THIS JUSTIN: Randall Flagg And The Dark Side Of American Populism

Welcome to THIS JUSTIN, a column dedicated to my love of all things weird and spooky. Each week I’ll be taking you on a deep dive into something creepy and/or crawly and talking your ear off about why I love it so much. Light spoilers ahead for THE STAND, so stop now if for some reason you haven’t read it!

Politicians appealing to the grievances of the common man is one of the oldest tricks in the book of politics. Indeed, populism has been a driving force in politics around the world in modern times. Politicians often (and wisely) seek to portray themselves as an ally for the common folk who are fed up with the status quo. Back in 1980, Ronald Reagan was propelled to the White House by not so subtly preying upon their insecurities towards shifting racial demographics. Twelve years later, Bill Clinton would usurp Reagan’s vice president George H.W. Bush by proclaiming that “it was time for change in America” and successfully branding himself as just another good ol’ boy from Arkansas, often donning sports shirts and appearing on late night talk shows playing the saxophone and wearing wayfarers. And no matter what side of the political aisle you stand on, it is undeniable that Donald Trump’s upset victory in 2016 was due by and large to his appeal of middle class resentment towards “the other”, be it “elites” getting fat off the sweat of the workingman’s brow or a fear of immigrants flooding the country to steal jobs from that same workingman. Resentment is a powerful thing, and in the right hands it can be an extremely effective weapon. It is also the backbone of any populist movement. Whatever end of the political spectrum the movement arises from, it is the result of a resentment from the perceived common folk towards a perceived common enemy: for right wing nationalists it is typically foreigners or people of a different religion, and for left wing socialists it is typically capitalism and the bourgeoise fat cats living high off the hog as a result of the workers labor. The followers of populist leaders are typically scared and uncertain people who are unsure of where to go. And who is more scared and uncertain and in need of leadership than the survivors of a planet wide plague that wipes out 99.4 percent of the population?

The Stand is one of Stephen King’s greatest works, and Randall Flagg is arguably King’s greatest villain (aside from maybe a certain former resident of Derry, Maine). In The Stand, Flagg arises as one of two figureheads in the wake of a cataclysmic disease known as “Captain Trips” that brings humanity to the brink of extinction. Although in later novels it is revealed that Flagg is actually an ancient servant of a being known as the Crimson King that seeks the annihilation of the Dark Tower which binds all of reality together (we really don’t have time to do a deep dive into the cosmology of Stephen King), in The Stand he is presented merely as a vaguely supernatural menace. His opposition comes in the form of Mother Abigail, who much like Flagg has been chosen by a higher Power to lead their forces on Earth. Mother Abigail is a a 118-year-old Black woman who wants nothing more than to sit on her porch on her farm in Nebraska and enjoy the summer day. In the wake of the plague, the .6 percent of the population that remains begin dreaming about these two people and must choose where to go. Abigail’s followers eventually repopulate Boulder, Colorado, while Flagg and his folk repopulate Las Vegas. Flagg wants this world for himself, and in order to get that he must destroy Mother Abigail and the people who have rallied around her. Much of the novel is dedicated to how the people in Boulder manage to rebuild some semblance of normalcy, all the while preparing for the inevitable attack by Flagg and his followers. And Flagg’s two greatest weapons came in the form of Harold Lauder and Donald Ebert aka The Trashcan Man.

Before I get any further, let me clear the air. I understand that Flagg isn’t technically an elected leader, nor is his Las Vegas anything close to a democracy. But the conflict for the characters within The Stand early on is as much internal as it is external: do they go west of Omaha and a little north of Osceola, in the county of Polk, Nebraska? Or do they keep going to Las Vegas? Every character has a choice, even if they don’t realize it. Some of the… less nuanced characters such as Julie Lawry or the luckless Bobby Terry might not realize it, but they do. Even when Lloyd Heinreid, Flagg’s right-hand man, is locked in a jail cell and starving, his first thought when he hears Flagg enter the prison is to stay quiet in the hopes that Flagg will just go away. Just as any democratic society collectively chooses a leader or leaders, the characters in The Stand did the same. They all had a choice, but some were too weak or too scared or simply exhausted to realize it. And in that decision lies the dark side of populism: do you choose fear and resentment, or do you choose progress and democracy? That dark side of populism is, in the Stephen King universe, best represented by Randall Flagg. He uses the fear his followers are rich with to manipulate them, and through a strict totalitarian rule promises something of a return to normalcy. And most telling, despite radiating an air of weirdness and menace, he is appearance-wise entirely normal, if not a little bland. Other characters describe him as being somewhat on the handsome side but overall he is largely unremarkable.

Trashcan Man and Harold Lauder are two different prongs of Flagg’s ultimate strategy. Lauder is more of a subtle and insidious weapon, a slow blade that won’t be noticed until it slides between the ribs and into the beating heart. Flagg’s influence on him drives him to attempt an assassination on the leading council in Boulder, an act that ends up driving Lauder himself out of Boulder to Las Vegas where he believes he would be rewarded for his actions by Flagg with a plethora of women. Trashcan Man is a far less subtle figure; he spends his time combing the desert around Las Vegas for abandoned military sites from which he can scavenge weapons that Flagg will use to wipe Boulder off the map. But both of these characters, despite vastly different personalities, have one crucial aspect in common: a deep resentment towards the rest of the world for wrongs, perceived or otherwise, that they believe that world inflicted upon them.

Harold is the younger brother of the best friend of another character, Fran Goldsmith. When he and Fran find out they’re the only two survivors in their town, Fran takes pity on Harold, suggesting they band together and strike out on the road in search of other survivors. It quickly becomes apparent that Harold has a crush on Fran, as is displayed when they meet another survivor, Stu Redman. Stu is everything Harold isn’t: charming, good looking, and genuinely likeable. It’s established within the first few sentences of his own introduction that Harold is abrasive, condescending, aloof to a fault, and largely unpleasant to be around. His hygiene is non-existent, he believes himself to be smarter than everyone around him, and generally he’s just an asshole. The women in his high school favor guys he considers “Neanderthals” instead of giving him a chance. In the parlance of our times, Harold is a classic “incel”: a man who believes he is owed sexual gratification and attention by women simply because of his own perceived virtues and his own status as a “nice guy”. In his eyes, none of this is his fault. If women would simply take the time to try and understand him, they would see that they should choose him over these other guys, but they’re too shallow to do so and so they deny him the attention he feels is rightfully his. In other words, the world owes him. It owes him attention. It owes him sex. It owes him appreciation. It’s not Harold’s job to maybe work on his attitude and appearance, it’s everyone else’s job to come around to realize how amazing he is.

The ultimate tragedy of Harold Lauder is that despite the fact he is undeniably an insufferable asshole, most of the other people in the book including Fran and Stu think the world of him. Stu, despite knowing Harold hates him like poison, still defers to Harold’s intelligence and wisdom. Fran writes in her journal that even though Harold is most of the time a pompous prick, she would rather be friends with him than his late sister if given the choice all over again because she realizes, after the world ends, Harold’s sister was a superficial and vacant snob. Harold, on the other hand, when he’s not being a jerkoff, is in Fran’s own words cool in his own weird way. In Boulder, once he is completely removed from the world that he felt spat upon him and didn’t appreciate him, Harold is well-liked and respected by the community. He’s given a position on the committee responsible for disposing of the corpses of the former citizens of Boulder, and his coworkers on said committee bestow upon him a nickname, something he later laments as the final proof that he actual was appreciated and respected. But, despite all this, Harold ultimately decides to side with Flagg, and he gives in to the darker side of his nature: the resentment and detesting of those he believes have wronged him and still owe him for what they’ve done to him. This attitude is common in followers of populist figures: they have been wronged, cheated, duped, or misled by someone else. They haven’t been given their just due. They are owed something by the world because someone (minorities, the rich, women, non-Christians) has kept what is rightfully theirs away from them.

The Trashcan Man, similar to Harold, has lived a life of slights and disrespect and insults. Unlike Harold, he never really stood a chance. Trash lost his father as a child when his father murdered most of his own family (save Trash and his mother) and was then killed by the police. He was abused by his stepfather, was committed and received shock treatment as a teenager, and very likely inherited his father’s mental illness. When Captain Trips tears through the U.S., Trash is serving a prison sentence for arson. Amongst other issues, that stands out for him: pyromania. He is fascinated by fire. He thinks about it constantly. When we first meet him, Trash is idly fantasizing about blowing up the oil tanks on the outskirts of town and quickly turns that fantasy into a reality. All of this is combined into a character who is so deeply troubled and broken by abuse that he still hears the voices of his tormentors.

Trash is legitimately not well, and his persecution is very real. His family was something of a sideshow in town before he was old enough to know any better, and by the time he was old enough to understand it was already too late. He was the loony’s son whose mother married the man who killed her husband. He was “crazier than a shithouse rat”, a bed-wetting firebug who was too stupid to realize what he was doing and nothing more. Despite this, he had an intuitive knowledge of weaponry. Bombs, guns, explosives… all of it was natural to him. It was this instinctive understanding of destruction, coupled with his addiction to fire, that led Flagg to place Trash at the head of his army, to “set him to burn”. And Flagg doing this appealed to the vulnerable side of Trash that yearned for acceptance. Unlike Harold who sided with Flagg mostly out of spite towards Stu Redman and the jocks of the world, Trash stuck with Flagg because he believed Flagg genuinely cared for him. “My life for you” was his credo, cried out to Flagg when he first sees him and once again as his last words in this world. His vulnerability was shaped by his resentment, and while that resentment wasn’t nearly as venomous and cruel as Harold’s, it still manifested in an unwavering loyalty to Flagg and a hatred towards anyone who mocked him, as demonstrated towards the end of the book.  When someone playfully riffs on him in a cafeteria Trash, who is slipping back into delirium, responds by blowing up their helicopter later on and crippling Flagg’s entire force. No matter how high in the ranks he climbed, no matter how happy he found himself, he was still tortured by the voices of his long dead enemies. Eventually, Flagg comes to see him as just another liability and orders him to be tracked down and killed.

One of the sadder parts of The Stand is when Trashcan Man first arrives in Las Vegas, after trekking all the way from Indiana on foot and enduring, amongst other things, a several-days bout of dealing with a murderous and rapey psychopath known only as “The Kid”. Trash, exhausted and famished, makes his way down to the cafeteria for breakfast. As he sits amongst his fellow citizens of Flagg’s state, he reflects upon how no one there seems cruel. There was no malice in their jest, no meanness in their words. They laugh with him, not at him. Their hands on his shoulders, or their pats on his back, are tender and kind. He thinks to himself about this place feels like home and he feels like he finally belongs. And he owes it all to Randall Flagg.

These two characters, with their burning hatred for a world that did them wrong, are the personalities that are ripe for a charismatic leader to manipulate and weaponize. Greg Stillson, the antagonist of The Dead Zone, is often championed as King’s ultimate depiction of a populist leader. And in many ways, he is. Stillson is brash, loud, boorish, and most of all adept at focusing the rage of working class citizens towards the establishment. But Randall Flagg, particularly in the way he manipulates the weaker people of the world, fully manifests the cruel personal evil of such a figure. And, despite preceding the terms of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, The Stand ends the same way for the same people that helped consolidate power for them: betrayal.

Reagan’s victory over Jimmy Carter is typically attributed to the massive support he received from white evangelicals who were disenfranchised with Carter. This isn’t entirely inaccurate: the election of Jimmy Carter was the last time evangelicals as a voting bloc turned out significantly for the Democratic nominee. But another important supporter of Reagan in his bid for the White House was the Professional Air Traffic Controller’s Organization. For much of his political career Reagan was an ardent supporter of unions, even courting PATCO away from Carter in the 1980 election along with the Teamsters and the Air Line Pilots Associations. Reagan won these unions and demographics by nursing their lingering resentment towards the administration for what they perceived as a hamstringing of union power by moving manufacturing to right-to-work states and for moving too far to the left on social issues. He pointed to them as an example of how Carter had ignored the plight of the working class and traditional America. And it worked. Reagan crushed Carter in the general election. To this day that victory is seen as the gold standard of “the people” being fed up with Democratic policy. And how did Reagan repay those who had vaulted him to the White House? For starters, he gutted an important ally to the working class. Unions were already weakened by the time Reagan took office, and he accelerated that decline. PATCO, one of the unions that supported Reagan during his campaign, went on strike in 1981, months after his inauguration. Since they were considered emergency personnel, Reagan ordered them to return to work, and when they didn’t, he fired all employees on strike. Almost 11,500 people lost their jobs in one day. After that, it was open season on unions, and their bargaining power was hobbled. These were the same people that Reagan saw as the backbone of the country when he was running for president. These were the working class who he championed, the “Reagan Democrats” who were fed up with Carter’s economic policies. To add truckloads of salt to the wound, Reagan’s economic policy, the legendary “trickle down economics”, was instrumental in widening the income gap in this country. To this day, such policies are seen as doing little to help the middle class.

Bill Clinton tread a similar path. In 1992, he ousted George Bush from the White House by successfully painting himself as a progressive alternative to the three terms of conservative governing by prior administrations. He appealed to young people and minorities in a way that felt genuine and real, appearing on Arsenio Hall and citing his experience growing up as the child of a single mother, something he said led to his personal support for welfare reform. His connection with and his popularity amongst the Black community led Toni Morrison to refer to him as the first black president. Clinton championed affirmative action and frequently spoke of civil rights leaders in glowing terms. He made it a point to make a distinction between himself and Wall Street, even though in 1992 his personal worth was north of one million dollars. And, much like such an approach worked for Reagan, it worked for Clinton. Clinton swept the election and captured the vote of several key demographics: low income voters, non-whites, the youth and senior citizen blocs, and the LGBTQ community. All based on his constructed image as the “in touch” and progressive candidate vs. a stuffy career politician and an eccentric billionaire. Also, like Reagan, it wasn’t long before Clinton revealed his true colors. The 1994 crime bill which he signed into law is considered one of the harshest overhauls of the American penal system in history. It’s three strikes and you’re out rule disproportionately affected Black communities, and it’s 100 to 1 rule when it came to penalty for possession of cocaine seems almost tailor made against Blacks. His stance on LGBTQ issues is just as checkered. Despite the fact that nearly 75 percent of LGBTQ voters went for Clinton, he remained opposed to marriage equality up until 2008, created the infamous “don’t ask don’t tell” rule for the US military, and signed into existence the Defense of Marriage Act. Despite his impassioned anecdotes about growing up as the son of a struggling single mother, his welfare reform bill has proven woefully ineffective. And finally, for all of his talk about standing with the common man against Wall Street and not being one of the elites himself, Clinton did little to curb some of less savory policies of big business.

Much as Flagg does in The Stand, the Clinton and Reagan administrations were built on an appeal to groups of people who were vulnerable, afraid, uncertain, and most of all angry. They used that appeal to get into power, but once there they at the very least reneged on their promises and at the very worst actively turned on the people they promised to help.

Randall Flagg is a uniquely American character, the dark side of the “everyman” persona that is central to the mystique of the middle class. He is handsome and exceedingly charming. He does not remember much from his earlier life and seems to have simply emerged already deeply knit into American culture, both counter and mainstream. He is “an American man… a man who would have a taste for milk and apple pie, a man would appreciate the homely beauty of red check and gingham.” Flagg has participated in many of the events that have shaped the modern history of the country; he’s protested on both sides of the civil rights movement, carried out direct action on both ends of the political spectrum, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of radical political movements. He is a figure who sees himself as guiding America down a certain path that he believes to be correct. He knows what’s best of this country, and no one else. America “was his country, and none knew or loved it better.” That is why Mother Abigail and the Boulder Free Zone were his greatest enemies, because they dared to oppose his vision of how things should be. They represented the best that America had to offer, whereas Flagg was the distilled essence of us at our worst. He saw people not as ends in and of themselves, but merely as means to an end. They were disposable, valuable only in that he could use them for something else. This is the exact same way that a populist leader who is simply hungry for power operates. Populism can be a force for positive change. When the people are united for a cause it can bring about a paradigm shift for the better. But when the wrong person grabs the reins of discontent and resentment, and focuses the rage and frustration of the masses, it can be a destructive force. And no one is more vulnerable to that destructive power than the very people who give it that power. Randall Flagg may be a fictional character, but his desire to see a vulnerable Black person die and his record of acting horribly inappropriate in the midst of a plague are unfortunately not nearly as unreal as he is. He is the dark side of populism: the rampant malignancy that desires power, not progress.

Justin Lore
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