I sat down to write this in early January, after spending a few days obsessively doom-scrolling the news and witnessing the bloody siege of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The faces in the crowds burning with rage, the screams of ‘traitors’ and ‘treason’, the assaults of news reporters and above all the vandalising of this great historical monument leaves one breathless. I was stunned both that something so unabashedly crude could happen at the bastion of Western democracy but also at just how warped from reality former President Donald Trump’s mob of supporters have become. The scenes made me recall, and not for the first time this year, the similar events of Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 classic novel All The King’s Men, mid-way through which the central character governor Willie Stark faces impeachment following accusations of corruption, and subsequently a large crowd of loyalists flood the state capitol, chanting ‘Willie!’, all prepared to siege the legislature to protect their leader. When I first read All The King’s Men in 2016 these scenes seemed fantastical. Despite Trump’s growth in the polls, I could not believe that such mentality would grip a country obsessed with freedom. Revisiting Warren’s novel four years later, moments like this are hauntingly relevant.
Warren’s novel focuses on Stark’s transformation from an idealistic rural lawyer to ‘The Boss’: a ruthless populistic governor. Stark’s demagogic descent mirrors the story of the real Louisiana governor and then senator Huey Long, whose radical economic program and charismatic personality ensured his political domination until his assassination in 1935. Even the book’s title All the King’s Men, while a direct quote from the Humpty Dumpty fable, also acts as a reference to Long’s campaign song ‘Every Man a King’. The novel is a personal study of the forces of resentment, bigotry and paranoia that energise populist movements. While at the time Trump’s election seemed like an unprecedented phenomenon, Stark’s story shows the lasting appeal of the strong-man leader in times of economic turmoil. Nevertheless, Warren’s novel also provided me with hope that while demagogues may seem invincible, they and all they stand for can be defeated.
All the King’s Men is not merely the story of Willie Stark, as Warren’s world is brimming with fascinating side characters. One particularly interesting character is the narrator Jack Burden. Burden, like Stark, is transformed, over the course of the novel, morphing from an inquisitive historian and journalist to a nihilistic political fixer for Stark. Burden acts as the audience’s surrogate, and his journey resonated with me. While Burden has a uniquely intimate relationship with Stark, he is the embodiment of how the individual reacts to demagoguery: whether they embrace a cynical philosophy or strike against it, as Burden later does. Much like the 1920s and 30s, we live in a period of great change when all previously-held cultural norms and precedents seem to be shifting under our feet. All the King’s Men speaks to this time of turmoil, questioning how the individual responds to that, whether they challenge it or become corrupted by it.
Stark’s decline remains the most compelling part of the novel, with Warren’s use of symbolism and vivid detail painting the degradation of a humble family-man into a corrupt politician. Warren is keen to separate the idealistic ‘Willie Stark’ from the corrupted ‘Boss’, the same individual but rendered barely recognisable in a Jekyll-Hyde style transformation. Upon re-reading two of these key symbols of corruption I noticed was alcohol and sexuality, ever-present in showcasing Willie’s seduction by power. Warren was writing, and the novel is set, in the early post-Prohibition age, and alcohol abuse has infected society. The humble ‘Willie Stark’ is at first teetotal, with Jack Burden and Willie’s first meeting in 1922 being defined by Stark’s rejection of alcohol. Tiny Duffy, initially Willie Stark’ political opponent and later his sycophantic supporter, repeatedly attempts to force Willie to drink. But Willie stands his ground, refusing as his wife Lucy ‘doesn’t favour drinking… for a fact’. Willie’s teetotalism is a signifier both of his devotion to his wife and a reflection of his moral lawfulness, through his refusal to break the Prohibition. However, following learning of his betrayal by Tiny Duffy who used Willie in the election to ‘split the Hick vote’, alcohol becomes Willie’s gateway to corruption. Willie pours enough whiskey ‘to floor the Irish and drank it off neat’, passing out on his hotel bed. Warren presents Willie in a liminal state, describing him as a ‘carcass’, a ‘sap’ and dehumanising him as ‘it’. When Willie reawakens he has transformed in to ‘The Boss’ and depends on alcohol to function, drinking before all his public speeches to vitalise himself. Alcohol corrupts Willie and accelerates his transformation into ‘The Boss’. I only noticed on details like this when I recently revisited this novel years later, but it is small signifiers that made me appreciate Warren’s tale even more.
Sexuality and infidelity becomes another symbol of this patriarchal corruption. While Willie Stark was defined by his rural simplicity and loyalty to his wife, The Boss is repeatedly and carelessly unfaithful to his partners, both his wife Lucy and later his mistress and political confidant Sadie Burke. Like alcohol, sex becomes another signpost of corruption. Political potency grants ‘The Boss’ with the unquestioned ability to indulge in his desires, whether that be the ‘Nordic Nymph’ dancers in a night club or even Jack’s old partner and childhood friend Anne Stanton. Like the much repeated Lord Acton quote ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’, The Boss’ political stature removes any sense of honour or morality, ensuring he objectifies all women in his vicinity. Indeed, The Boss’ infidelity is mirrored several times throughout the narrative, with Jack Burden’s ancestor Cass Mastern – whom he writes a historical dissertation about as a student – similarly being corrupted by sexual desire. It is here that the Trump comparisons become more sharper, with The Donald’s numerous infidelities mirrored by The Boss’. I really picked up on the themes of corruption when I revisited Penn Warren’s novel, and the manners in which it is expressed. Both alcoholism and infidelity are frequent motifs throughout the novel, gateways by which characters corrupt and in turn are corrupted.
Another interesting aspect of Warren’s novel, and something that mirrors our society, is how The Boss’ populism polarises and divides his state. Much like how dinner conversations and visits to family have recently been dominated by divisive political talk, politics has infested the world Warren presents. When Jack notes that he has seen a picture of the Boss ’in a thousand places, from pool halls to palaces’ it is not difficult to imagine he is living in Trump’s 2020. Indeed, Warren captures the politically charged atmosphere, and the growing toxicity in the air brilliantly. This is particularly demonstrated in a tense dinner scene where Jack defends The Boss’ methods, claiming if state government ‘….had been doing anything for the folks in it, would Stark have been able to get out there with his bare hands and bust the boys’. The painfully awkward silence, and Jack’s mother’s subsequent response that she did not know he ‘…felt that – that way!’ reveals how Jack’s allegiance to The Boss has poisoned all his relationships. Warren shows the cancerous effects of political polarisation and culture wars, how even familial bonds can be shattered by partisanship. The lines of partisanship are so present that they define us and divide us.
Warren is equally great at presenting a sense of blood in the air, and the paranoia rife throughout the state, particularly at The Boss’ rallies. While the humble Willie Stark delivered dull rallies based on his planned tax program, The Boss realises how the power of resentment and anger can capture an audience. He frequently insults the crowds at his rallies, calling them ‘red-necks’ and ‘hicks’ like himself, forging a bond with his crowds through anger against an elite. Much like the ‘lock her up’ chants that defined Trump’s 2016 rallies, The Boss similar derides his opponents, primarily Duffy, as ‘Judas Iscariot, the lick-spittle, the nose-wiper!’ Trump often resorted to violent imagery throughout his campaign, vilifying his opponents as unpatriotic traitors, while The Boss similarly calls for his ‘hicks’ to ‘Nail ‘em up!’ If his supporters refuse to, The Boss concludes they can ‘…hand me the hammer and I’ll do it with my own hand’. Political polarisation and the dehumanising of one’s opponents infects Warren’s world, much as it ripped apart Western liberal democracies.
Warren universalises his narrative through his narrator, suggesting that all conscious citizens in unstable liberal democracies are Jack Burden. The individual can either grow numb and cynical by this tyranny or challenge it. Ultimately, Jack rejects his harmful philosophy, accepting and embracing this past and moving away from this nihilistic worldview. It is this hopeful portrayal of citizenship that allows Warren’s novel to inspire and much as it horrifies. I cannot recommend All the King’s Men enough; as a book about populism and demagogues, it is unchallenged. Even beyond that, the novel’s frequent biting humour and Warren’s beautiful writing style is captivating. While some critics have concluded it merely to be a retelling of the Huey Long story, the book is so much more than that, grappling with challenging philosophical questions. It’s a book about perspective: what separates a sycophant and a public servant, a historian or a political fixer. More than that it’s a book about truth, and how far we should search for it. In the words of The Boss ‘man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the die to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.’
Image credit: Tyler Merbler. Image License: Wikimedia Commons.