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The Power of the Demagogue

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King’s Men turns 75.
September 7, 2021
The Power of the Demagogue
Senator Huey Long (1893-1935) in a typical speaking pose.

Seventy-five years ago this summer, Robert Penn Warren published one of the most seductive accounts of a fictional populist in American literary history. It is in the middle of All the King’s Men, Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning exploration of the rise and fall of a politician named Willie Stark in the Depression-era South, that he sharpens Willie’s appeal to its most dangerous point. Having survived an impeachment attempt for his corrupt political practices, Willie makes a fiery pledge to a roaring crowd of citizens:

He said: “I tell you what I am going to do. I am going to build a hospital. The biggest and the finest money can buy. It will belong to you. Any man or woman or child who is sick or in pain can go in those doors and know that all will be done that man can do. To heal sickness. To ease pain. Free. Not as charity. But as a right. It is your right. Do you hear? It is your right!”

Reflecting on this visionary promise in the ashes of the Trump era, it’s hard not to muse: They really don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Since its publication in the summer of 1946, critics have noted that All the King’s Men is a thinly veiled roman à clef about Huey Long, who ruled Louisiana by hook and by crook as a governor and then senator during the early Great Depression until his assassination in 1935. Warren denied that his novel emulated more than the social and political “atmosphere” of Louisiana during the 1930s and explained that it was neither supposed to serve as an apologia for Long’s career nor a celebration of his demise. It was, in fact, not really intended to be a novel about politics in the first place. After all, Willie’s story is witnessed entirely through the eyes of his private secretary, Jack Burden. It is through this narrator that Warren examines larger themes of the inextricable connection between sin and virtue, past and present, responsibility and action.

But as Jack himself observes, “the story of Willie Stark and the story of Jack Burden are, in one sense, one story.” And so the questions that All the King’s Men might posit to readers on its semisesquicentennial are simple ones: What does a good demagogue look like? And why is that vision more politically and spiritually dangerous than anything we have seen in the past five years?

Notwithstanding Warren’s protestations, the character of Willie Stark bears more than a passing resemblance to “The Kingfish,” as Long nicknamed himself. Like Long, Willie is a farm boy from a rural corner of his unnamed Southern state who works as traveling salesman, reads the law, and then endures a failed gubernatorial campaign. In the novel Willie enters politics in response to the collapse of a poorly constructed fire escape at a public school that kills several children, while Long’s first gubernatorial run was preceded by years of handling compensation cases for maimed workmen. And like his real-life counterpart, Willie ran for governor again and won.

Long’s reign over Louisiana is controversial for its legacy of genuinely progressive policies midwifed by brutal, practically neofascist politicking. Long opened public hospitals, mandated free textbooks for schoolchildren, increased funding for Louisiana State University, built a network of paved highways across the state, and raised taxes on oil and gas corporations while lowering those on private property. He also built a new capitol building—the tallest state capitol in the country. But these impressive achievements, including real gains for social progress, came at the cost of rampant patronage and graft, muzzled newspapers, and cowed political opponents. Local and statewide elections rife with “dummy candidates” and commissioners instructed to “help” illiterate voters (along with many literate ones) in the voting booth became the norm. In 1932, the Louisiana state legislature killed a bill specifying punishment for those convicted of falsifying election returns.

Despite these attacks on the spirit of American constitutional order, Long enjoyed immense popularity in his home state. Key to his success was the support of poor farming communities from Louisiana’s northern region. In contrast to the descendants of the aristocratic plantation culture that dominated the lower Delta, these “hill people” were deeply evangelical and largely suspicious of banking and railroad interests. Moreover, as the late University of Utah professor Malcom O. Sillars once explained, they had “a concept of good and evil by which they see themselves as the chosen people who have had their birthright stolen. To the Populist, as to most liberals, good and evil are concentrated.”

After surviving a bizarre impeachment—Long was accused of bribery and several other charges both serious and petty, all following a violent scuffle on the floor of the Louisiana House of Representatives—he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1930. In an extraordinarily unusual move, Long delayed taking the seat for nearly a year, preferring to remain governor until he could line up a loyalist to succeed him in that office. He came to Washington in 1932 and made himself of considerable service to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first presidential campaign. For his part, Roosevelt that year privately called Long one of the two most “dangerous” men in the country. As Rexford Tugwell, an adviser to FDR, recalled the candidate putting it:

Huey’s a whiz on the radio. He screams at people and they love it. He makes them think they belong to some kind of church. He knows there’s a promised land and he’ll lead ’em to it. Everyone’ll be rich; there’ll be no more work, and all they have to do is vote the way he says. He’ll throw all the wicked Wall Streeters into a pit somewhere and cover it up. Then he and his folks can build their paradise.

Within a couple of years, Long was laying the groundwork for a presidential bid against Roosevelt. Legislation Long had proposed that would redistribute any personal wealth over $50 million had ballooned into a social movement known as “Share Our Wealth” that magnified his prominence across the country. For a moment, Long seemed unstoppable—until September 8, 1935, when a young doctor named Carl Weiss shot him in the state capitol he had built. Long’s bodyguards pumped Weiss with bullets, and the assassin died on the spot. Long made it to the hospital but died two days later.

Willie’s life in All the King’s Men parallels Long’s all the way to the end, when he himself is murdered by a doctor named Adam Stanton (who is, significantly, Jack’s childhood friend). Unlike Long, Willie’s meteoric rise is arrested before he ever reaches the Senate. But like Long, it is accompanied by an equally sordid political infrastructure and an ambition to make it all the way to the White House.

An important question at the center of Willie’s story is the extent to which he is mobilizing corruption for positive ends, or if his positive ends are being swallowed up by the corruption he is engendering. Warren makes it clear that government in this fictional state was already broken prior to Willie’s arrival on the political scene. Although Willie begins his political career as a shiny-eyed idealist hoping to win over voters with facts and detailed policy proposals, his own turn as an unwitting “dummy candidate” during his first campaign for governor eviscerates any hope he may have had in the legitimacy of his state’s political institutions. This disillusionment transforms Stark from the teetotaler “Cousin Willie” to the whisky-soaked “Boss” as his political philosophy crystallizes around the idea that his world is intractably corrupt. And if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em—after all, as Stark explains to Burden, “it’s dirt makes the grass grow.”

There is an almost sympathetic reason why Stark works so hard to throttle the constitutional structures of his state. In his view, the law is “like a single-bed blanket on a double bed and three folks in the bed and a cold night. . . . The law is always too short and too tight for growing humankind.” Having seen too much suffering go unaddressed in his rural community, Stark no longer has patience for process or institutions. His point of view echoes one of the most revealing moments in Long’s famous 1934 radio broadcast, “Every Man a King,” in which he criticizes the institutions built in the first year of Roosevelt’s New Deal:

You cannot solve [poverty] through these various and sundry alphabetical codes. You can have the NRA and PWA and CWA and the UUG and GIN and any other kind of “dad-gummed” lettered code. You can wait until doomsday and see twenty-five more alphabets, but that is not going to solve this proposition.

Willie doesn’t just embrace the sin that comprises his world—he weaponizes it. And his most important asset in this endeavor is Jack Burden, an erstwhile reporter and Ph.D. candidate in American history whose offhand political advice (coupled with a heavy night of drinking) helped to catapult Willie’s career. Jack uses the research skills he picked up in newsrooms and graduate school to become Willie’s dirt-digger-in-chief, pulling up every dark and ignominious secret that can be used to manipulate, to control, to win.

Despite the brash and cynical tone that he adopts through most of the novel, Jack is a haunted man. A patrician from the Lower Delta, Jack is abandoned by his father at an early age and grows up to be overeducated and existentially enervated adult. (Millennial readers of the novel will find this perversely relatable.) Jack sees little point in political reporting; he abandons his graduate studies after finding that his dissertation on a Civil War ancestor whose affair destroys multiple lives is epistemologically incomprehensible to him. (The chapter in which this story-within-a-story is told is one of the real gems of Warren’s novel.) Unlike Willie, who seizes sin for his own ends, Jack is immobilized by it. He can describe the “facts” of the world but can derive no meaning from them, and therefore cannot find any meaning in his own life. This aimlessness eventually destroys his relationship with his childhood love, Anne Stanton, and drives him into periods of nihilistic inactivity which he dubs the “Great Sleep.”

If Willie is “the man of fact,” then Adam Stanton, Anne’s brother, is “the man of idea.” Both Adam and Anne are children of the state’s former governor, and Adam transforms his privileged upbringing into a career as a brilliant but willingly overworked surgeon who specializes in providing free medical care to low-income patients. But for all his compassion for the poor and downtrodden, Adam maintains an unyielding moral code that paradoxically sets him at a distance from the humanity that he professes to serve. Adam “snuggled up to Life, to keep warm perhaps, for he didn’t have any life of his own,” Jack observes.

Adam’s saintly reputation drives Willie to recruit him to be the director for his new public hospital, and Adam agrees out of guilt once Jack finds evidence that his beloved father was once guilty of political malfeasance himself. But this notch in Adam’s sense of integrity deepens into a fatal wound when he finds out that Willie is having an affair with Anne (who is drawn to Stark by the mere fact that he is actually trying to do something for the common man, even if it is by ruthless means). Driven by shame, Adam shoots Willie in the capitol and is killed by one of Willie’s bodyguards in return—leaving Jack to ruminate on the role he played in the deaths of his two friends.

Adam and Willie are, in a sense, two sides of the same coin. They are both driven by what Hannah Arendt characterized in On Revolution as a kind of boundless compassion for humanity that in its depersonalization “has proved to possess a greater capacity for cruelty than cruelty itself.” Adam encapsulates this paradox in the ease with which he efficiently lobotomizes patients who are suffering from mental disorders instead of teaching them how to live with their pain. Willie manifests it in his post-impeachment speech, where he violently swears to his adoring crowds that he will grind a meat ax into any individual who stands in the way of his social programs. “Your will is my strength,” he proclaims. “Your need is my justice.”

It is a sure sign of our decadent and self-indulgent era that instead of offering promises of justice, our modern demagogues just whisper sweet assurances of affection into the ears of their constituents. “Go home, we love you, you’re very special,” Donald Trump gently instructed his followers hours after they had stormed the United States Capitol on January 6. While a core contingent of insurrectionists apparently had horrifying designs to abduct or murder members of Congress, much of the rest of the mob was a selfie-stick-dotted explosion of undirected rage and paranoia—which is a fairly apt metaphor for the Trump presidency itself. For all his bombastic pronouncements, Trump’s presidential achievements were embarrassingly modest for a would-be populist—a tax cut, a few Supreme Court seats. Nothing approximating the ambition of Willie Stark’s gilded hospital or Huey Long’s infrastructure overhaul—not even a “big, beautiful wall.”

Then again, Trump’s compassion was always superficial and therapeutic, and usually drowned out by his truculence; his most ardent supporters were drawn to him less because they were suffering from a physical dispossession than from a psychic one rooted in cultural anxiety. The great demagogues of the American past, like Huey Long, were driven by their cruel compassion to cultivate the kind of real political knowhow with which they could bypass the torpid institutions of their world to accomplish incredible things in the name of the people. As political scientist Stephen F. Knott has so intriguingly argued, it has been the unrelenting impulse to meet the people’s needs in times of crisis—as during the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson—that has facilitated the demagogic rhetoric and centralization of power in the executive branch now dangerously unbalancing our constitutional order. One shudders to think of the alternate history where Long has four presidential terms (or more) to wage his populist tyranny. Or to a future where a twenty-first-century Long finally succeeds in demolishing the institutions that Trump has weakened.

The antidote that All the King’s Men offers to the cruel compassion of effective demagoguery lies in a proper appreciation of the role of sin in human life. Both Adam and Willie misunderstand this, but in opposite ways that respectively point to the pathologies of the modern left and right. Adam believes he can and must live a morally stainless life or obliterate his world if he fails. Willie is convinced that if the world is nothing but dirt, then only out of badness can you make goodness. In other words, every day is a Flight 93 election.

Only Jack, the student of history, succeeds in reconciling himself to the interwoven reality of sin and grace in his world. He does so by committing his compassion not to the boundless desires of faceless masses, but to the real, active responsibilities that he owes to individuals in his life—marrying Anne, caring for the man who turns out to be his estranged stepfather, finally getting around to finishing his dissertation (which ultimately becomes a study not only of the troubles of a Confederate veteran, but the lives of the free and enslaved men and women whose fates were bound up in his transgression). He even returns to politics, assisting the campaign of Hugh Miller, Willie’s former attorney general who resigned from office once Willie’s corruption became too overwhelming to bear. And he does so understanding that in each of these activities and relationships—these institutions—there is an unknowable and uncontrollable element of both good and evil; that “a man’s virtue may be but the defect of his desire, as his crime may be but a function of his virtue.” But one must try to do good anyway.

This is the kind of realization that can arrest modernity’s dangerous quest for utopia (which, after all, means “no place”). But that kind of epiphany is increasingly unattainable in an age where we no longer hold even a secularized concept of sin in our cultural discourse like the one Warren articulates in All the King’s Men—or even just the notion that there is a limit to the amount of good that any one person can reasonably accomplish on this mortal plane. Which is worrisome, because Warren claims that the real inspiration for Willie Stark came not from Huey Long, but from a character from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Talus is the sleepless iron attendant to the champion of Justice tasked with heartlessly exacting justice without mercy, and Warren warns us that “Willie Talus . . . is the kind of doom that democracy may invite upon itself.” We should be preparing ourselves for what might be at stake for our democracy if Trump is but a jester’s prelude to a real Willie Talus waiting in the wings of our political stage.

Nicole Penn

Nicole Penn is the program manager for the American Enterprise Institute’s Social, Cultural, and Constitutional Studies division. Twitter: @nmpenn.