad commissioner position did not have an age restriction and ran for it as a stepping stone to the governorship and later a U.S. Senate seat. Generally speaking, he didn’t issue threats just to show off; instead, he was more likely to follow through, whether by outworking or out-thinking his opponents.
Long, in contrast to Trump, was mostly a leftist. His populism was socialist-infused and strikingly similar to Bernie Sanders’s platform.
Finally, aside from his first attempt at running for governor and a few isolated instances of political jeopardy, he actually was a winner. Because he never lost the majority of support in Louisiana, his near-dictatorial rule of the state’s political system was made feasible. Trump, in contrast, obviously lost the most recent presidential election and continues to enjoy widespread public disapproval. The Republican Party, especially the MAGA wing of it, is where Trump matches something like Huey Long’s standing.
Despite this, there are many similarities between the two movements, including the knack for grabbing attention, the politics of personal vitriol, the ability to take advantage of new media, the rural base, the hostility toward elites and urban areas, and the message of resistance to strong interests perceived as disrespecting and endangering the average person.
When running for governor for the first time, he avoided the political establishment in New Orleans and went straight to the voters, focusing on the state’s underserved poor communities. He referred to New Orleans as “the greatest cesspool of hell that has ever been known to modern world.”
He disapproved of what had been considered the polite custom during campaigns, or what he dubbed the “burglars code among politicians.” He was brutal in his criticism of his opponents. In addition to being “thieves, bugs, and lice,” they were also “grafters and money boosters,” “low-down vile and slanderous men,” and many other things.
Charles Manship, the editor of a scathing daily, was threatened by Long with going public with the information that his brother was a patient at the state mad asylum. Manship emphasized that his brother had fought in the First World War. Unfazed, Long persisted that “venereal disease, the record shows” was the root of Manship’s brother’s mental disorder. The question “Did you ever hear of shell shock causing syphilis?” was posed by Long to a crowd at another time. Nice, eh?
Long conducted an immediate and ongoing struggle as governor of Louisiana against what Trump would refer to as the “deep state” of the state government. In order to install his own individuals, whose devotion was strictly enforced (Long had them write undated letters of resignation just in case), he sacked everyone he could from various boards and commissions.
Trump wouldn’t be running in Louisiana’s place in a hypothetical general election in 2024, and he’s in the legal crosshairs of authorities he doesn’t control who are probably resistant to his charm and intimidation.
But if it works out for him, it will be a diversion that his equally absurd populist ancestor could have liked.