Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark in “All the King's Men,” 1949.
In a preening, sneering, chest-thumping press conference on Thursday, Donald Trump seemed to be channeling Willie Stark, the fictional Southern demagogue in Robert Penn Warren’s classic, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the King’s Men.
Of course Stark (and Louisiana Governor Huey Long, on whom he was modeled) was the genuine article: a man of the people who came from poor, rural roots— unlike New York City real estate tycoon and son of privilege, Donald Trump. But Trump is tapping into the same popular rage at being looked down on by elites. And the cynicism about politics and democratic institutions he is unleashing is just as corrosive.
Here’s the side by side:
“Folks, there’s going to be a leetle mite of trouble back in town. Between me and that Legislature-ful of hyena-headed, feist-faced, belly-dragging sons of slack-gutted she-wolves. If you know what I mean. Well, I been looking at them and their kind so long, I just figured I’d take me a little trip and see what human folks looked like in the face before I clean forgot. Well, you all look human. More or less. And sensible. In spite of what they’re saying back in that Legislature and getting paid five dollars a day of your tax money for saying it. They’re saying you didn’t have bat sense or goose gumption when you cast your sacred ballot to elect me Governor of this state. Maybe you didn’t have bat sense. Don’t ask me. I’m prejudiced. But—” and now . . . he’d thrust, all at once, the heavy head forward, and the eyes, red from sleeplessness, would bulge— “I’ll ask you a question. And I want an answer. I want an answer before God and under the awful head of the Most High. Answer me: Have I disappointed you? Have I?”
“I'm here today to update the American people on the incredible progress that has been made in the last four weeks since my Inauguration. I don't think there's ever been a President elected who's done what we've done. . . . I'm making this presentation directly to the American people with many of the media present . . . because, as you know, many of our nation's reporters will not tell you the truth and will not treat the wonderful people of our country with the respect that they deserve. . . Tomorrow the headlines are going to be, ‘Donald Trump Rants and Raves.’ I am not ranting and raving. . . It's so important to the public to get an honest press. The public doesn't believe you anymore. Now maybe I had something to do with that. I don't know.”
Sure, times have changed. Casual appeals to racism were more common among Southern whites in the pre-civil-rights era, for example. But Trump made a point of looking like a bigot as well as a bully in his press conference—shutting up a Jewish reporter who asked, politely, about an increase in incidents of anti-Semitism, and telling a black reporter to set up a meeting for him with her “friends” in the Congressional Black Caucus.
Most of all, by encouraging voters to give up faith in their elected representatives, in the press, and even in plain, verifiable facts, Trump opens the door for a massive wave of corruption of the kind Robert Penn Warren portrays in his novel. Total cynicism about our democracy leads to total lack of vigilance about our democratic institutions and processes. The rule of law is overrun. The Boss is the only law in town. That opens the way for self-dealing, bribery and graft. As we watch the parade of compromised characters taking their places in the Trump Cabinet, it’s clear that Trump is opening the door to the people who want to buy our government and use it to profit themselves.
Robert Penn Warren’s novel about the rise and fall of Willie Stark is a tragedy. The administration of Donald Trump, so far, is shaping up as a farce.