Earlier this year I compared Donald Trump to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi because no American came to mind. Since then an American has come to mind.
This American was definitely a populist, finding passionate support among the dispossessed, discouraged and disillusioned. He had an outsized personality. He was unusually effective with his use of media.
He also differed significantly from Trump in important ways, most of them political. He was very liberal. He was a strong isolationist. His policy proposals were numerous and very specific. And he was not born to wealth and in fact was energetically anti-rich, calling the rich “parasites.”
I’m talking about Huey Long, former governor of and then U.S. Senator from Louisiana. For about ten years from the mid-1920s to his death in 1935 he completely dominated Louisiana politics and, in the Senate, pushed himself onto the national stage.
In the Senate he was actually more like Ted Cruz – a showboat who was intensely disliked by other Senators. But he touched a national nerve during the depths of the Depression.
He took positions to the left of President Roosevelt. Some historians claim that the Second New Deal – Social Security, the Works Progress Administration, the national Labor Relations Board, Aid to Dependent Children – came about due to pressure from Long and his organization, Share Our Wealth Society, which had an ironic acronym.
Long dominated Louisiana politics like no other politician ever controlled a state. He also influenced national politics more in his short Senate tenure than about anyone. And he made it clear before he died that he was going to challenge Roosevelt for the presidency, if not as a Democrat then as the leader of a separate mass movement. Had he not been assassinated by a relative of a political rival there is no telling how far he would have leveraged the national mood and the tectonic partisan shifts that were occurring at the time.
V. O. Key, a legendary political scientist, said in 1949 that Long “kept faith with his people and they with him. He is not to be dismissed as a mere rabble rouser.” So far, every one of those words Key wrote 67 years ago about Huey Long applies to Donald Trump.