“During all that time I didn’t see Willie. I didn’t see him again until he announced in the Democratic primary in 1930. But it wasn’t a primary. It was hell among the yearlings and the Charge of the Light Brigade and Saturday night in the back room of Casey’s saloon rolled into one, and when the dust cleared away not a picture still hung on the walls. And there wasn’t any Democratic party. There was just Willie, with his hair in his eyes and his shirt sticking to his stomach with sweat. And he had a meat ax in his hand and was screaming for blood.”
– Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
In Robert Penn Warren’s classic novel of American politics, Willie Stark was a black hole that drew all things, political or personal, into himself. He altered people in his proximity, and they needed great force to extract themselves from his allure.
Jack Burden, the novel’s narrator, becomes a useful tool, a verbal cleaver, for Stark and marvels at the crude but effective skills the Boss brings to the stage of politics. The story, based broadly on the rise and fall of Depression-era Louisiana governor Huey Long, is a pensive ode to Burden’s soul and his struggle to free it from the lust for power that Stark elicits.
Warren was a son of the South, an eyewitness to the demagogues who trampled across the region for nearly a century. Their names are sliding into history. Tillman, Wallace, Talmadge, Long. Eastland, Bilbo, Barnett. They were characters, to be sure, and they had to be. The South, for a century, was dominated by Democrats. Primary nominations were the gateway to power and general elections were merely a formality. The region’s politics were like a well-worn menu. Everyone knows what’s for dinner. The basic ingredients are the same. Distinction came through spice, but distinction, by itself, did not guarantee power.
Rule came, ultimately, through popular and elite support. Demagogues, almost by definition, riled the people through rhetoric that nursed their fears and hatred. Even when using elevated speech, the demagogue’s goal was to divide and debase for his own empowerment.
Less appreciated, but just as vital, was the political muscle developed and exercised by elite intimidation or consent. The coercive nature of power we understand. Through blackmail, extortion, and physical violence, demagogues could silence powerful critics. Huey Long perfected such dark arts. He leveraged control at the local parish level and manipulated property assessments to squelch dissent and, in extreme cases, confiscate land.
Such tactics bore fruit, and, while execrable, they are viscerally understandable. It is harder to fathom elites that chose to join in the destruction. Lured by power, prestige, or access, demagogues survived and thrived on the overt or tacit assent of hundreds of followers. The terrors of the oppressed too often obscure the moral degradation of the willing, those who legitimize and stabilize wicked leaders.
Not even absolute monarchs reign without aid and comfort. In popular governments, demagogues come to power on the backs of endorsements, contributions, and herculean amounts of verbal deflection. Outlandish statements must be defended. Division must be justified. Danger must be excused. Demagoguery, even in its softer forms, is facilitated by helping hands.
These are “the King’s Men” that Warren reminds us of, the men from the Humpty Dumpty rhyme who swiftly ride to the rescue of their fragile master. The demagogue’s depravity is obvious to those without a corroded moral compass, but the King’s Men are guilty in a different way. They aid and abet. They paper over the disturbing and normalize the profane. Jack Burden realizes his role, but does he recognize his complicity quickly enough to find redemption? That question drives Warren’s novel.
Donald Trump is a conventional demagogue.
He whispers in the darkest corners of the American psyche. “There are forces aligned against you,” he slithers. “They” are the problem and, by implication, “I am the solution.” Be they liberals, immigrants, or the Chinese, the precise identity is irrelevant so long as the blame for our troubles can be shifted to someone else. Trump belittles. Trump demeans. Trump accosts with words and dances with brute force.
He offers to pay the legal fees for supporters who beat protestors. He has threatened “trouble” if the Republican convention tips toward another candidate. Instead of wielding Willie Stark’s meat ax, Trump prefers his Twitter feed, which slices through imagined obstacles that seize his attention. And, if the nomination process unfolds as it has, as with Willie Stark, there may be no more Republicans, but only Donald, who, through his thrashing, will have torn to ribbons the party Lincoln built.
Trump’s Men are a growing tribe. These elite enablers are drawn, it seems, to the spectacle and the possibilities. Many motivations underlie their endorsements or political cover. Perhaps they want a cabinet post, or maybe to revive a fading career. For others, the billionaire’s gold shavings might make a tidy pile of wealth. There are also a few who wish only to bask in the glow of relevance or celebrity.
Jerry Falwell, Jr., compared Trump to King David and sold The Donald to evangelicals by excusing his biblical illiteracy and claiming, “we are not electing a pastor.”
Chris Christie, fresh off a campaign where he ridiculed Trump’s ignorance, instead became the first major political figure to sign off on his ex-rival’s candidacy.
Jeff Sessions, the immigration hawk, endorsed a man who hires illegals by the truck load and manufactures most of what passes for his products overseas.
Mike Huckabee said there is no evidence Trump is a racist and that maybe those born outside of the South, like Trump, are simply “less sensitive” to racial issues. Meanwhile, Huckabee’s daughter transitioned from her father’s failing campaign to Trump’s ascending one.
Pat Robertson, the evangelical icon and patron saint of the Christian Coalition, claimed to be inspired by Trump during the softest of interviews on the 700 Club.
Ben Carson, the man who built a campaign based on civility, humility, and character, formally endorsed Trump. The good doctor, whose healing hands are the stuff of surgical legend, has decided now to use his digits to prop up a verbal thug. Carson claimed Trump is really two people — a thoughtful, dedicated servant in private, and a hysterical boor in public. One surmises the endorsement was for the former, but the latter is all Trump has shown to those who vote for him. Carson, likely due to inexperience, let the political mask slip too far when he confirmed this week he had been offered a post in a Trump Administration.
Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist in Dallas, has introduced and prayed for Trump at campaign events, and defends the real-estate magnate all over cable television. He has said that values are not as critical as “leadership.” Those who demur in the face of the demagogue, just don’t “get it,” Jeffress claims. Voting for Trump would be, for Jeffress, like choosing Reagan instead of Carter.
These are just a few of Trump’s Men. They cross the land, hither and yon, defending the demagogue, pronouncing him not only legitimate but preferred. They shield him from the slings and arrows aimed his way, and when one lands, they bind his wounds. One suspects their bandages are not made of cotton or even metaphorically of words. Trump’s Men parcel out pieces of their soul to care for their leader and soon it will show, for they will cease to be the men they were.
We may look back on these ministrations and see their futility as Trump is swallowed by the political abyss. Or, there is a chance history will record Trump’s Men as the midwives that birthed America’s monster. The result is unimportant in light of a simple truth. Trump’s Men now know enough to see the danger of The Donald, and instead of moving to limit him, they have joined him. No matter the outcome, we must never forget their choice.
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Mark Caleb Smith, Ph.D., is a professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University.