Barack Obama, Huey Long and the totalitarian temptation

Sol W. Sanders  

We live in dangerous times.

Not so much that the world economy threatens to crash, that our carefully nuanced political system in the U.S. is momentarily checkmated, or even that while the U.S. is running the highest unemployment rates in recent memory the European Community has not resolved its disintegrating common currency.

No, those are indeed serious concerns. Hopefully they are temporary. It is so easy to forget how serious such occurrences have been in the past and how basic American beliefs and initiatives have rescued us from the plight time and time again. Those widely repeated clichés about the first time, the largest ever, the worst in history, etc. are often as foolish as much else that appears in our increasingly illiterate media by journalists who have forgotten that their metier was supposed to be history.

Huey Long.
Huey Long.

What is much more threatening is that once again, as has happened in our history but rarely at the federal level, we are threatened by demagoguery masquerading as populist reformism.

Those who would want “to transform” the American Republic are, alas!, often those whose abysmal ignorance of our history and our institutions is apparent. But their appeal for facile [often termed “comprehensive”] solutions to complex problems that require repeated and detailed analyses and incremental remedial rather than revolutionary solutions is stronger than ever.

In a new class of ill-educated but highly mobile elitists who know what is best for the rest of us, there is a growing tendency toward authoritarian rule.

What they neglect most of all is that 250 years of American governance has built established patterns of behavior as well as a rule of law which one tampers with at the risk of destroying the edifice. Our society is built and ruled on a structure unique to the political world in which it was created in the late 18th and early 19th century and remains much to this day very special and like none other.

Cynics may scoff at “American exceptionalism” but everyone from serious political scientists to the Comintern have learned it is a truism; America is different. Only someone who does not know and appreciate American history, its trials and tribulations as well as its triumphs, could make a statement that U.S. uniqueness is simply another of the reflections of nation states in Europe.

The main reason is that the American Founders were an unusual collection of unusually well read and educated men for their time who although many held sinecures were revolutionaries in regard to their attitudes toward government.

Whether slaveholders in Virginia or hardscrabble farmers in Massachusetts, they had the benefit of a European political tradition and most of all a British inheritance of individual freedom passed down as it had been secured under often bitter and dangerous circumstances class by class for generations.

But most of all they had an intuitive knowledge of human imperfection; they knew that no institutions could survive without being carefully crafted to avoid the domination of one man or one group of men or even one portion of the governing process. It was for that reason that the genius of the American constitution was separation of powers – which even Britain had not achieved and the failure of which in no small part helped bring on the American Revolution, a revolt initially for Englishman’s rights in the new colonies in North America, but eventually for redress before an overweening executive acting through parliamentary dictatorship.

Dividing the roles of government into legislative, executive and judicial was at the heart of the new American Republic which Benjamin Franklin said the Constitutional Convention had bequeathed Americans “if they could keep it”. Never has it been more threatened as it is today by an extremely popular president who has the temerity to publicly espouse a course of action where he will use the vast power of his office to achieve what he considers a worthy end when the tangled but necessary Congressional procedure does not produce.

History isn’t taught any more in our schools. And our media, captivated by every superficiality whether from Hollywood or their own creation, is largely ignorant of it. This veteran journalists shudders at a sycophantic, giggling reporter making googoo eyes and saccharine suggestions through pseudo-questions at what was once a forum for ideas in the White House press conference.

Unfortunately, there is a decided ring to the noises coming out of Washington now, and they resemble nothing so much as the attempt by Huey Long of Louisiana in the early 1930s to capture the popular imagination for a near-dictatorship in his own state and with a threat to carry it on to a national level with the help of a rogue priest, Father Charles Couglin of Michigan. Had he not been cut down by an assassin’s bullet, he might well have imitated the roles of the European dictators who took over in the 1930s and led the world into the bloody World War II.

Long, too, made attacks on “the rich”, exalted giveaway social programs, and initiated grandiose proposals for infrastructure as his bait for the unsuspecting voter, caught up in the toils of The Great Depression. Long before Hitler’s Josef Goebbels pointed out the significance of The Big Lie – out and out prevarication of the truth with no limits as more successful than eating around the edges of truth as more effective – Long spun them.

The president in a rare moment of self-abnegation said recently in a public forum that he was not a dictator. We shall hold him to that admission.

While we must be on the alert for the kinds of usurpation of public trust and power that have characterized so many other countries in the last century, this writer is optimistic that it cannot happen here. If for no other reason, while Mussolini made the trains run on time, as they said, and Hitler built the autobahns, and Stalin modernized the Russian army, this gang of Kartzenjammer kids seems incapable of doing much of anything right except pandering to their benighted constituencies.

Whether it is their incredibly ideological warped energy strategy blown clear apart by the shale gas revolution they had nothing to do with [what a joke that the new nominee for energy secretary glows in the light of the vast new gas reserves!] or their bumbling foreign policy which waffles into insignificance, these are the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. And we will survive them as we have other travesties in our history.

Sol W. Sanders, (, is a contributing editor for and and blogs at

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