Listen to Pappy O'Daniel, A Texas Progenitor of Donald Trump's Celebrity Populism



Donald Trump's candidacy is sui generis in many ways.  His cultivation of celebrity borne of shrewd marketing via mass media - ranging from books (!) to network television to cable news to Twitter -- has now bloomed into a form of celebrity political populism that could not exist in its specific form outside of the immediate media environment.  There is, of course, a long list of factors shaping Trump's appeal to the corners of the electorate responding to his appeal, from the nativist undercurrents flowing through American politics to the specifics of the current state of the U.S. and global economy and so on.  But Trump himself does appear as a figure unto himself, if certainly not separate from the context of historical forces, just as certainly a manifestation of them that is unique to this time and place.

The uniqueness of Trump's candidacy notwithstanding, the marriage of celebrity with populism is not entirely new.  Setting aside the deployment of naked appeals to the regular people and their right to direct control of government via their leader, politics in the US has been shaped by celebrity before -- certainly generals Grant and Eisenhower benefited from the public's familiarity with them via the news media of their respective times.   Other leaders parlayed their position as elected officials to generate a kind of celebrity that came with their position -- think Huey Long, perhaps.

A little less than fourscore years ago, Texas contributed one of the clearest progenitors to Donald Trump's presidential candidacy in the person of W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, who was elected governor of the state in 1938, was reelected in 1940, then elected to represent Texas in the U.S. Senate in a special election in 1941.  (In the Senate victory, he became the only person ever to defeat Lyndon Johnson in an election.)  O'Daniel was a businessman who became a public figure via radio, which he used to advertise flour, first for Burrus Mills and later for his own company, Hillbilly Flour.  Part of his pitch was the use of the Light Crust Dough Boys, the western music band that included Bob Wills and contributed to the creation of Texas Swing, and later the Hillbilly Boys.

The venerable Handbook of Texas Online presents a nice streamlined version of his entrance into politics that resonates today:

At the behest of radio fans, he filed for governor on May 1, 1938. During the Democratic primary campaign in one-party Texas, he stressed the Ten Commandments, the virtues of his own Hillbilly Flour, and the need for old-age pensions, tax cuts, and industrialization. While posing as a hillbilly, he acted under the professional direction of public-relations men. Accompanied by his band, the Hillbilly Boys, and the Bible, he attracted huge audiences, especially in rural areas. In the primary he smashed the other candidates and eliminated the usual necessity of a runoff. He had pledged to block any sales tax, abolish capital punishment, liquidate the poll tax (which he had not paid) and raise old-age pensions; but he reneged on all these promises. 

O'Daniel floundered in the senate, and as the Handbook describes, later ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for governor, campaigning on (among other things), opposition to Brown v. Board of Education and school desegregation.  

The audio above was found in the archives of what is now the Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin.  The audio has been cleaned up, though it gets a little noisy at the end.  It was recorded from a broadcast of O'Daniel as he traveled to Washington to assume his seat in the senate in August, 1941.