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Huey Long campaigned as a populist long before Donald Trump

Huey P. Long, a populist governor and senator

Huey P. Long, a populist governor and senator from Louisiana, shows some similarities to the current president-elect. Photo Credit: AP / Uncredited

He campaigned as a populist. He said he’d stand up for the little guy, though he was well-off. He accused establishment lawmakers of being bought off. He vilified the media, threatened press freedoms and was called a demagogue.

Once elected, he held court not in the capitol city but in a hotel (often in pajamas) in a glitzier city as job seekers, politicians and businessmen paraded to meet him, with the media staked out in the lobby.

He could read — and roil — a crowd with claims opponents called “shot through with errors” and “careless of truth.” He went around the press, opting for his own unfiltered outlet. He refused to admit foul-ups or address errors, instead always going on attack.

“Always take the offensive,” he advised. “The defensive ain’t worth a damn.”

No, not Donald Trump. But you will be forgiven if you didn’t know that the president-elect’s campaign shows similarities to a populist from nearly 90 years earlier, from my home state: Huey P. Long.

Long was governor of Louisiana (1928-32) and then U.S. senator (1932-35) and perhaps its most powerful and influential politician ever. He has been called many things. Savior. Corrupt dictator. Builder of schools and bridges. Bully. Disrupter of the status quo.

To be sure, Trump has a different flavor of populism than Long and this isn’t to say they are alike in all ways. Trump, a Republican, comes from the opposite party, never served in elective office before and his scale of family wealth outsized that of the Longs.

But their campaigns had some similar characteristics.

Like Trump, Long made the media part of the opposition. The “Kingfish” proposed new taxes on newspapers, calling it a “tax on lying.” He created his own newspaper, and government workers were mandated subscribers.

Rather than work in Baton Rouge, he holed up in a New Orleans hotel — not unlike the Trump Tower in Manhattan these days, with job seekers churning through the lobby. Trump has suggested he, after inauguration, would split his time among Washington, New York and Florida.

Each built a following through speeches keying on what people wanted to hear. Each was surprised to find listeners taking him literally.

Trump was astonished to discover Indiana supporters expected him not to allow air-conditioning giant Carrier to leave for Mexico part of his promise to bring back American jobs. He said that was a “euphemism” meant to apply to other companies after he took office.

Long, appealing to Louisiana’s two major religions, would tell audiences he would hitch up a wagon on Sundays and bring his Catholic grandparents to Mass, return home, then ferry his Baptist grandparents to services.

When an ally said he didn’t know Long had Catholic grandparents, Huey replied: “Don’t be a damn fool. We didn’t even have a horse.”


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