Mark Twain once wrote that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. In the age of Donald Trump, that rhyme is abundantly apparent in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King Men, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, and was adapted into films in both 1949 and 2006. A decade after the latest film adaptation and seven decades after the novel’s release, the ink spilling from the typewriter of All the King’s Men’s journalistic narrator feels as vital as your latest Twitter feed refresh.
All the King’s Men tells the story of a Willie Stark, a populist politician with a gift for explosive oratory and an absolutist take on personal power. Warren wrote his novel based on the real-life Huey Long, who dominated Louisiana politics in the early 1930s and planned to challenge Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency in 1936, were he not stopped by an assassin’s bullet a year earlier.
Listening to Stark’s appeals to poor farmers in Depression Era Louisiana eerily channels Donald Trump’s more recent stream of consciousness overtures to those he calls “the forgotten man and woman” today. When Stark fires up his anti-establishment crowds with chants of “Nail ’em up! Nail ’em up!” we can’t help but hear the shouts of “Lock her up!” at Trump rallies generations later. Both men whip throngs into frenzies with a zeal shown by no other politician; they’re willing to cross any rhetorical line and promise anything. They aren’t political, they’re pure emotion, and become somehow immune to the normal laws of social decorum.
I first saw All the King’s Men in 2007, and Willie Stark’s rhetoric toward his gubernatorial opponents shocked me: “Here it is, you hicks! Nail up anybody who stands in your way. Nail up Joe Harrison! Nail up McMurphy! If they don’t deliver, give me the hammer and I’ll do it. I want his throat cut from ear to ear.”
A different orator, Barack Obama, was promising change in those days, yet was fueled by hope rather than the threat of physical violence. It seemed as though Stark was just an object of fiction, or was simply from another time, I thought. Perhaps politicians could have spoken that way at 1930s county fairs, but surely not on a 21st century national stage.
Yet the ancient bloodlust of the haves toward the have-nots endures. And those who seek their own personal power can channel it. President Trump rode those impulses to the White House by telling stories on the stump about bullets dipped in the blood of pigs and reading “poems” that compared immigrants to snakes.
In the year after a presidential election year oft summarized as “unprecedented,” there’s something haunting, yet oddly cathartic about rewatching All the King’s Men. We do see a precedent, in our own country, for our own times.
Stark is a 1930s Trump, yet more refined and compelling. Actor Sean Penn plays him flamboyantly, fingers pointing wildly. As Stark presents himself as the one true voice of the people, his demagoguery crosses into poetry. He’s aided by the novelistic pen of Robert Penn Warren, who served as the U.S. Poet Laureate in the 1940s and 1980s. The novel and the film are peppered with notable lines, giving a timeless insight how and why we hand politicians power.
“Remember, it is not I who have won, but you,” Stark tell his crowds. “Your will is my strength, and your need is my justice, and I shall live in your right and your will. And if any man tries to stop me from fulfilling that right and that will, I’ll break him. I’ll break him with my bare hands, for I have the strength of many.”
Stark’s rise, like Trump’s, doesn’t make sense given what consultants, journalists, and political scientists thought they knew about politics. Each man’s inexorable rise seemed impossible, but one by one, enough voters, party kingmakers, and legislative backbenchers fell in line. It’s not so much charisma as it is a ruthless understanding of the connection between emotion and power.
The characters in All the King’s Men fall in line just as the people of Louisiana fell in line behind Huey Long, and just as is human nature to be seduced by such a leader.
“Money? I don’t need money,” Stark says. “People give me things…because they believe in me.”
Jack Burden, a newspaper reporter who serves as the narrator and main character, is a political columnist who gets caught up in covering Stark’s campaign, and inexplicably, takes a job as the governor’s right-hand man after he takes office. Stark tells him, “You work for me because I’m the way I am and you’re the way you are. It is an arrangement founded on the nature of things.”
Beneath the facade of pollsters and Super PACs, that’s the same fatalism that undergirds politics today. Stark, as he continually says, is simply giving people opportunities to behave in accordance with their own natures. Later in the film, he appoints a doctor to lead his prized new state medical center, a man who happens to be the son of a popular governor. It’s yet another scalp for the conniving governor, and the doctor grimaces before going onstage to shake the governor’s hand. Watching the doctor grimace is like seeing the pained expression on a Mitt Romney or a Paul Ryan today.
It’s a dilemma not just at the heart of power and politics, but in human nature. If a certain powerful person gives us an opportunity to act “in accordance with our nature,” we’ll be surprised–good or bad–what we’re actually capable of.