Op-Ed

Can America’s guardrails contain Donald Trump? Or will he spin out like Willie Stark?

President Donald Trump held a news conference Wednesday on midterm election results, including a new Democratic majority in the House.
President Donald Trump held a news conference Wednesday on midterm election results, including a new Democratic majority in the House. The New York Times

With Democrats winning control of the U.S. House of Representatives, commentators are asking what the new power distribution in Washington means for the presidency and the country. Will gridlock prevail over compromise? Will investigations, if not impeachment, rule the House agenda? Is Donald Trump now a weakened president?

We can learn a lot from history both real and fictional. More than 70 years ago, Kentucky writer Robert Penn Warren published “All the King’s Men,” the quintessential novel of American politics. The novel was inspired by the life and career of Huey P. Long, the populist governor, U.S. senator and all-around political boss of Louisiana from 1928 to 1935.

The novel depicts the rise of the fictional Gov. Willie Stark, who practiced authoritarian methods behind the scenes and attacked the political establishment in front of crowds chanting “Nail ’em up!” This novel remains as relevant today as when it was published. In fact, the Kentucky Humanities Council is currently sponsoring a statewide “All the King’s Men” reading initiative featuring community discussions across the commonwealth.

Stark starts as an idealist who wants to do good for others. He wants to improve roads, schools and health care for the impoverished rural and small-town citizens. But power changes him. He becomes intoxicated by his own ability to incite crowds at rallies. He learns how to manipulate political machinery — or, as he says, to “grease the gears” of government. He becomes protective of his own power — not because of what he can do for the common good but because power is his possession.

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has described leadership as the quality of working for the greater good rather than one’s own personal fortunes. Stark wavers between those two goals. As far as he is concerned, he is the state, and any criticism of him is the worst kind of betrayal. His self-centeredness or narcissism puts stress on the political system.

Such a politician needs someone to limit him for his own good. For the good of the state. Stark, “the Boss,” resists any such limits. He breaks through the guardrails of democracy the same way his personal driver plows his car down the state’s highways, running over any unfortunate animals in their path. Unable to work with him, his political opponents derail his legislative agenda.

Of course, the novel has plot elements that one cannot apply to Trump. But many of Trump’s critics, including some in his own party, have noted that he does have impulses that need to be kept in check. Among the most prominent critics to make this point was the highly respected conservative writer, Charles Krauthammer, who wrote that Trump’s presidency would function as a stress test of our nation’s resiliency.

Now, the 2018 midterm election has transferred one house of our nation’s legislature to the president’s opposition party. This is an indication that the guardrails are holding. Trump’s opponents, of course, are welcoming this power shift. Perhaps his supporters should welcome it, too, as it benefits not only our country but Trump himself. Oversight and yes, even investigations, could help him avoid his own tendencies toward excess. He needs the guardrails.

“All the King’s Men” offers an alternate vision. Hugh Miller, the attorney general, resigns his office rather than agreeing to do the work of a boss who covets loyalty above everything else. He will not be one of the “king’s men.” He understands the obligations of his office.

Before Trump decides how to interact with the new House (and whom to appoint to replace Jeff Sessions), he might want to read “All the King’s Men” and consider taking the road that Hugh Miller takes. It is a road with speed limits and guardrails, leading to a better place.

Jonathan S. Cullick is professor of English at Northern Kentucky University and author of “Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men: A Reader’s Companion” (University Press of Kentucky, 2018).

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