Socialist, fascist, populist—Huey Long defied these labels with a grin. Known as “The Kingfish” in his time, Long served as a Democratic governor and then senator for Louisiana in the early 20th century. Though the assault he waged against the industrial world and political establishment on behalf of everyday Americans came from the Left, his model offers a blueprint for the Right today. The Kingfish actually was what Donald Trump only pretended to be.
“Impudent, intellectually gifted, daring, careless of the opinions of his colleagues, self-assertive, forgetting nothing and forgiving no one, he forged ahead to political leadership on the errors of his opponents,” explained columnist George Sokolsky of Long in 1935. “Those who sought to ignore Huey Long or to condemn him as a clown erred because neither his crassness nor his impertinences offended his own following.”
Reared in the ugliness of “poor white” environments, Sokolsky wrote, Long “raised himself up by almost superhuman efforts to become a lawyer.” It was while practicing law that Long would establish himself as an enemy of oligarchy.
After the Cumberland Telephone Company raised its rates by 20 percent, Long filed a suit that landed in the lap of the Supreme Court in 1922. He emerged victorious, and the company delivered almost half a million dollars in refunds to more than 80,000 of its customers. Supreme Court Chief Justice and former President William Howard Taft praised him as “the most brilliant lawyer who ever practiced” law before the court.
That brilliance, paired with Long’s inexhaustible will, would find a major political outlet when he successfully captured the Louisiana governorship in 1928.
Long rapidly consolidated power by firing opponents at every level of the state bureaucracy and replacing them with supporters. Like Louis XIV, Long used the power of patronage to control his court. “When politicians or institutional leaders opposed his agenda, he blocked funding and authorization for programs they wanted, ousted their family members from government jobs, and targeted them with retributive legislation,” writes Annika Neklason in The Atlantic.
Long beat the state legislature into shape alright, declaring, when an opponent questioned his familiarity with the state constitution: “I’m the Constitution around here now.” And when stung by the press, Long simply created his own newspaper.
Though he made political enemies on both sides of the aisle, Long enjoyed Caesar-like support from the plebeians because, as Sokolsky wrote, “he gave people schools and roads and jobs and money; because he relieved the lower strata of the heaviest burdens of taxation; because he made it possible for the poor to vote. The sum total of Huey’s administration was that it accomplished something constructive.” Long, contra contemporary conservatives and liberals, also believed that moral well-being mattered as much as material welfare.
Accompanied by the National Guard, “Long ensconced himself in the Canal Bank Building, where he summoned and questioned numerous witnesses about the city’s toleration of, if not outright support for, many kinds of vice, especially prostitution and gambling,” writes Alecia P. Long. Long broadcast the proceedings over the radio, publicly airing out the city’s dirty laundry, “promising to clean up gambling, to end graft paid to city officials, and to ‘stamp out prostitution,’ noting that ‘the red light district has expanded to the point of national disgrace.’” According to Thomas Harnett Kane, Long had gambling equipment destroyed, prostitutes arrested, and more than $25,000 confiscated for public coffers. When denounced by a Louisiana attorney for his crackdown on immorality, Long shot back: “Nobody asked him for his opinion.”
As a senator, against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Long escalated his war on both parties and the interest groups to which he believed them beholden. He pivoted from a supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal to a militant critic of both, earning himself the designation of “one of the two most dangerous men in America” from Roosevelt.
“Feeling that the New Deal was too moderate, he introduced a more radical alternative called the Share Our Wealth program,” write Neklason, “which would limit personal assets and earnings for the wealthiest Americans and redistribute money to guarantee a partial annual income to every family, fund old-age pensions for every senior, improve pensions and healthcare benefits for every veteran, and make a free college education and vocational training available to every student.”
Was Huey Long a fascist? Sokolsky remembered asking that question in an article published two months after The Kingfish’s assassination in 1935. “Fine,” Long said. “I’m Mussolini and Hitler rolled in one. Mussolini gave them castor oil; I’ll give them tabasco, and then they’ll like Louisiana.” With that, Sokolsky recalled, he “roared his infectious laugh”—which was how he would also react to accusations of being a socialist.
Ruffin G. Pleasant, a former Louisiana governor, called Long an “ultra Socialist” with views more radical than “Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky.” As Edward F. Haas notes, however, the harshest critics of Long’s “Share the Wealth” proposal were communists.
The Great Depression had undermined capitalism in the United States, swelling the ranks of Communist affiliation. In New York, professor Edward F. Haas notes, Communist ballots surged up from 25,000 to 41,000 over two years for the gubernatorial race of 1934. But Long’s popularity was also soaring. “The Communists feared that the Kingfish’s program, a radical step beyond Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, would divert support away from their party,” Haas writes. In Long’s opinion, it was Share Our Wealth “or Communism.”
The upside for the powers that be? Long’s program would preserve private property, including that of “Wall Street magnates,” whom he also saw as “the forces of imperialistic finance” that drove our involvement in the Spanish–American War, the First World War, and the Chaco War. The downside for them, The Kingfish devilishly remarked, is that he would merely “cut” Wall Street’s “nails and file their teeth and let them live.”
“It is as absurd to call the Kingfish a Fascist as it would be to call him a Communist or a member of the Kuomintang,” Sokolsky asserted in 1935.
Loved by the Everyman, Despised by the Powerful
More interesting than his ideological orientation, however, is the fact Long managed to stay above the race-baiting common in Southern politics at the time while pursuing and achieving a universally popular agenda. He became unstoppable, loved by the everyman, despised by the powerful. His row with Standard Oil reached such a pitch that company employees conspired to kill him. Roosevelt hated and feared him. Among the slate of bills passed under his tenure, one authorized Louisiana to fine and imprison individuals who infringed on the powers reserved to the state in the 10th Amendment. At the time, most saw it as a shot fired at Roosevelt and his federal agents.
So it should come as no surprise that Roosevelt received Long’s assassination in 1935 as a “providential occurrence.” The last thing the president and his team wanted was to campaign against The Kingfish for the White House. After Long’s death, Roosevelt incorporated many of his proposals into the Second New Deal.
Sokolsky’s memoriam of Long concludes, “Superficially, the appraisal is possible that Huey Long, having been killed and buried, will soon be forgotten. It might be said that he had had his day and had served some purpose.” Sokolsky knew better.
“But the conditions which made Huey Long such a national figure continue to exist—and as long as they continue to exist is it not possible that his sudden death, his apparent martyrdom, his funeral, his burial in the park of the state Capitol,” he concluded, “will conjure up for a decade a new and different figure of Huey Long, a political ghost to plague those who have forgotten the essence of Jeffersonian Democracy?”
A Ruling Class Above the Constitution is Nothing New
Yet the fact that “Jeffersonian Democracy” had already died made Long’s rise possible. Avarice had plunged America into the Great Depression. A self-interested ruling class had fueled her wars. Politicians, tycoons, bureaucrats, and journalists feasted on its corpse. The ruling class then, as now, stood above the constitution, which had already become a dead letter. Long, like Caesar, saw the rot in Rome, saw the petty princes of his day, and put new teeth on the notion of using “Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends.”
Today, the American Left is more concerned with the latest social depravities than they are with the material and moral welfare of the country. If a Long or a cohort of Longs should arise, it likely will and should happen on the Right. It should strive to create its own army of bureaucrats and capture offices, and though it need not embrace a carbon copy of Long’s redistributive program, it should embrace his method, his spiritedness, his willingness to fight dirty against corrupt elites who only yelp for civility and constitutionalism when they’re losing.
“Share the Wealth” should be seen by the Right as a means to a new order, because most Americans don’t object to the modern state in principle; they object to it in practice, they object to paying more in taxes and receiving nothing in return as its size and scope balloons. And even if the Right wanted to decentralize and localize government, it would first require a Longist approach to governance to take command of and bend or break the engines of industrial-political centralization to its will.
After all, “Every man a king,” as Long loved to say, is a fundamentally right-wing statement.