The Stark Truth About Trump

Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark acting in scene from movie All the King's Men.

Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark acting in scene from movie All the King’s Men.

In his Inaugural Address, President Trump intoned that “we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.” He praised the “just and reasonable demands of a righteous people and a righteous public.”

The Trump rhetoric evoked a strain in all democratic politics, since such governments are indeed to follow in some sense the will of the people. But the populist conceit is that The People form a single and coherent whole whose mind is discernible, with the populist leader liable to claim clairvoyance as to what that mind holds. In this way can the ostensible servant become the master—and hence the destroyer of democracy. Should Americans fear a latent tyrannical impulse in their populist President? Is he indeed a populist?

Populism might be thought an anachronism in a modern, technological age. This would be a mistake: it is a tendency in all democratic politics, and current communications forms may indeed fuel it. Thoughtful observers have examined populism in our own times. One of them, Robert Penn Warren, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in 1946 that explored the relationship between leader and led. Warren’s All the King’s Men, a vivid account of a Depression-era Governor in the American South, was modelled on the life and political career of Huey Long, the legendary and notorious Louisiana Governor and U.S. Senator.

The novel traces the rise and fall of Warren’s version of Long, Willie Stark, a lowly town auditor (in a state that, while never identified, could well be assumed by the observant reader to be Louisiana). Willie exposes a petty corruption scheme involving the awarding of a school construction contract. A high bidder was selected and used substandard materials to cut costs; it also kicked back some of the proceeds to the town leaders. Willie and his schoolteacher wife Lucy, both fired for opposing the arrangement, are later vindicated when several children die while descending the faulty fire escape during a fire drill. Willie is valorized as “an honest man.” A populist politician is born.

Willie’s crusade begins as a ploddingly sincere exercise in reason and evidence. To his frustration, it attracts few followers. When shrewd and cynical advisers come to Willie’s aid, showing him that the people do not want facts but anger, emotion, and promises to drown “the fat boys,” the crusade picks up momentum. This servant of the people after two tries becomes Governor, and Stark learns with uncanny speed what is required to stay in office and “get things done.” Bribery, blackmail, and “busting” are the necessary tools of rule. And he wields these tools liberally. He pits popular power against institutional forms and legal procedures. When his brazen acts lead to his impeachment, his subordinates mobilize the masses in a demonstration of power outside the state capitol, and the legislators shrink from their plan to rein him in.

For Stark the law is, at best, a partial foundation for government, more a suggestion than a constraint. When Stark’s own auditor is caught in a scandal, the highly regarded state attorney general (whom Stark recruited to add legitimacy to his regime) resigns, citing his devotion to the rule of law. But what is that? Stark believes he knows. He tells the attorney general:

The law is always too short and too tight for growing humankind. The best you can do is do something and then make up some law to fit and by the time the law gets on the books you would have done something different. Do you think half the things I’ve done were clear, distinct, and simple in the constitution of this state?

Not only do institutions and the rule of law bow to popular will, but so does logic. “The Boss” has not answered an argument so much as answered the one who makes it. Speaking of the fallacious argumentum ad hominem, Stark says: “It may be a fallacy but it is shore-God useful. If you use the right kind of argumentum you can always scare the hominem into a laundry bill he didn’t expect.”

All of this comports with Stark’s grand theory of life and politics. Thrice in the novel, when he needs to unearth some dirt on someone to be used as blackmail, he remarks that “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.” Willie knows where the bodies are buried. Everything in this crude Calvinism has a history and that history is low, dark, and dirty. The material for the leader is badness. If good is to be produced, it will be produced from badness. Thus the leader must use badness and be bad in order to produce good. Ends do justify means.[1]

Stark’s moral foil is Adam Stanton, an upright, highly regarded surgeon from an old, established family. Stark wants to recruit him to run the new state hospital competently, which will lend legitimacy to the Stark governorship. For Willie the hospital is critical: it is the cathedral of health and betterment of the people in the state, and also the grand act of patronage for the clientele. For Dr. Stanton it is an opportunity to do good; but he weighs this opportunity against the distaste he feels for this patron, and that distaste only increases over time.

Perceptively, Stanton asks the Governor how he knows what is good if badness is its source. Initially, Willie asserts that the good is whatever we say it is; we make it up as we go along. Then he links the good to what is necessary for society to exist: “Society is sure not ever going to commit suicide.” Finally, he fashions an argument against a Weberian ethics of conviction.[2]

As Willie colloquially puts it:

I’m not denying there’s got to be a notion of right to get business done, but by God, any particular notion at any particular time will sooner or later get to be just like a stopper put tight on a bottle of water and thrown in a hot stove the way we kids used to do at school to hear the bang. The steam that blows the bottle and scares the teacher to wet her drawers is just the human business that is going to get done, and it will blow anything you put it in if you seal it tight, but you put it in the right place and let it get out in a certain way and it will run a freight engine.

A firm idea of good, he suggests, is not only a distraction from the power that can be harnessed for human goals, but a positive danger to the functioning of society. Society needs not moral truth but effectual truth.[3] Hence principles and institutions can be impediments to political good. In the spirit of American pragmatism, Stark prides himself on knowing how to make the mare go.

His secret is that people are manipulable and he knows how to manipulate them. This is a deep point in the novel, as is made clear by its narrator, Jack Burden. Burden is a failed doctoral student in history who becomes a journalist and then a general fixer for Willie. An intelligent, nihilistic under-achiever, Burden has long been in love with Dr. Adam Stanton’s sister, Anne. He learns that Anne has become enwrapped in an affair with Stark, but he compartmentalizes and continues to do Stark’s dirty work. The Governor covertly gets Anne to convince her reluctant brother to be director of the new hospital. (And this is his undoing, for in an act of Southern honor, Stanton later assassinates Stark—a parallel with the real-life Huey Long, who was shot to death by a Baton Rouge doctor in 1935.)

Burden at one point wishes to be present when his surgeon friend performs a frontal lobotomy. How would a lobotomy change the patient? Burden asks. Stanton says he will have a different personality. Burden: “Like after you get converted and baptized?” Not quite, Stanton replies. “That doesn’t give you a different personality. When you get converted you still have the same personality. You merely exercise it in terms of a different set of values.” But, Stanton confirms, the patient will have a different personality. After the operation, this sullen person will be “perfectly happy.”

After the operation Burden says to his friend, “Well, you forgot to baptize him.” Baptize him? Stanton inquires. “Yeah,” answers the narrator, “for he is born again and not of woman.” For Burden, technology can work on material to alter what was the province of God. This basic materialism grounds the narrator’s theory of moral neutrality of history, according to which

process as process is neither morally good nor morally bad. We may judge results but not process. The morally bad agent may perform the deed which is good. . . . Maybe a man has to sell his soul to get the power to do good.

If the soul stands between the actor and good results, those results cannot be the improvement of the soul. What’s left is the improvement of the body. It is no accident that Governor Stark’s cardinal mission is the creation of a hospital. The narrator frequently draws the reader’s attention to dirt, the grime and dust under one’s feet and the gravel thrown up from wheels of one’s car. Juxtaposed are the highways made of concrete down which Willie’s Cadillac can speed; and the hospital, the temple of hygiene. Both highway and hospital are the testaments to Willie’s politics of Machiavellian redemption, making good out of bad, cleanliness out of dirt. The point is that populist leadership is not about following the righteous people but using the political arts to lead and manage them.

It is not merely that bad becomes good. It is also that everything becomes Willie’s: Anne, other women, his aides, the cops—all fall under his domination. In the end, the “Willie Stark Hospital” to be built for the poor people of the state is in fact Willie’s possession. Reneging on a hospital construction deal fashioned by one of the novel’s many sneaky politicos, Willie shouts at him, “it’s mine!” This is where the tyrannical impulse has its play. Guided by the will of the people, and knowing that only he is the interpreter of that will, Willie acknowledges no external limit to his power.

And exchange-based alliances are not enough. Stark demands loyalty, not mere interest. He prefers to break people, blackmail them, extort them, rather than buy them. Lovers of money are, after all, eminently buyable. Devotion is best, fear comes next; but mere contractual obligation is too frail a bond, as is shown by Willie’s double-crossing of the sneaky political operator on the building of the hospital.

In the end, the servant of the people becomes their master. But to what end? Is Willie a typical, garden-variety tyrant, a megalomaniac with outsized appetites for food, wealth, women, and political power? The 1949 film adaptation of All the King’s Men with Broderick Crawford playing Willie Stark certainly takes this tack. The good man is corrupted by power.

The political scientist Waller Newell may guide us to a better interpretation. Newell’s nuanced and unsettling Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror (2016) describes the classical tyrant characterized by boundless appetites, but in addition, describes the “reforming tyrant.” Many rulers, especially those of the modern era, are animated by a reforming impulse, accreting political power in order to pursue programs of modernization for the betterment of the people. Modern reforming tyrants deploy the powers of science and technology for the relief of man’s estate and build highly centralized states, penetrate civil society, and realize state goals. The reformer stands atop it all, directing and controlling the flow of events and power.

From the Tudors to the Ataturks and from the Castros to the Chavezes, the same spectacle is evident: extraordinary political ambition and cunning combined with reformist objects. In the case of Huey Long, biographer T. Harry Williams recounts Long’s exploitation of one of the central features of the modern welfare state: the number of state employees required provides a boon for patronage and thus political control of the whole apparatus.

Newell’s disturbing insight is that such rulers remind us of “the uncomfortable truth that the psychological traits of good rulers and tyrants often have a lot in common.”[4] Reforming tyrants are thus at once repellant and admirable. They do seem to have the interests of others at heart, but it is a heart big enough also to accommodate their own substantial needs. At some point the interests of The People and the ruler’s personal interest become indistinguishable. It becomes unclear whose predominate.

Willie Stark, like his real-life counterpart, stirs ambivalence. He is a modernizer who wants to lift the people from their ignorance and poverty; he wants to humble the old, smug elite. He enjoys the adulation of society’s outcasts. Yet his methods are crude, low, often unlawful, brazen, divisive, both corrupt and corrupting.

Modern democracies do contain elites—intellectual, scientific, media, corporate, and governmental—who hold power over the people. They are always vulnerable to the populist tirade. The have-nots are primed for that rare personality who can combine, on the one hand, a devotion to the people and systematic reformist critique of the establishment; and on the other, a shrewd and consuming ambition. Democracies may be strong enough to deal with the garden-variety tyrants. They are far more vulnerable to the tyrants overturning lawful order in the name of reform.

Republican government is constitutional government, and the constitution represents the people’s permanent will, informed by reason and interest, not momentary passion. Populism’s dedication to will—the people’s righteous will as interpreted by the clairvoyant leader—over and above liberty and law puts it in an awkward relationship to constitutionalism. Populism also relates awkwardly to liberalism and conservatism. This is why so much confusion reigns regarding the Trump presidency. He, too, stirs ambivalence. We fundamentally do not know what kind of leader he is, or what his effect on the American regime will be. But there is reason to think his presidency will fall short of the populist tyranny his most vehement critics fear.

Mr. Trump bears several of the hallmarks of the populist. His simple, vivid way of talking disregards political correctness, as has been widely noted. One suspects this is as much the product of inclination as calculation. He prefers big rallies to debates. Indeed, he is really more a campaigner than a governor.

A portrait of Andrew Jackson hangs on a wall in the Oval Office. His penchant for executive orders bespeaks a leader impatient with the forms and processes of legislative sausage-making.  He attacks the ethnicity or competence of judges who rule against him. In his criticisms of wide-open immigration, he articulates a nativism that is the hallmark of populists everywhere. On trade, his “America First” rhetoric speaks directly to the victims of globalization in flyover country, his electoral heartland.

Huey Long disdained Standard Oil of Louisiana and the Old Regulars, the Democratic Party machine in New Orleans, and let everybody know it. Willie Stark pilloried the “fat boys.” Never mind that Trump and those who voted for him are soaked in entertainment media culture, and that Trump himself came to politics by way of reality TV stardom. For there is nothing like seeing the tall shafts of wheat—the media and the Beltway know-it-alls—being chopped down.

Normally, shamelessness is a vice, but Trump’s insouciant disregard for the good opinion of the CNN and MSNBC guests is precisely the demeanor so many find appealing. And to give him his due, there is courage in his unwillingness to defer to the proper views of the opinion elites. He ably exploited the fact that they were discredited by their ignorance of and indifference to people in lower tax brackets than theirs. His clipped speech is the stuff of jokes but it is readily absorbed by the roughly 35 percent of Americans who constitute his base. To use the language of Charles Murray, Belmont laughs; Fishtown understands.

Then, too, his being a political amateur is often part of the populist’s CV. Trump the political outsider is used to being the boss. He likes to own things. His concern is for money—the things of the body over the soul. His acquaintance with the Christian tradition is slight at best. Temperamentally, one could argue, he is vulnerable to garden-variety tyrannical temptation.

But the tyrant confronts the constitution and must overcome it if he is to succeed.

So far, the U.S. Constitution has proven a durable brake on populist excess. The courts have stood up to several of Trump’s executive orders. (Whether they ought to have is another question: lots of legal-victory-by-forum-shopping here, but that is how the game of judicial politics is played in America.) Congress, that complicated herd of cats, has dispelled any easy assumption by the Trump administration that domestic policy change will come by presidential directive.

The contrast with the Starks and the Longs is clear. In Warren’s novel, Stark is systematic in his attention to his enemies. In real life, Huey Long read prodigiously, never forgot a face, and mastered the details of legislative procedure. He micromanaged appointments, the passage of bills, and the conduct of campaigns and rallies. Long was as good at government as he was at campaigning. He overcame institutions by knowing them and their weaknesses intimately. Trump has shown no such acuity or interest.

As Harvey Mansfield has observed, perhaps most damaging to the President’s self-image is that his victory came not in the popular vote but in the Electoral College, a quintessential constitutional instrument to dull the influence of popular democratic will. He must rely on a competent cabinet of secretaries who know something about Washington and their policy briefs. He must work with congressional leaders if he hopes to pass legislation and a budget. Here the fragmented GOP has hurt him, not helped him.

Whatever his impulses, Trump is hemmed in. And the recent crescendo of political crises over possible intelligence disclosures to Russian officials, and his firing of the head of the FBI, who now alleges that the President acted to obstruct justice in the bureau’s Russia probe, has left him even more so.

Populists care about their people, not about the world. On the other hand, the natural move Presidents make when they become embattled domestically is to pivot to foreign affairs. Aside from protectionism, a populist reflex, Trump’s campaign barely hinted at a foreign policy doctrine. Yet we have seen the pivot to Syria and North Korea, and more of this is likely to come. Trumpian populism is highly impure.

There’s a possibility, indeed, that it is not populism at all but conservatism of a flexible, non-ideological kind. As Charles Kesler wrote recently in the New York Times (April 26, 2017), there are ways in which Trump’s approach looks most like pre-New Deal Republican positioning:

In those days the party stood for protective tariffs, immigration tied to assimilation (or what Theodore Roosevelt called Americanization), judges prepared to strike down state and sometimes federal laws encroaching on constitutional limitations, tax cuts, internal improvements (infrastructure spending, in today’s parlance) and a firm but restrained foreign policy tailored to the defense of the national interest. Are these not the main elements of Trump administration policies?

What has looked like nativist populism might in fact be a loose set of policy positions articulated by an inexperienced leader bearing both a short attention span and a casual acquaintance with the principle of non-contradiction. The President has so far manifested none of the sharpness of mind, mastery of procedural detail, or dogged determination that made someone like Huey Long so effective and so dangerous. As the issue of the Mexican border wall indicates, Trump is easily persuaded to back off a policy initiative when convenient. Not too much of a reforming tyrant in that regard, so far.

Populists are allergic to checks and balances. President Trump faces them at almost every turn. The constitutional center, now coming under increased stress, continues to hold—again, so far.

[1] T. Harry Williams, in his highly regarded biography of Huey Long, emphasizes Long’s approach to political power. One can do nothing good without power; so the capture and retention and consolidation of power is the first commandment. One must be prepared to be ruthless to one’s opponents, Long insisted. Long may not have read Machiavelli but he instinctively understood the Florentine’s teaching. See T. Harry Williams, Huey Long (New York: Vintage, orig. 1969, 1981 edition), pp. 409-416,748-749, 755, and 829.

[2] Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation” [1919], in The Vocation Lectures, edited by Rodney Livingstone (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004), p. 88.

[3] Reflecting on Donald Trump’s many swipes at the media, Time writer Michael Scherer sums up the attitude thus: “The truth may be real, but falsehood often works better.”

[4] Newell’s analysis evokes Abraham Lincoln’s observation, in the Lyceum Address of 1838, that the moderate offices of the Constitution may not be enough to satisfy men of “the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle.”