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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Leadership from the populist left

This is the second of three columns about populism, which arises when concentrated economic and political power align to screw the majority more thoroughly than usual. To understand populism, I believe, is the best way to understand Trump and what we must do to restore a healthy polity.

To the extent that Trump isn’t just a fraud, he’s best viewed as a right-wing populist. Because that version has historically been intertwined with bigotry, xenophobia and fear-mongering, one is tempted to reject populism wholesale. That would be a mistake, both as a strategy to defeat Trump and in itself. Our times call for a politics energized by resentment and anger over what both Republicans and those Democrats in the ascendancy have done to us these last 40 years.

I’m devoting the rest of this column to Huey P. Long to display the very best that a left-wing populist can accomplish by himself, and then its dangers and limitations.

Long was governor of Louisiana from 1929 through 1932, then U.S. senator until his assassination in 1935. As senator, he continued to run the state, over which he achieved total political control. No one before or since did for the people of Louisiana what Long did. His achievements were astonishing, and they helped blacks and whites alike. As black laborer Rivers Livous said, “He was fair to colored people, good to all people. He walked the land like Jesus Christ and left nothing undone.”

In 1928, Louisiana had roughly 300 miles of paved roads, which meant poor farmers often couldn’t get their crops to market. By 1935 it had 9,700 miles of paved roads, this during the Depression. Before Long, the parishes (counties) maintained the few public schools there were, and nothing was free. He made sure the state provided free schooling, busing, and textbooks to every child. He made college almost free and required only an in-state high school diploma for admission; enrollments tripled.

Among Long’s public works projects was the charity hospital system, at which medical care was free. He abolished the poll tax, reduced utility rates, and exempted from taxes the first $2,000 of a home’s value. He created the Debt Moratorium Act, which stopped foreclosures and gave families a grace period to pay mortgages and settle debts. Thanks to his intervention, of the nation’s 4,800 banks that collapsed between 1929 and 1932, only seven were in Louisiana. If space permitted, I could extend this list.

But Long really did walk the land as if he were its personal savior. You were with him or against him. He kept everything in his own hands, had little patience with civil liberties, and was ruthless with those who opposed him (often with equal ruthlessness and finally with bullets). He didn’t trust the people or his own associates. Like all charismatic leaders, he built no lasting organization; after his death the Long political machine collapsed in scandals and federal prosecutions. To this day, the state’s electorate remains naive and its politics corrupt.

I often wished we had had a Long in 2009 to redress the crimes Wall Street committed against us. Because we had Obama instead, we now have a president with the faults of almost all populists plus those specific to the right-wing variety. Do not believe that Americans will coalesce under another Obama any time soon. For that, we need a populist who trusts, energizes and helps us to create an alternative to what Rabbi Michael Lerner calls the Domination System.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.

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