Trump’s Willie Stark Cynicism

Crawford as Willie Stark in All the King’s Men


Some commentator recently observed that Donald Trump’s belief in Biden corruption is a classic case of projection. Trump assumes that everyone is as corrupt as he is and therefore is convinced that pressuring foreign governments will yield the dirt he needs to win a second term. To Trump, the former vice-president can’t possibly be innocent. After all, isn’t it natural that Biden would set up corrupt deals for his son the way that Trump has for his own children (see Ivanka, China brands)?

In this way, Trump reminds me of literary autocrat Robert Penn Warren’s Willie Stark. The corrupt Stark wants dirt on a venerable old judge who opposes his electoral ambitions. His certainty that dirt can be found comes across as a Biblical pronouncement:

THAT night when the Boss and I called on Judge Irwin in the middle of the night and when, burning the road back to Mason City in the dark, the car hurtled between the black fields, he said to me, “There is always something.”

And I said, “Maybe not on the Judge.”

And he said, “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something,”

And he told me to dig it out, dig it up, the dead cat with patches of fur still clinging to the tight, swollen, dove-gray hide. It was the proper job for me, for, as I have said, I was once a student of history. A student of history does not care what he digs out of the ash pile, the midden, the sublunary dung heap, which is the human past. He doesn’t care whether it is the dead pussy or the Kohinoor diamond. So it was a proper assignment for me, an excursion into the past.

It so happens that, in this case, the autocrat is right. Stark correctly senses that even white-haired patriarchs have secrets to hide, and the dirt that Jack Burden uncovers about Judge Irwin leads to his suicide. The world is as bad as Stark says it is.

Unlike Stark’s investigation, however, Trump’s investigations, carried out by his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, the State Department, and Attorney General William Barr are driven by fringe conspiracy theories. And unlike in the novel, where the cover-up leads to the firing and suicide of the whistleblower (see addendum below), our own whistleblowers have found protectors. At least so far.

Stark’s dark view of human nature, however, is shared by many of Trump’s supporters, who therefore give him a pass. Sure, he may be corrupt, but at least he’s open about it. Unlike those hypocritical politicians and “deep state” operatives who feign virtue, he comes right out and tells China to interfere in our election.

For a while, narrator Burden falls prey to such cynicism. By the end of the novel, however, he comes to realize that, if everyone is hopelessly corrupt, then no one is responsible. Such pessimism leads to an evasion of accountability.

In reality, most people—even most politicians—do not fit Trump’s view of them. In All the King’s Men, Stark’s principled attorney general Hugh Miller is an anti-William Barr. When Stark refuses to fire the crooked State Auditor, Miller resigns. Later Miller observes to Burden, “History is blind, but man is not.” In other words, we can make moral choices, regardless of our circumstances.

Burden could be offering us a way forward into the 2020 election when, in the final pages, he informs us,

It looks as though Hugh will get back into politics, and when he does I’ll be along to hold his coat. I’ve had some valuable experience in that line.

Biden is not corrupt and neither is Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and the other top Democrats running for president. Perhaps the main thing we have to fear is Donald Trump’s and Willie Stark’s dark cynicism tainting all we hold dear. Despite our faults, we are better that that.  

Addendum: Here’s the letter Burden uncovers from the man who reports the crime–and who is then destroyed by the two men, Judge Irwin and Governor Stanton, that Burden most admires:

I have been this afternoon to see Governor Stanton and told him how I have been thrown out of my job like a dog after all these years because that man Irwin was bribed to let up on the suit against the Southern Belle Fuel people and how he now has my place at a salary they never paid me and I gave them my heart’s blood all these years. And they call him vice-president, too. They lied to me and they cheated me and they make him vice-president for taking a bribe. But Governor Stanton would not listen to me. He asked me for my proof and I told him what Mr. Satterfield told me months ago how the case had been fixed and how in our company they’d take care of Irwin. Now Satterfield denies it. He denies he ever told me, and looks me in the eye. So I have no proof, and Governor Stanton will not investigate.

I can do no more. I went as you know to the people who are against Governor Stanton in politics but they would not listen to me. Because that blackguard and infidel McCall who is their kingpin is tied up with Southern Belle. At first they were interested but now they laugh at me. What can I do? I am old and not well. I will never be any good again.

There are good reasons why whistleblowers need all the protection they can get.

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