If President Trump pulls off a win in 2020, there is going to be a great deal of soul searching, not to mention wailing and gnashing of teeth. Many will ask how, how could someone so disliked win another term? I am not saying he is going to win. I have no idea. But, if he does, I am suggesting that history can give us a clue as to the event that helped him win.
I recently wrote an article looking at the ideological ancestry of Progressives and one of the men I mentioned was Huey Long. As important as Long was in the 1930s, he is a character largely forgotten to time. Even with the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King’s Men and the subsequent two movies of the same name (1949 and 2006) being loosely based on Long, he is lost to history. Yet for some time, Long was the loudest voice of protest against President Roosevelt, and one of the most influential men in America. His “Share Our Wealth” program hoped to do more to eliminate poverty than anything the New Deal considered. Yet, before Long could become the champion of the people, first he had to endure government attacks and impeachment attempts.
Long grew up poor in rural Louisiana but had well-educated parents for that time and place. He was described as having a photographic memory and excelled in school, but not so much getting along with others, including teachers. After being expelled, he later took some classes from Oklahoma Baptist University, as well as the University of Oklahoma. He did not finish either, but he did end up attending Tulane Law School for one year before passing the bar.
Long worked as a lawyer for a few years, as he worked his way up through Louisiana state politics, until he ran for governor in 1928. He was able to beat a powerful political machine by consolidating the rural poor vote with the minorities and Catholic votes. He ran a Bernie-Sanders-small-donation type of campaign that he called “Every man a king, but no one wears a crown.” He promised public works projects, free textbooks, and higher taxes on the wealthy. Once in office, he lived up to his promises; he was the New Deal before there was such a thing.
As Governor, Long ran Louisiana like a dictator. He pushed all his opponents out of offices and replaced them with loyalists. He took on big business, especially Standard Oil, and was able to impose his will over the legislature. Because he had a demagogue-like hold over the people of his state, he also used shady finances and physical force to build his power.
When Long tried to raise the tax rate on oil companies, they fought back. Supported by the oil companies, the conservatives tried to impeach him for everything from blasphemy and corruption to attempted murder. One opposition leader supposedly said that you can impeach for anything. Impeachment is political. These may be the truest words ever said. Long felt as if he was not being fairly treated in the press, who were connected and backed by big government. He did not have Twitter, but in the 1920s, he did the next best thing. To get his own message across to the public, he started his own paper and mounted speakers to a car to deliver his thoughts. Most importantly, he utilized a new technology, 1920s social media, the radio. A medium his future opponent, FDR, would also use to perfection.
In the end, the people rallied to Long’s side and he pulled in enough senators to pledge not to vote for any charges. Long walked away stronger than before; he became the “Kingfish” and ruled his state with an iron fist. He said something along the lines that he used to ask please of the government, but now he used dynamite. Having survived impeachment, he gained complete control over Louisiana, and then turned his sights to the national stage.
As a democratic senator, Long championed the democratic candidate, FDR, in the 1932 election. Long took credit for FDR’s wins in several states and felt he earned an unofficial advisor position to the new president. Roosevelt saw things differently, saying, “He really is one of the two most dangerous men in the country.” When Long began to speak for the administration and proposed his plan to limit income, FDR distanced himself from the Kingfish. There is too much to write about here, but the two men quickly came to odds, leading Long to use his significant public influence to attack the New Deal. The administration counterattack was in the form of the Treasury Department launching an investigation into Long’s tax returns (some things never go out of style), as well as a special senate investigation into election fraud in Louisiana. Finally, with a possible weakening of the Kingfish, his Louisiana enemies saw the chance to take back the state and attempted to oust the Long-controlled state government.
When Long was finally brought to a hearing, the evidence against him was flimsy and unimportant. It looked as if prosecutors were working out personal grudges. It did not take long for the hearings to fall apart and the people to lose interest. In the end, those who had attacked Long suffered greater than Long ever did. Once again Long emerged stronger than before. If was after the government attacks that Long proposed the “Share Our Wealth” program to redistribute wealth. He also began to prepare to take on FDR in the next election. Before he could challenge the President, however, he was shot down by an assassin. I am not saying that he could have defeated FDR, but his power and popularity had grown even more since being attacked by the Government and he was emerging victorious.
I don’t know what the final outcome of the Mueller report will be and I am not here to weigh in on Trump’s impeachment chances. But historically speaking, if after two years of investigating Trump and nothing comes from it and if Democrats continue to investigate, it starts to look like an abuse of power from the Democrats. As with Long, the constant attacks only strengthen his base and even draw in others. If after the 2020 election, Trump is still in power and the left is scrambling again to figure out why, their answer may likely be the very investigation they started.
Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking at www.Historicallyspeaking.blog or Facebook at @jamesWfinck.